This is a reflection of the Christmases of today as compared with the past.
Christmas; Past and
Twas the night before
Christmas and all through the Mall, last minute
shoppers scurried from store to store;
short on patience and with little
evidence of the holiday spirit of love. The
only ones smiling were the store owners
and the costumed Santa, who gets paid to be jolly.
The children were nestled all snug
in their beds, while visions of talking dolls, video games, bicycles and other
expensive toys, danced in their heads. Mama in her kerchief and I in my cap had
just settled down to tackle the mountain of Christmas bills, which was
larger than the national debt.
The moon on the crest of the new
fallen snow, reflected the concern of
families awaiting the arrival of loved
ones traveling on icy roads.
ago, Christmas seemed easier, less commercial and more enjoyable. Many families lived near each other, and
most of the decorations, foodstuffs and presents were homemade. While there was
stress and haste to accomplish the needed tasks by Christmas Eve, the stress
was different than what is experienced
today. Generations past did not seem to lose sight of the reason for Christmas; a birthday celebration of
sharing and love.
of horse-drawn sleigh rides through wooded country roads is sorely missed. Bells jingling accompaniment
to carols sung off key by bundled-up children in the back of the sleigh, is a
thing of the past. Yet Christmas retains an aura of magic, nonetheless.
Originally, the Christian church did
not acknowledge Christmas at all, as such observance was considered a heathen
rite. The earliest records of any Christmas celebration dates back to the
early part of the third century. Gift
giving, as a custom, may have originated with the Romans, relating to their worship of Dionysus at Delphi.
The Christmas tree comes from the
Germans, although its origin has been traced as far back as ancient Egypt. The
tree replaces a former customary pyramid of candles, part of the pagan
festivals. There is a legend that Martin Luther brought an evergreen home to his
children and decorated it for Christmas. German immigrants carried this custom with
them to the New World, but it did not gain popularity until 1860, when John C.
Bushmann, a German, decorated a tree in Massachusetts and invited people to see it.
Evergreens, a symbol of survival, date
to the 18th century when St. Boniface, honoring the Christianizing of
Germany, dedicated a fir tree to the
Holy Child to replace the sacred oak of Odin. The "Nation's Christmas Tree," was the
General Grant tree in General
Grant National Park in California,
dedicated May 1, 1926,by the town mayor. The tree was 267 feet high and 3500-4000 years
old. Mistletoe, burned on the alter of
the Druid gods, was regarded as a symbol
of love and peace. The Celtic custom of
kissing under the mistletoe comes from the practice of enemies meeting under the
plant, dropping their weapons and embracing in peace. Some parts of England
decorated with mistletoe and holly, but
other parts banned its use due to association with Druid rites. Mistletoe was considered a cure for sterility, a
remedy for poisons, and kissing under it would surely lead to marriage.
The 4th century German St. Nicholas,
shortened through the years to Santa Claus, has become the epitome of today's
Christmas spirit. St. Nicholas, taking pity upon three young maidens with no dowry
and no hope, tossed a bag of gold through each of their windows, and granted
them a future. Other anonymous gifts being credited to him were emulated and the
tradition grew. The Norsemen enhanced
the legend of Santa Claus coming down the chimney with their goddess, Hertha, known to appear in fireplaces,
bringing happiness and good luck.
Sir Henry Cole, impressed by a
lithograph drawing, made by J.C. Horsley, instigated the idea of Christmas cards. It
took eighteen years for the custom to
gain popularity, and then it was adopted mainly by gentry.
Christmas was banned in England in
1644, during the Puritan ascendency. A law was passed ordering December 25th a
market day and shops were forced to open. Even the making of plum pudding and
mincemeat pies was forbidden. This law
was repealed after the Restoration, but the Dissenters still referred to Yuletide as "Fooltide."
The General Court of Massachusets
passed a law in 1657 making the
celebration of Christmas a penal
offense. This law, too, was repealed, but many years would pass before New England
When Washington crossed the Delaware River during the
Revolutionary War, it was the
observance of Christmas that made his conquest of the British a success. The enemy was sleeping off the
affects of the celebration.
Befana, or Epiphany, is the Italian
female counterpart of Santa Claus. On Epiphany, or Twelfth Night, she is said to
fill children's stockings with presents. According to legend, Befana was
too busy to see the Wise Men during their visit to the Christ Child, saying that
she would see them on their way back to
the East. The Magi, however, chose a different route home, and now Befana must search for them throughout
eternity. The sacred song traditionally sung on her yearly visit is the
The number of Magi
visiting the stable on that first Christmas Eve could be anywhere from two to twenty. The number
three was chosen because of the three gifts; gold, frankencense and myrrh. Western
tradition calls the Magi, Gaspar, Melchior, and Balthasar, but they have
different names and numbers in different parts of the world.
Though distinctly Christian, the
social aspect of Christmas is observed and enjoyed by many religious and ethnic groups.
Rabbi Eichler, during a sermon in Boston in 1910 explains why: "...Christmas
has a double aspect, a social and theological side. The Jew can and does
heartily join in the social Christmas. Gladly, does he contribute to the spirit of
good will and peace, characteristic of
the season. It was from the light of Israel's sanctuary that Christianity lit its torch. The Hanukka lights,
therefore, justly typify civilization and universal religion."
Dr. Clement Clarke Moore, a
professor at the General Theological Seminary in New York, penned the famous poem, "Twas
the Night before Christmas." Dr. Moore
never intended for the poem to be published. Miss Harriet Butler, daughter of the rector of St. Paul's Church
in Troy, New York, accompanied her father on a visit to Dr. Moore. She asked
for a copy of the poem and sent it anonymously to the editor of The Troy
Sentinel. A copy of the newspaper
carrying his poem was sent to Dr. Moore,
who was greatly annoyed that something
he composed for the amusement of his
children should be printed. It was not until eight years later, that Dr. Moore
publicly admitted that he wrote the poem.
Christmas is the favorite Holiday of
children, who unquestionably accept the
myth of Santa Claus. In 1897, one little girl began to have doubts as to the reality of Santa Claus, and wrote to the
New York Sun, asking for confirmation.
Her letter read: Dear editor, I am eight years old. Some of my little friends say there is no Santa Claus.
Papa says,"If you see it in The Sun,
it's so. Please tell me the truth, is there a Santa Claus?" Virginia D'Hanlon.
Francis P. Church's editorial answer
to the little girl became almost as
famous as Dr. Moore's poem. In part,
this is what he wrote: "Virginia, your little friends are so wrong. They have been
affected by the skepticism of a skeptical age. They do not believe, except
they see... Yes Virginia, there is a Santa Claus. He exists as certainly as love
and generosity and devotion exists....Alas! How dreary would be the
world if there were no Santa Claus. It would be as if there were no Virginias...No
Santa Claus! Thank God! He lives and
lives forever. A thousand years from now, Virginia, nay, ten times ten thousand years from now, he will continue to
make glad the heart of childhood."
It is sentiments like this that warm
the heart of child and adult alike,
as Christmas nears. It is not the gifts,
soon forgotten, that make Christmas a time of wonder and magic. It is the love
within all people for God, for children, for each other. During this hectic
holiday season, take a moment or two to
savor the true meaning of Christmas.
"And I heard him exclaim
As he drove out of sight,
Happy Christmas to all,
And to all a Goodnight!"
Dr. Clement Clarke