Friday, December 23, 2016

Op-ed: Christmas Traditions vs. Christmas Naysayers

Op-ed:                                                                   Christmas Traditions vs. Christmas Naysayers
By: Diane Sori / The Patriot Factor / Right Side Patriots on American Political Radio

I’m finally out of facebook jail and what better time to return then to do so just in time for Craig and my RIGHT SIDE PATRIOTS Christmas Special. So as Craig has handled Christmas from the historical and quite political angle, I will tackle the traditions we have come to know and love. But first a small bit of history about how what we call traditions became traditions.

And while it might be surprising to some, our modern-day Christmas traditions actually derive from pre-Christian pagans...people early Christian missionaries had not yet converted. But why was the word ‘pagan’ used...simply because it is similar in meaning to the Latin word ‘field’ (agri) and was used to refer to rural (agricultural) areas where most then non-Christians still lived for remember, Christianity sprang from the urban areas not from the countryside.

And as conversions took place some pagan traditions came along with the converts even as a more austere form of Christianity was taking hold in Europe. Take the Christmas Tree for example, one of our most beloved of all Christmas traditions. Long before the advent of Christianity, plants and trees that stayed green all year long had a special meaning for people...for pagans... especially during the dark, cold, snowy, and barren days of winter. And while most believe that the Christmas Tree originated in Germany, it actually goes back much further to the pagan Vikings who believed that evergreens were the special plant of their sun god, Balder, and that its boughs could keep away evil spirits especially if they brought those boughs into their homes.

And other pre-Christian pagans...pagans who like the Vikings believed that the sun was actually god...held the belief that the cold and barrenness of winter came because their sun god was sick and weak, and that only as the days started to grow longer...aka the winter solstice...would their sun god get better...leaving the evergreens to serve as a reminder that spring...that healing...that renewed life...that the time when all again turned green would soon be returning.

According to Roman Catholic legend, when St. Boniface was working to convert the 8th century Druids to Christianity he took the oak tree...whom the Druids worshiped as a god...and over time as conversion took hold swapped said oak tree with the balsam fir tree. And why the balsam fir instead of another tree...simply because St. Boniface found its triangular shape an easy way to reference the Trinity coupling that with his envisioning that the evergreen’s boughs pointed up to heaven meant that the balsam fir was a symbol of the one true living God whose home was in the heavens.

But the origin of the modern-day Christmas Tree must be credited to 16th century German Protestant reformer Martin Luther who, while working on a sermon outdoors, was awed by the sheer beauty and magnitude of the stars and how their twinkling light played off the boughs of the evergreens. Trying to capture this sight for his family by bringing that beauty indoors, Martin Luther put simple lit candles on the evergreen tree he had placed into his home...making his tree the precursor of today’s lighted trees, while candles are still used to decorate trees in many European countries.

As for 16th century Germany as a whole...when you discount local folk law and legends as to how the Christmas Tree started...what remains is the fact that it was during this time frame that the Christmas Tree began to look as it does today. And it began when devout Christians brought evergreen trees bring life, if you will, to their cold and dreary winter infused homes. Decorating these first Christmas Trees with edible things like gold covered apples, nuts, dates, pretzels, gingerbread, and paper flowers... especially roses...others who had no access to or who could afford to buy a tree, made pyramids out of wood that they decorated with evergreen boughs, paper, apples, and candles in an attempt to mimic the look of a real tree.

But while the beauty of Christmas Trees was spreading across continental Europe, here in 17th century America only German settlers who brought the Christmas Tree tradition with them had them in their homes. And why... because the Puritans regarded the Christmas Tree as a pagan symbol and as such they and other devout Christians tried to do away with not only the trees but with Christmas as well, considering the holiday little better than paganism. In fact, in 1659, the General Court of Massachusetts made any observance of Christmas other than a church service a penal offense going so far as to fine people who recognizing what they called the “pagan mockery” as a holiday. And this was quite odd as it was the Catholic Church who used Christmas as a way to entice pagans to become Christians.

Thankfully, an influx of both German and Irish settlers in the 19th century negated any and all attempts by the devout to remove Christmas and Christmas Trees from American holiday observances.

And it was during the19th the 1830’s...that Christmas Trees first began appearing in Great Britain reaching popularity in 1841 when Queen Victoria's German husband Prince Albert set up a Christmas Tree in Windsor Castle...decorating it with candles to represent the stars. In 1848, a drawing of ‘The Queen's Christmas Tree at Windsor Castle’ was published in the ‘Illustrated London News’ and was republished in Philedelphia's ‘Godey's Lady's Book’ in December 1850, helping Christmas Trees to become a tradition both in America and England. And it was Queen Victoria’s popularity that made Christmas Trees the height of home fashion on both sides of ‘the pond’ and with it the production of ornaments began to soar.

But when all the ornaments, lights, and glitter is taken away the Christmas Tree remains a simple evergreen...a pagan symbol of life reborn after the harshness of winter...while at the same time reminding the faithful that Christ is the true everlasting light of the world bringing joy and light into a dark and cold winter world.

So while the Christmas Tree is the premier symbol of Christmas traditions here in America, what is Christmas without Santa Claus, gifts under the tree, and carols sung.

First, let’s examine the legend of Santa Claus...the jolly man in red whose modern-day incarnation is a direct descendant of England's Father Christmas...who, by the way, was not originally a giver of gifts. And, Father Christmas and his other European variations... such as Kris Kringle and Old Saint Nick...are but adaptions of ancient pagan beliefs about spirits who traveled the sky in midwinter.

But where and when did the legend of Santa Claus as we know him actually begin?

For that we have to look to St. Nicholas, whose name evolved over the years eventually to become Santa Claus. Coming to America with the Dutch settlers of New York, St. Nicholas was a real man of the cloth, the bishop of Myra in southwestern fourth century Turkey...a man who legend says helped the poor anonymously and was credited with doing miracles involving sailors and children. After his death and his attaining sainthood, St. Nicholas was given his own ‘Feast Day’...December 6th.

And it was during the time of St. Nicholas that Pope Julius I assigned the celebrating of Christmas...the celebrating of Jesus’ December 25th...and he did so solely to coincide with a still celebrated pagan midwinter festival, Saturnalia, with the hope of using the new holiday to help “Christianize the pagan celebrations”...more on that in a bit.

And with St. Nicholas' Feast Day so close to the newly designated Christmas date, St. Nicholas’ connection with Christmas was forever sealed. And with that came the tradition that he would visit homes on Christmas Eve where children would place nuts, apples, and sweets around the house to welcome him not for them to receive gifts. But as the reformation of Europe began, bringing with it a sense of severe austerity, the honoring of St. Nicholas in most Protestant countries, with the exception of Holland, sadly began to dwindle away.

Yet even as the legend of St. Nicholas remained strong in Holland, his name morphed into ‘Sinter Klaas.’ And when the Dutch came to America they brought the tradition of ‘Sinter Klaas’ with them, but his popularity did not take hold until after the Revolutionary War when again his name evolved, now becoming ‘Sancte Claus.’

In 1822 Clement Moore, a professor of biblical languages at New York's Episcopal Theological Seminary, wrote the poem, ‘A Visit from St. Nicholas’ for his family (it was published anonymously a year later in the Troy Sentinel), taking the early Dutch traditions brought to New Amsterdam adding in bits and pieces of both German and Norse legends...including the addition of reindeer who were used to draw sleighs during the long cold winter months. And so it was here that the our modern version of Santa Claus began to take shape even as he was still being depicted as ruling over midwinter pagan festivals... and notice how pagan influences remained even as late as the 19th century. And it was in this poem that St. Nicholas was first described as an elf-like man with a sleigh drawn by eight tiny reindeer (no Rudolf at this point)...a man who the reindeer flew from house to house and at each house down the chimney he went to fill children’s stockings hung by the fireplace with gifts.

And this poem eventually was reprinted under the more familiar title, ‘The Night Before Christmas’ and Santa Claus as we know and love him was born complete with him being dressed in the red and white outfit we are now all so familiar with.

And with Santa Claus came the giving of gifts as we know it today...gaily wrapped gifts set up under a trimmed and lighted tree ready to be torn into by children giggling in delight.

And while gift-giving may seem like it has been forever tied to Christmas, the fact is that until the Victorian era people looked forward to opening small gifts on New Year's Day not on Christmas...seeing it as a bit of happiness to start the New Year with. And it was Queen Victoria herself who made the giving of gifts on Christmas Day into a modern-day Christmas tradition. According to the British Royal Collection, in 1841, Queen Victoria gave her husband, Prince Albert, a miniature portrait of herself as a 7-year-old child; in 1850 she gave her children gifts, including a sword and armor, on Christmas morning; and in 1859, she gave Prince Albert a book of poetry by Alfred Lord Tennyson.

But the giving of gifts during this time of year again dates back to the time of the pagans in Europe who gave presents at winter festivals especially during Saturnalia, a Roman festival in honor of Saturn, the god of agriculture and wealth, which began on December 17th and lasted anywhere between three days to a week. And Saturnalia continued to be celebrated... even by some of the early Christians who continued to join in the revelry...until the 4th century when the afore mentioned Pope Julius l ‘created’ what was referred to as a rival festival to mark Jesus' order to do away with or at least absorb the debauchery passing as traditions that accompanied Saturnalia. And so Christmas was indeed a man-made holiday marking the Savior’s birth, and with it came the gift-giving that was a mark of Saturnalia only now Church leaders had devout Christians seeing gift-giving as a symbolic homage to the Three Wise Men's gifts to the baby of frankincense, gold, and myrrh.

And while here in America Christmas gift-giving went through many cycles, it must not be forgotten that the celebrating of Christmas... including the giving of gifts... was banned during our nation's earliest days as Puritan leaders considered Christmas both a pagan rite and a papal abomination, with any person found celebrating Christmas being punished. But when Christmas celebrations finally became legal in the 1680s, gift-giving took off with those living in rural areas carving wooden toys and doing needlework in the agricultural off season to give as gifts. And with the advent of the Industrial Revolution handmade gifts were being replaced with mass-manufactured trinkets and toys. In fact, by 1867, the holiday gift industry was going so strong that Macy's in New York City kept its store open until midnight on Christmas Eve for the very first time...a tradition that continues in some of its stores to this day.

An while there remains ‘Scrooges’ amongst us...those who see Christmas as a burden due to its crass commercialism and always bottom line, the giving of gifts at Christmas is a tradition here to stay. And thankfully Christmas still brings with it the wide-eyed wonder of children who still believe in a Christmas ‘gift bringer’ whether it be Santa Claus, St. Nicholas, Father Christmas, Christkind in Germany, the Wise Men in Spain, or an old lady named Befana in Italy.

And the last Christmas tradition I will briefly touch upon here is the beauty of the Christmas carol. Many modern-day Christmas scholars believe that Christmas caroling as we know it originated in England in the 1840's when Prince Albert of Germany married Victoria of England. In their striving to please the newly married royal couple, English peasants started serenading Prince Albert with Christmas songs after learning of his love for German Christmas songs. And caroling has been a tradition ever since no matter that some say Methodists and Lutherans brought a modified version of this tradition to America years before, but no proof of that has been found. And while our American tradition of caroling involves those caroling being offered food and drinks after being welcomed into the homes of those they were serenading, the fact remains that no matter who does the singing or from where the tradition came, Christmas carols help to bring out the beauty, joy, and feeling of the season.

And as Christmas traditions remain strong along with the secular embrace of Christmas by those of other faiths or of no faith at all, some still believe that the man-made traditions and ever-expanding commercialism of the holiday contradicts the religious aspect of celebrating Jesus’ birth. But I say no way for Jesus will always remain the reason for the season, and in today’s world where Christianity is being attacked on all fronts, any way we can honor Him is better than no way at all.
Today, Friday, December 23rd from 7 to 9pm on American Political Radio, RIGHT SIDE PATRIOTS Craig Andresen and Diane Sori present their 'Christmas Special' encompassing both the history and traditions of the holiday, plus a very special RIGHT SIDE PATRIOTS retelling of 'The Night Before Christmas.'

Hope you can tune in at:

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