Traditions mingle to make Christmas magical
Christmas is the most widely celebrated holiday in the world. Its image is deeply rooted in our minds. It is a picture of a star-topped tree, trimmed with lights and draped in tinsel and ornaments. Under it lay piles of gaily wrapped presents. Stockings are hung by the fireplace. Wreaths and mistletoe adorn doorways and banisters. On mantels and front hall tables, a creche or manger is carefully arranged and displayed. The dinner table is dressed in its finest linens and families gather around it for the holiday meal with all its trimmings.
This was not always so. It may be surprising to learn that the Pilgrim settlers who came to this country did not celebrate Christmas at all. They brought with them a great dislike of anything that might bring joy or merriment to Puritan New England. Through a charter granted them by the British crown allowing self-government, these Massachusetts settlers passed a law making it illegal to celebrate Christmas and imposed stiff fines and penalties to anyone caught breaking that law.
As America’s population grew, Puritans still dominated New England, but a steady flow of immigrants from other parts of Europe poured into Pennsylvania, New York and New Jersey. And with them came many of their own home-grown customs and traditions. The Dutch brought the Father Christmas figure. From the Irish came the custom of placing candles in the windows, and the Germans gave us the Christmas tree.
The embellishments, the trappings, the way Americans wrap Christmas, the unusual things we do to celebrate this holiday came from the old country. Like adopted children, the practices grew and changed within the American family. There was no stopping Christmas. It was here to stay, but not without a fight.
The division between those who would celebrate and those who would not continued for some time. In its first session in 1789, the U.S. Congress remained in-house on Christmas Day, and did so every Christmas for the next 60 years.
The date of Christmas, Dec. 25, was adopted by Pope Julius I in the fourth century, according to Maymie Richardson Krythe’s book “All About Christmas.” At that time, pagan rituals and celebrations were still taking place in Rome and other parts of Europe even by Christians. Since there is no biblical account of the date of Christ’s birth, Pope Julius chose that date mainly to counter these celebrations. There was no pretense of its authenticity.
The Christmas tree originated in Germany and remained within its borders for many centuries. During medieval times, the Germans celebrated the feast of Adam and Eve on Dec. 24, the night before Christmas, according to “Holiday Symbols” by Sue Ellen Thompson. This celebration was a reminder of original sin and the reason Christ had come as savior. On that night, ”Miracle plays” were performed. Because it was winter, a fir tree was used to represent the Paradise tree. It was decorated with apples and carried around the streets. It soon became customary to take a small fir tree into the home and decorate it using red balls as apples.
The Christmas tree became popular in Britain when Queen Victoria’s German-born husband, Albert, brought the custom to England. Every Christmas, an evergreen tree was set atop a table and decorated in the royal residence. Queen Victoria wrote in her diary ”… today, I have two children of my own to give presents to, who, they know not why, are full of happy wonder at the German Christmas tree and its radiant candles.” Several years later, an etching of the royal family standing around a table-top tree appeared in the London Illustrated News. This custom spread quickly throughout England and soon found its way to timber-abundant America. Here, table-top trees were replaced by large floor-to-ceiling-size trees, and the Christmas tree as we know it today, soon became a Christmas-time staple.
THE LIGHTS For many years in British-dominated Ireland, Mass was forbidden. On Christmas Eve, Catholics would place a lighted candle in their windows. The candle represented a welcome to the shelterless Mary and Joseph, and was a signal to any passing priest that this home was a safe haven and a place to say Mass.
St. Nicholas, a generous and holy man, lived at the beginning of the fourth century, according to information in “The Great Christmas Almanac” by Irene Chambers. He became bishop of Myra Turkey and spent his large inheritance helping the poor. The most persistent legend surrounding Nicholas tells of a family that had lost its money. The three daughters, wanting to help their father, were willing to be sold into slavery. Nicholas, hearing of their plight, throws bags of gold down their chimney. It lands in the girls’ stockings which had been hung by the fire to dry.
After the Reformation, Protestants were anxious to get rid of anything Catholic. Many countries developed their own gift-giver, dressed him in different colors and costumes and gave him a new name. Immigrants took these different versions of St. Nicholas to America, but it was the Dutch Sinter Klas that became implanted in the hearts and minds of children in the new world. His red bishop’s robes are now a fur-trimmed snow suit, and his miter is a tasseled hat, but the spirit of giving that was St. Nicholas lives on.
THE CRECHE In 1223, St. Francis created the first live creche. To a friend, he had written, ”… a fain memorial to the child that was born in Bethlehem and in some sort behold with bodily eyes His infant hardships, now he lay in a manger on the hay with ox and ass standing by.” That Christmas Eve in a cave, the first live manger scene was presented. Although figures of the Christ child were displayed in churches prior to this time, they were extravagant and did not imitate his humble beginnings. Eventually, figures carved of wood depicted Christ’s birth in the stable, as figures of adoring shepherds and gift-bearing wise men look on.
MISTLETOE From very early times, mistletoe has been the subject of much folklore. It was used in sacrificial rites by the ancient Druids, according to the Web site www.theholidayspot.com . The Greeks used mistletoe to ward off evil spirits. It was thought to have medicinal and magical powers. In Scandinavia, mistletoe was the plant of peace. Under hanging mistletoe, enemies would call a truce, and quarreling couples would reconcile. Later, the English would call it a kissing ball. A man might steal a kiss if a young woman stood beneath the ball. To prevent overuse, the man would pluck a berry from the plant. Once the berries were gone, there were no more kisses.
How our American Christmas has evolved is just another example of our ability to blend and meld. These traditions and customs and many more, have mingled together to make up how we observe Christmas in the United States. Christmas is and will remain a celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ, but how we celebrate it is strictly American. The things we do at Christmastime originated with many peoples from all around the earth and are bordered by a wish for peace on earth and good will toward men.
Carla Karcher is a Johnstown free-lance writer for the Tribune-Review.