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History of Christmas


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How to Celebrate an Old-Fashioned Christmas (posted 12-21-04)

Don Lattin, in the San Francisco Chronicle (12-19-04):

It's the Sunday before Christmas, and all through the land Americans long for a traditional celebration of that sacred December day. But if you're seeking an old-fashioned American Christmas, holiday historian Stephen Nissenbaum suggests you may want to try some pagan cross-dressing, drink copious amounts of hard liquor, pound on your neighbor's door and start a festive little street riot in Piedmont, Hillsborough or Nob Hill. For that, Nissenbaum says, is what constitutes a traditional American Christmas.

In colonial America, the Christmas season was a week of reveling and rowdiness, of wine, wassailing and wantonness. It was a time when the poor were allowed to blow off steam, to rouse their wealthy neighbors and demand some Christmas cheer. Talk about a merry little Christmas!

Christmas used to get so out of hand in the colonies that the Puritan government outlawed its celebration in 1659. The fine was five shillings for anyone"found observing any such day as Christmas or the like, either by forbearing of labor, feasting or any other way." Among the acts that scandalized religious authorities was the tradition of Christmas"mumming." Writing in 1725, the Rev. Henry Bourne was most upset that the pastime included"the changing of Clothes between Men and Women," a practice that was"a scandal to Religion and an encouraging of Wickedness."

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Reinventing Christmas Over and Over(posted 12-21-04)

From Netscape News (12-04):

What if it were against the law to celebrate Christmas? It was in the mid-17th century! The Puritans outlawed Christmas, blasting it as another one of those idol-worshipping religious festivals well worth expunging. Reformist Protestants even levied fines on those individuals who dared to miss work on Christmas Day.

That's the word from Anthony Aveni, a Colgate University professor and author of "The Book of the Year: A History of Our Holidays," which explores the myths and origins of the December 25 holiday extending back to Neolithic cultures.

Here are some other myths, facts, and fables about Christmas, uncovered by Aveni:

The Bible does not supply concrete information on exactly when Christ was born. No astrological indicators exist that point to December 25. The earliest record comes from a 354 A.D. calendar description of a holiday in which Romans lit candles to celebrate the sun's birthday.

Church officials, "impressed with the ritual's symbolic bringing back of light into the world," claimed the date of December 25. Roman Emperor Constantine officially recognized it as the celebration of Jesus' birth in the 4th century A.D.

The Middle Ages marked the origin of many traditional Christmas symbols such as the Yule log, holly, and caroling. The burning Yule log (Yule comes from the Scandinavian jol or jul which means "jolly") symbolized the time in which bonfires raged to "beckon the reappearance of winter's holy light."

The Farmer's Almanac also got its start in the Middle Ages during the 12 days of Christmas. People used these days to predict weather by recording sunny and snowy days in a system that became the precursor of the modern day Farmer's Almanac.

In the early 19th century, German and Dutch Protestant immigrants resurrected the Christmas holiday to its original status. St. Nicholas also gained prominence during the Victorian era.

Originally Santa Claus was not regarded as the rotund gift bearer in an airborne sled that we all know today. It was Clement Clark Moore's 1822 poem that first promoted this image.

Santa's Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer sprang from a commercial endeavor in 1939. A Montgomery Ward employee wrote the original story as part of a promotional "giveaway" program. The song gained prominence in the late 1940s.
"The paradox of Christmas today lies in the confrontation of the consumer's strong materialism sense and the decidedly nonmaterialistic values of religious celebrants," Aveni explains. "But obviously Christmas is a reinvented tradition. Our capacity to change its meaning to suit the times is the force that keeps it alive."

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Kwanza Blues (posted 12-26-03)

Debra J. Dickerson, writing in the NYT(Dec. 26, 2003):

Oh, dear. It's that time of year again, when black folks have to be careful with one another. A simple invitation to your tree-trimming party can find you denounced for" capitulating to the master's culture" by the most button-down, suit-and-tie brother on the block. Asking the fellow preschool parent in kente clothing to make a Kwanzaa presentation can find you stammering your apologies when he thrusts his St. Christopher medal at you like Buffy the Vampire Slayer fending off the undead.

Being black in December is almost as exhausting as being so in February, when it's taken for granted that you'll spearhead the office Black History Month extravaganza. What's worse are those things considered a barometer of your blackness — things like hair straightening, Clarence Thomas and, of course, Kwanzaa.

There's no doubt that Kwanzaa, created by Dr. Maulana Karenga in 1966, is growing in both popularity and acceptance. Once you've got both a commemorative postage stamp and a section of the Hallmark aisle, you are official Americana. But should it be? Until two years ago, the mere mention of Kwanzaa would have me cracking wise about kente cloth boxer shorts and artificially lengthened dreadlocks — and cultural pride as mere show and consumerism.

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Who Invented Santa Claus? (posted 12-24-03)

Alex Massie, writing in the Scotsman(Dec. 23, 2003):

For more than a century it has been America’s favourite Christmas poem, as warm and reassuring as a yuletide log fire. For "’Twas the night before Christmas, when all through the house/ Not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse;/ The stockings were hung by the chimney with care,/ In hopes that St Nicholas soon would be there."

And lo, a Christmas revolution was born as Santa Claus swept in from his arctic home, pulled by his reindeer to deposit presents for America’s children. Ever since the poem was first published, anonymously by the Troy Sentinel in New York state in 1823, it has become a defining part of the American Christmas.

Indeed, ’Twas The Night Before Christmas is frequently credited with all but introducing the idea of Santa Claus to the United States. Prior to its popularity, St Nicholas was as likely to be represented as a stern, even forbidding, visitor to children - far removed from the bluff, jovial cove since immortalised, sentimentalised and commercialised by the combined efforts of children’s writers and Madison Avenue advertising executives.

If the British Christmas - or the idea of the traditional British Christmas - is somehow encapsulated by Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol the treacly sentiment that coats The Night Before Christmas has performed an equivalent function in the United States, albeit on a lower literary plane.

Nonetheless, the name of Professor Clement Clarke Moore, the poem’s author, occupies a small, but particular, place in America’s literary pantheon. If it was the Grinch who stole Christmas it was, to exaggerate only slightly, Professor Moore who invented the idea in the first place. In later years Coca-Cola would popularise the image of a jolly red-cloaked Santa Claus, smiling out from countless advertisements, but the idea of Santa had taken root long before then, largely thanks to the popularity of Moore’s poem.

Now, however, the poem’s provenance has been called into question. Moore, it is alleged, has proven himself, unwittingly or not, every bit as larcenous as the Grinch himself, filching another man’s work and passing it off as his own. Descendents of a Scotch-Dutch soldier, Major Henry Livingston, believe their ancestor is the true author of the poem and that his place in the annals of American literature has been usurped by an imposter. Clement Clarke Moore’s descendents are equally adamant that there’s no evidence to suppose their man was not the true author.

The two men could scarcely have been more different. Moore was the descendent of wealthy English Episcopalians, the son of a Bishop and the owner of a Manhattan estate better known today as Chelsea. Livingston, as his name suggests, was partly of Scottish descent and he considered himself a son of Scotland.

Where Moore, who only acknowledged authorship of the poem in 1844 when his collected poems were published, was a high Tory, Livingston, 33 years his senior, was a confirmed Whig who, on the outbreak of the revolutionary war, altered "God Save the King" in his music book to read "God Save the Congress" before marching off to fight for the colonial rebels.

As early as 1788 Livingston was writing that "a land of slaves will ever be a land of poverty, ignorance and idleness" whereas Moore, although suspicious of the slave-owning Thomas Jefferson and the damage the third president’s dangerously democratic ideals were doing to the fledgling republic, remained a staunch supporter of slavery. The two men differed too on the need for and seemliness of women’s education and on how the United States should treat Native Americans. In each of these debates it must be noted that modern tastes side with Livingston, while Moore appears a prisoner of his times - and a prisoner of the more reactionary elements of those times at that. Livingston, to modern sensibilities, the more sympathetic character, then has sentiment on his side.

Although it has long been an article of faith among Livingston’s descendents that the Major wrote the poem, until recently they have failed to produce much in the way of supporting evidence for their claim. That was before they enlisted the help of Don Foster, a professor of English at Vassar College in upstate New York. Foster, an expert in textual analysis, is most famous for unmasking Joe Klein as the anonymous author of Primary Colors.

The idea of settling the dispute over the poem’s authorship appealed to Foster, despite his fears that his academic peers might scoff at him for wasting so much time on such an apparently trivial project. However, as he wrote in Author unknown: On the Trail of Anonymous it seemed worth ending the argument one way or the other since, "By translating Europe’s crotchety old Nicholas into Saint Nick, the merriest saint in Christendom, the author of that little poem caused America finally to open its heart to old Santaclaw, and in a very big way."

It did not take long for Foster’s view of Moore to sour. Moore’s own writing suggests that he had, in large part, a bleak view of the poet’s work that is strikingly at odds with the homely cheerfulness of ’Twas The Night Before Christmas. Poetry, he once wrote, served no purpose "if it possess no other recommendation than the glow of its expressions and the tinkling of its syllables or the wanton allurement of the ideas it conveys." It’s true that this bah humbug school of literary criticism would also account for Moore’s supposed embarrassment over the "trifling" nature of the poem he would become famous for, but it scarcely suggests he was over-stuffed with the Christmas spirit.

Nor do other examples of his work. In 1804 Moore penned An Apology for Not Accepting a young lady’s invitation to a ball, which read in part: "To me ’tis giv’n your virtue to secure/From custom’s force and pleasure’s dangerous lure.../For if, regardless of my friendly voice,/In fashion’s gaudy scenes your heart rejoice/Dire punishments shall fall upon your head:/Disgust and fretfulness, and secret dread,"

And the compliments of the season to you too, sir. As Foster noted drily, "Young Clement Moore speaks often of sin and he lets you know that he’s against it."

Not everyone is convinced by Foster’s analysis however. "I don’t think he spent as much time doing research on this as on some of his other projects," says Nancy H Marshall, author of The Night Before Christmas: A Descriptive Bibliography of Clement Clarke Moore’s Immortal Poem.

Nonetheless, even if Moore was not the author - or if it requires a considerable imaginative stretch to believe him responsible for ’Twas The Night Before Christmas, that is far from the same thing as supposing that Livingston was its author. One of his grand-daughters may have said: "Of course grandfather wrote ’Twas The Night Before Christmas. I believe it just as much as I believe that Robert Burns wrote Tam O’Shanter’’. but his descendents have struggled to produce physical evidence to support their contention. Unhelpfully, Livingston’s poetry book was lost in a fire.

So we are left with hints and suppositions, balancing the respective probability of the rival claims. Tradition may be on Moore’s side, but linguistic evidence of the sort Foster specialises in lends its weight to Livingston.

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The Debate Involving "Jingle Bells" (postd 12-24-03)

Russ Bynum, writing in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution (Dec. 21, 2003):

Dashing in the sun, through oaks and Spanish moss. Sleigh riding's no fun, when there's no snow to cross.

Could ``Jingle Bells'' really be a song of the South?

It's not hard to see why balmy Savannah has a tough time selling the Christmas carol as a native creation. Or why the claim makes folks in Medford, Mass.--hometown of the song's composer--cry humbug.

This much is known: James Pierpont was the organist at Savannah's Unitarian Universalist Church in 1857 when he copyrighted the song ``One Horse Open Sleigh,'' a title later changed to ``Jingle Bells.''

One of the most popular American Christmas songs, ``Jingle Bells'' made Pierpont a pre-Civil War one-hit wonder. But did he write it here as a piece of homesick, holiday nostalgia? Or did he compose it years before in Medford, not seeing the tune as a moneymaker until he drifted south?

``No one really knows where he was when he wrote it--that's the rub,'' said Constance Turner, Pierpont's great-granddaughter in Coronado, Calif. ``Evidently, James was quite the free-spirit and he published some bad songs and one, at least, we know of that's a very good song.''

Medford, just outside Boston, claimed the carol without challenge until 1969, when Milton Rahn, a Savannah Unitarian, announced he had linked the song's composer to Georgia.

Rahn was listening to his daughter play ``Jingle Bells'' on the piano when he glanced at the sheet music and noticed the composer's name: J. Pierpont.

He had earlier found letters John Pierpont Jr., the church's pastor from 1852 to 1858, had written home to Medford saying his brother, James, had come to Savannah as an organist and music teacher. Further research found the composer had married in Savannah in 1857 weeks before he copyrighted ``Jingle Bells.''

``I saw this as something to help us get publicity for the church,'' Rahn said.

Pierpont, who lived from 1822 to 1893, was said to be a wanderer who ran away to sea at 14 and later went to California during the Gold Rush. During the Civil War, he joined a Confederate cavalry regiment in Savannah, bucking his family's staunch abolitionist views.

Though Pierpont came from an aristocratic family--his nephew was the financier John Pierpont (J.P.) Morgan--he never made much money himself.

His other songs included several touting the Confederate cause, with titles such as ``We Conquer Or Die'' and ``Strike For The South.'' But none struck a chord like ``Jingle Bells.''

After Savannah erected a ``Jingle Bells'' marker across from the church in 1985, then-Mayor John Rousakis declared the tune a Savannah song.

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Nick Turse: Have Yourself a Pentagon Christmas (12-18-03)

Nick Turse, a doctoral candidate in history at Columbia University, writing in www.tomdispatch.com (Dec. 18, 2003):

'Tis the season for putting wish-lists together! It's the least the toy industry expects of you. After all, according to the National Retail Federation, $217 billion in holiday sales are up for grabs and an anxious toy industry is hoping to take home a sizeable chunk of that (especially given last year's weak $20.3 billion toy market).

As for you, it's never too early to head into the mall maelstrom in search of the hottest toy in shortest supply for your child. Toy industry pundits and child experts are rushing out their lists of recommendations and if you want to catch that blank look of disappointment on your child's face this Christmas morning, by all means follow their advice. Go buy Hasbro's BTR Transformer off the Toy Wishes "Hot Dozen" list; K'nex's Rippin' Rocket Roller Coaster, one of FamilyFun magazine's"Toys of the Year" or strip those shelves of Mattel's Hokey Pokey Elmo from KB Toys annual"Holiday Hot Toy List."

But if you'd really like to"wow" the kids, stick to Tomdispatch's list of"Hot as Depleted Uranium Toys for a New Imperial Age."

You surely don't want to deny your child the right to strut an aircraft-carrier flight deck or duke it out in person with Osama bin Laden. So from the Pentagon to you, via us, comes the A (for"Armed to the Teeth") list of presents sure to make this a true military-industrial Christmas!

What would the holidays be without little muscularized, molded plastic dolls holding big guns in a kung-fu battle grip?

Now, thanks to Blue Box International your child can pilot Air Force One into Baghdad with Elite Force Aviator: George W. Bush, the greatest American hero, dolled-up in Naval Aviator regalia -- a fully posable 12" action figure in"g-pants.""Actual figure," warns the maker,"may vary slightly from item shown" (which is so totally Mission Accomplished!) Then, for only an extra $29.95 (plus shipping and handling) your child can feed the troops a turkey dinner using the George W. Bush Talking Action Figure, the aviator's civilian counterpart, clad in the more traditional Republican dark suit and red power tie. He spouts 17 phrases including the apropos Bush-ism"...working hard to put food on your family..."

And that's only the beginning! Just imagine your son holding his own news conference with the Talking Donald"Rummy" Rumsfeld Action Figure ($29.99 plus shipping and handling) to announce that weapons of mass destruction have just been discovered in Bethesda, Maryland. Press his button and catch 28 different phrases from"Rumstud" (as the Elite Aviator likes to call him) including the classic:"I believe what I said yesterday. I don't know what I said. But I know what I think. I assume that's what I said."

And you California parents, don't miss the Talking Governator, hero of Total Recall, the movie and the election, in plastic form… or call him Robot Arnie and fight the world with the T-850 Terminator in his black-leather get-up.

But don't stop here… oh no, you mustn't stop here. What fun's the Elite Aviator if there's no villain to attack him?

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What Was the Star of Bethlehem? (posted 12-17-03)

Rebecca Mcquillan, writing in the Glasgow Herald (Dec. 13, 2003):

IT is one of the most powerful symbols of Christianity. Nativity plays, Christmas trees and the story of Christ's birth would not be the same without it.

What the star of Bethlehem was and what it tells us about the date of Christ's birth, however, has never been more hotly debated.

A theory from an American professor of mathematics suggests that what the wise men saw was a supernova - an exploding star - in the nearby galaxy of Andromeda, putting the date of Christ's birth at March 22, 8BC.

Yet a presentation using the state-of-the-art star projector in the Glasgow Science Centre this week illustrates the theory that it was a planetary conjunction between Jupiter and Venus. The Astronomer Royal for Scotland, Professor John Brown, has said the show is "so spectacular" it almost convinced him that Christ was born, not in midwinter, but in the late summer - August 12, 3BC.

There has long been a dispute among theologians and astronomers over whether the Christmas star was a real celestial event or a legend created after Christ's birth. There is also dispute over the date of his birth, with estimates ranging from 8BC to 1BC.

The main source for the story is the gospel according to Matthew. In his account, the Christmas star appeared in the east and was spotted by the wise men, the magi, who took it as a sign that a king of the Jews had been born, fulfilling an ancient prophecy. It led them to Jerusalem and then to Bethlehem.

There are various suggestions as to what the star might have been, including comets and meteors.

In a new contribution to the debate, Frank Tipler, professor of mathematical physics in New Orleans, has suggested that it could have been a supernova - a star exploding - in Andromeda, a galaxy near the Milky Way. He argues that Andromeda was in the sky above Jerusalem and Bethlehem in the first decade BC and was visible in late winter and early spring. A supernova in Andromeda, he suggests, would only be noticed by astrologers looking at that area of the sky. He argues that they might have done so on the day there was a conjunction of Mars and the Sun, March 22, 8BC.

In that year, Caesar Augustus ordered a census of all Roman citizens, which would agree with a reference linking the census and Christ's birth in Luke's gospel.

Professor Brown said he was unconvinced as it was unlikely that Chinese astrologers, accomplished stargazers who kept meticulous records, would have missed the event in a galaxy as close as Andromeda.

Yet he described the theory on show at the Glasgow Science Centre, using the Scottish Power Zeiss projector to recreate an exact replica of the night sky in the decade before Christ's birth, as "very interesting''. Based on a book by an American astronomer, John Mosley, it suggests that the Christmas "star" was caused by two consecutive conjunctions (two planets appearing to join as they pass one another). It involved the two brightest planets, Jupiter and Venus. This is the theory that places the birth of Christ on August 12, 3BC.

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Is Christmas a Christian Holiday? (posted 12-17-03)

Ben English, writing in the Australian Courier Mail (Dec. 13, 2003):

BRITAIN'S Culture Ministry -- the department charged with promoting all that is good about the UK -- has sparked a yuletide furore by producing greetings cards that deliberately avoid mentioning Christmas.

Terrified of offending followers of other religions, Department of Culture officials have left out the word Christmas and all Christian imagery from its cards sent out this winter....

[I]n 2000, art historian Dr Tricia Cusack launched an attack on the snowman.

She said the figure was not so much a source of innocent fun for children as a degrading symbol of racist and sexist bigotry.

Dr Cusack branded the snowman a phallic symbol, which helped condemn women to a second-class status in society and threatened minorities.

"The British snowman is generally taken to be as innocent as Donald Duck," Dr Cusack argued in a 15-page paper on the representation of snowmen in Christmas cards.

"Some members of cultural minorities in Britain find the central power relationship of Christmas threatening, not to speak of its whiteness -- a white Christ, a white snowman."

She did not suggest how the snowman could be altered to reflect non-white people.