Friday, January 07, 2011

Christmas Thoughts - Written in 2008

On this special day of celebration, let us take a moment to remember all of the special characters and traditions that brought this day into being.

First of which is the almighty God, the creator of all things and the essence of goodness.

Then there is Christ, the anointed one, who was presented to a great people, the Jews, to enrich their traditions and bring forward great peace!

Then, let us not forget Thomas Nast, the German American cartoonist who in 1863 began drawing an image of a jolly old fat man in a red suit with a black belt and white accoutrements at the ends of his clothes. And let us also not forget the very many advertisers who, by the 1920’s, had solidified this image of Nast’s into a popular cultural icon.

Let us also not forget the Dutch inhabitants of New York City. In an effort to return to their Dutch traditions after having their colony “swapped” by Holland for other territories; and wishing to express their non-English-based traditions, the Dutch reinvented their holy man, Sinterklaas, during the American War of Independence in an effort to distinguish him from the English patron saint of children, Saint Nicholas.

Let us not forget Sinterklaas himself, or the character that predates him by some 300years, Father Christmas. Pére Noël, as the French refer to him, was a symbol of holiday merrymaking and drunkenness in the 15th century. During that time there was great competition from that other festive time, the Epiphany. Of course, the Epiphany falls on January 6th, a tradition still held by the Eastern cultures.

So now let us not forget the Puritans, whose antipathy during the reformation, based on accusations of “popery” (the law that ensured that when a Roman Catholic died, his estate be divided equally amongst his sons, unless one of those sons converted to the Protestant faith, whereby he could inherit the whole of the estate; a law that was meant to reduce the size and influence of the Roman Catholic landed estates) led to the banning of Christmas in 1647, by England’s then puritanical rulers.

In 1660, Charles the Second ended the ban. The Roman Catholic Church had by then redefined the tradition, orienting it more towards a religious theme.

In Colonial America, reaction to this ban had various effects. The Puritans of New England had embraced the ban, however the celebration was outlawed in Boston from 1659 to 1681. Christian residents of New York and Pennsylvania observed the festival freely. The Moravians of Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, brought-forth the tradition of the Christmas tree, a Christian adaptation of the pagan tradition of tree-worship.

George Washington is not to be forgotten as well as the tradition of Christmas in America had fallen out-of-favor, seen as an English tradition during the Revolution. Attacking the Hessian mercenaries at Trenton in 1777, the response from the mostly German victims of the attack, who viewed Christmas much more favorably than the Americans at that time, came by the 1820’s.

Worried that the tradition might die-out, writers like Charles Dickens imagined a family-oriented, heartfelt celebration, and thus was the impetus for the writing of “A Christmas Carol”. Other writers, such as Clement Clark Moore, wrote a poem in 1822 called “A visit from Saint Nicholas,” now recognized by its opening line, “Twas the night before Christmas.”

Some claim that Moore exaggerated the claims that he was making that the depictions in this poem were a reflection of what he had observed in England. Nevertheless these traditions were widely imitated in the US, and thus the tradition of seasonal gift-giving began at around that time.

By 1850, we have the original scrooge, in the form of writer Harriet Beecher Stowe. Her book, “The First Christmas in New England” was a complaint that the spiritual tradition had been replaced by commercialism, that the true meaning of Christmas had been reduced to a shopping-spree.

In 1870, Ulysses S. Grant declared Christmas a federal holiday.

Let us lastly not forget that the true meaning of Christmas, as it is so brilliantly illustrated in one of our now most cherished traditions, Christmas lights and candles.

Just as Jesus brought forward, modified and advanced the ancient traditions of his people, this tradition is a reworking and therefore extension of the Jewish tradition of lighting the Menorah, which symbolizes bringing light into the darkness.

Let us remember and celebrate not what distinguishes and separates us on this holiest of days, let us remember the fluidity of the traditions that bring us all together. Let us, at least on this one day, see each other as a community sharing in the various traditions and figures that bind us. Let us this day love each other as brothers and sisters.

Happy Holidays and I say this not to reduce the meaning of Christmas, but to recognize the meaning of all of the world’s cultural expressions of the same thing, without needing to mention each one by name. All of the best to you and yours, and may peace and goodwill be known to all mankind.


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