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Christmas Tradition History

December 28, 2019

[Music]
it is a story everyone knows after a
rude refusal by a local innkeeper Mary
and Joseph bedded down in a barn in
Bethlehem
the next day Mary gave birth to a son
the son of God those are the biblical
origins of Christmas but centuries
before Jesus walked the earth early
Europeans were celebrating light and
birth in the darkest days of winter in
the North Country
this winter celebration was known as
Yule around December 21st the winter
solstice
fathers and sons would drag home the
biggest log they could find and set it
on fire the Yule Log warmed but it also
looked ahead each spark was said to
represent a pig or calf to be born in
the spring also dragged inside were
evergreens the one plant that could make
it through a Norse winter evergreens
prove that life persisted in this dark
time there’s a natural attraction to
that which lives through the winter when
one is struggling to survive through the
winter the Evergreen is that part of
nature that seems impervious to the
coming of winter and the and the
diminishing of the Sun and so it’s an
absolutely natural symbol one which I
think he react to almost without
thinking about for as long as the Yule
Log burned about 12 days feasting and
revelry reigned supreme in fact this was
one of the few times that meat was
abundant since cattle had just been
slaughtered for the long winter there is
a necessity to kill most of the cattle
there’s a cart people alive over the
winter Wednesday who to feed the bone
and keep a few alive for breeding but
there is an opportunity for a great
blowout for a great feast time to party
the party raged inside in defiance of
winters deadly how there is a spooky
feel about the northern Yuletide
festivals you may be alright there in
the hall of the blazing fires but
outside there are demons there are
spirits in Germany the pagan god Odin
lent his name to this midwinter holiday
early Germans were terrified of abuddin
whose nocturnal flights decided who
would prosper or perish in the coming
year later we’d see another Christmas
sky rider Santa Claus but for now
staying inside became the smartest
choice at this frightening time of the
year
[Music]
a thousand miles away in Rome winter was
less harrowing but the December
festivals were just as elaborate one
week before the winter solstice Romans
began celebrating Saturnalia a
month-long orgy of food and drink named
for the god Saturn which meant plenty
Rome’s established order was turned on
its head during this wild delirious time
the Saturnalia celebrations were
certainly times of revelry of turning
the social order upside down of having
the master pretend to be the slave and
the slave pretend to be the master sort
of a time out of time in which one could
celebrate a of disorder in the universe
one of the holidays important feasts was
juvenilia would celebrated the children
of Rome although these early festivals
are not necessarily about children
particularly but they are about
fertility children did have that
particular place the indulgence of
children the course is a very much a
part of our modern Christmas and but it
did have its place even in these ripe
old drunken festivals at the Romans hat
among the upper classes in Rome solstice
celebrations were significantly more
sober many influential Romans worshipped
Mithra the god of the Unconquered will
son to this small but powerful sect the
birthday of Mithra was the holiest day
of the year December 25th was the winter
solstice in that part of the world and
it was also understood to be the
birthday of the Sun god Mithra and
mithra was said to be born from a rock
shepherds came to worship him as he was
an infant God born out in that pastoral
place in the fields and many of those
stories of course have come into
Christian tradition while Romans were
worshipping the Sun God a new religion
was taking hold throughout the empire at
first Christians didn’t celebrate the
birth of Christ his resurrection was the
essential fact of the new religion by
the fourth century however the question
of the holy birth became impossible to
ignore there were questions within the
church about how do we even imagine
Jesus some people believe that Jesus was
purely a spiritual emanation of God and
others believe that Jesus must have
actually appeared on earth and so the
decision to celebrate Jesus’s birth
meant that Jesus was actually a human or
a human form
[Music]
for Christians the fact of his birth was
settled but the date remained a mystery
the Bible doesn’t mention exactly when
Christ was born but certain facts
suggest it probably was not in December
so you’re gonna sort through the runes
of the scriptures
Jesus was probably born in the spring if
the Shepherd’s are out in the fields
watching their flock by night we’re not
talking about one of the cold spells at
the heart of winter if pagan Rome was
already celebrating the birth of Mithra
on December 25th it seemed natural to
honor the birth of the Christ child at
the same time by the fourth century the
church made it official December 25th
was declared the feast day of the
Nativity but a possibly short step from
the feast day of the Risen son s UN to
the feast day of the residence and som
so in a sense it’s a very good choice of
the symbolism is there because you know
the feast day of them conquered son was
about fertility about birth and so
obviously it’s the Christian Christmas
the church knew it could not outlaw the
pagan traditions of Christmas so it’s
set out to adopt them the evergreens
traditionally brought inside were soon
decorated with apples symbolizing the
Garden of Eden these apples would
eventually become Christmas ornaments
and Holly a traditional midwinter
decoration was recast to represent
Christ’s crown of thorns people already
had their own agenda for this season and
that agenda was not one that was really
radically changed when the names got
changed from non-christian to Christian
names the church pretty much had a
policy of live and let live
if people would call themselves
Christians and do lip service to the
birth of the Savior then let them do
anything they wanted to do with it
but on the other hand by signing the
nativity to that time of year the church
really gave up the opportunity to
control the way that celebration took
place
the tension between piety and revelry at
Christmas would reach its logical and
extreme conclusion in Puritan England
when the holiday would be considered so
unchristian it was done away with
altogether
[Music]
by the Middle Ages Christianity had
largely replaced the old pagan religions
of Europe on December 25th the faithful
were called the Gothic cathedrals like
Notre Dame and Salisbury Cathedral in
England for Christ’s mass soon to be
called Christmas but out in the streets
the holiday was still more raucous than
religious if you went to England around
Christmastime anytime before say 1800
you probably feel pretty ill ADIZ you
wouldn’t think it was Christmas at all
what would you think it was maybe Mardi
Gras maybe New Year’s Eve maybe
Halloween because Christmas in old time
England was really a carnival the houses
of London were littered with brawling
drunken villagers and couples engaged in
the most unholy activities and each
Christmas a beggar or student was
temporarily put in charge after being
crowned the Lord of misrule the rest of
the peasantry also got there once a year
chance to grab power from the ruling
classes they would go around to the
houses of the rich they would bang on
the doors and demand entry and once they
were let in the lord of the manor had to
give them the best stuff that he had he
had to give them his best food he had to
give them his best beer his best of
everything
but if he didn’t they would threaten or
actually perform a trick one surviving
Christmas song says if you don’t give us
what we want then Dan will come Butler
Bowl and all historians think that it
performed there all of a safety valve
you might say that a wealthy man could
make up for an entire year of small or
large in justices to the poor by giving
a generous Christmas handout just once
in the year the rules of Christmas would
soon change however as a wave of
religious reform swept through England
in the early 17th century led by Oliver
Cromwell the Puritans overthrew the
Kings forces in 1645 and vowed to rid
England of all that was decadent high on
their list was English Christmas and in
1652 they outlawed it altogether shops
were ordered to stay open
churches were forced to stay closed the
Puritans were always I think deeply
attracted to those things that they were
most opposed to they had a fear that
they might have too good of a time I
don’t mean to trivialize them but there
was a deep fear that if these things
were legalized they themselves might
enjoy them and their souls would be lost
the Puritans may have said good riddance
to Christmas but the people never really
stopped celebrating it the holiday
merely went underground if Christmas pie
was illegal it began to be known as
mince pie instead which was just as
delicious
the deeper need for Christmas in the
human heart the need for celebration at
a time of darkness those needs made the
battle against Christmas he gave it a
few of temporary wins but it couldn’t
possibly secure a final victory
in 1656 the men of Canton Canterbury
passed a resolution saying that if they
could not have their Christmas Day they
would have the King back on his throne
they soon got their wish the monarchy
was restored with Charles the second and
Christmas was restored with him it
seemed the English could live without a
king but not without Christmas it has
been argued that one reason for the
restoration of the monarchy is because
by restoring the monarchy also restored
Christmas restored the proper English
Christmas with its its rituals its
traditions that its carousing Christmas
is brought back if you like by popular
acclaim the fight against Christmas may
have been lost in England but the
Puritans had high hopes for the new
colonies in America in 1620 a small
group of separatists came ashore at
Plymouth Massachusetts even more
orthodox than their English cousins
these men and women hoped to rid
themselves once and for all of the
Christmas scourge in 1659 Puritans in
Boston followed their English brethren
in outlawing Christmas anyone caught
exhibiting the Christmas spirit was
fined five shillings like in England
however Christmas remained impossible to
contain this 1719 Boston Almanac doesn’t
list a Christmas holiday but it does
recommend that in late December you not
let your children and servants run too
much abroad at night from almost the
beginning in Massachusetts there’s
evidence that some people practice
Christmas and that when they did so it
was in fact an opportunity to get drunk
and one of the most interesting little
side lights on this is the finding of
historical demographers that there was
actually a bulge in conceptions the
conception of children that took place
during Christmas
not all the colonies had such trouble
with Christmas Captain John Smith leader
of the Jamestown Settlement in Virginia
wrote that their first new world
Christmas was kept with plenty of good
oysters wild fowl and good bread
Jamestown settlers were also the first
to drink eggnog as a Christmas drink the
nog coming from the word grog which
means any drink made with rum
after independence however all things
English fell out of favour in America
Christmas included in fact on December
25th 1789 the United States Congress sat
in session and continued to stay open on
Christmas Day for most of the next 67
years at the same time there are people
who are writing in their Diaries that
isn’t it too bad we don’t have any
holidays so after the Revolution here is
an entire nation that works hard has
forsaken many holidays has given up many
holidays because they were there were
holidays were mandated by the crown and
it is time to start thinking about how
to populate the calendar as the 19th
century dawned Christmas would be one
holiday that would pull the new nation
together but it wouldn’t be the carnival
Christmas of Old England nor would it be
particularly religious
America would invent its very own
Christmas and in the process
reinvent it for the whole world
New York City 1820 within the space of a
generation New York had gone from a
backwater port town to the center of
American commerce great wealth came to a
few during these years and moderate
livings to the burgeoning middle class
but the Industrial Revolution had also
created a class of the unemployed and
unconnected whose very existence
threatened the cozy world of New York’s
middle rung this was never more clear
than at Christmastime class conflict was
emerging with the earliest stages of
industrial capitalism and so what had
previously just had an edge of Menace a
little bit of trick but much more
goodwill much more treat now changed and
the Menace became increasingly obvious
and increasingly serious so that by the
1820s the Christmas season in cities
like New York was really a time of gang
rioting are really very very nasty scene
so nasty in fact that in the Year 1828
the New York City Council for the first
time instituted a professional police
force for the city as a direct result of
a particularly savage Christmas season
riot the year before
New York’s upper class was worried so
worried that a few of them set out to
change the way the holiday was
celebrated Washington Irving was
America’s best-selling novelist and in
1819 he used his expertise to write
Bracebridge Hall an enormous ly popular
series of stories about Christmas at an
imaginary English manor house here the
classes mingled effortlessly as Squires
welcomed friendly and grateful peasants
into their home’s and in 1843 England’s
most popular writer Charles Dickens
traded news published this engraving of
the royal family standing by the first
Christmas tree
most English had ever seen in just a few
years a decorated fir could be found in
nearly every English home at Christmas
within a few years if you look at
Victorian Diaries or letters people are
saying we had a Christmas tree as is
customary or we had a Christmas tree as
we have always had happened or was hard
on at all it is a custom which had
started in the 1840s by the late 1850s
people believed that the Christmas tree
was part of the English Christmas
Americans embraced the Christmas tree
just as quickly as the English had in
fact it’s connection to the old world
was one of its strongest selling points
for a lot of Americans these are going
to be new holiday traditions not
something that parents and especially in
the case of the more austere Protestants
so they’re looking for a reason for what
they’re doing and one of the most
convenient reasons they can have is they
can say well this is the way it’s done
in Germany or this is the way it’s done
in England
all of a sudden Christmas traditions
were popping up everywhere in 1828 Joel
our point set America’s minister to
Mexico brought back a green and red
plant that seemed perfect for the new
holiday and in 1843 the English firm of
JC Horsley printed the first Christmas
card
a newly efficient postal service in
England and America helped to make
Christmas cards and overnight sensation
it seemed as though every vestige of the
old back an alien Christmas was gone but
even the Victorians couldn’t clean up
Christmas completely Victorians
were particularly keen on mistletoe
because of course you could actually
kiss a lady or it’s a man that normally
in the normal course of venture would
not be allowed to kiss so in a society
which was very strict one vestige all of
that licentiousness from earlier times
it’s the sprig of mistletoe new
Victorian Christmas gathering was
without it by mid-century Christmas was
everywhere in America in the streets in
the homes in the marketplace the one
place you could not find Christmas was
in church most Americans were Protestant
and the Protestant church had ignored
Christmas for years but Protestant
Victorians longed for official religion
on this sacred day when a number of them
do initially is say well if we can’t
find a Christmas service in our Baptist
church or our Presbyterian Church let’s
go see what the Catholics are doing or
let’s go see what the Episcopalians are
doing and increasingly that puts
pressure on these latter-day Puritans to
have Christmas services because there’s
a way in which lay people begin to
expect it
[Music]
church services mistletoe and Christmas
trees America’s new holiday now seemed
firmly in place but Victorian America
had one last contribution to the
Christmas season a jolly elf who shimmy
down the chimney would soon personify
Christmas for generations to come we
borrowed the Christmas tree from Germany
and the Christmas card from England but
one Christmas icon was developed right
here in America Santa Claus long before
Santa however there was Saint Nicholas a
Greek Orthodox bishop who became one of
the most popular Saints of the Middle
Ages on December 6th st. Nicholas Day
good children woke to gifts from the
kindly Saint bad children sucked away
with nothing
in Holland he was known as Center Klaus
and when the Dutch came to this country
they brought tales of their gift-giving
Nicholas with them this quaint custom
caught the imagination of Clement Clarke
Moore a well-heeled Episcopal minister
in New York City in 1822 Moore wrote a
poem for his children about a
good-natured Saint who came down the
chimney on Christmas Eve twas the night
before Christmas and 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
would soon be there more dreamed up
Dasher dancer and the rest of the
reindeer along with Santa’s entrance
through the chimney but at first he was
embarrassed by the poem he worried it
was too frivolous for a man of the
church Clement Moore was a minister here
a minister who should be on the other
side is promoting a secular Christmas
with reindeer and all the rest of it but
it was no mention in the poem a raving
religious and I think that’s why he
didn’t reveal who he was
in the beginning he didn’t reveal the
authorship more soon owned up to the
poem when it became clear that every
child in America was scanning the
horizon for reindeer on Christmas Eve
less clear was what exactly this Santa
Claus looked like at first santa came in
all shapes and sizes a pagan sorcerer a
frightening gnome even a drunkard on a
turkey driven sleigh then in 1863 Thomas
Nast a cartoonist for Harper’s Weekly
settled the matter once and for all with
his version of the Christmas Saint Nass
Santa was round her and jollier than his
austere Catholic cousin he looked in
fact like a man of his times a man who
would fit right in with the rotund
bewhiskered robber barons of the late
19th century but Santa was a robber
baron in Reverse instead of taking from
the less fortunate he gave to the less
fortunate he gave to people regardless
of whether they done something or not in
other words he gave to children instead
of gathering together wealth he gets rid
of wealth and he does it yearly
a captain of industry with a heart of
gold it’s no wonder that by the 1840s
Santa Claus was an irresistible image to
America’s retailers here was a guy who
could sell anything at Christmas but
make it seem like you were not buying
gifts at all Santa Claus provided a way
for both children and parents to pretend
that Christmas presents were not in the
realm of the commercial marketplace that
Christmas presents existed in the realm
of pure domestic affection so Santa
Claus played a very important role for
both parents and children
he took presents out of the realm of
Commerce if the image of Santa could
sell merchandise retailers soon figured
that a real-life Santa would boost sales
even further Santa has been showing up
in department stores since the mid 1800s
and since then nothing has loomed larger
to a child at Christmas than this annual
pilgrimage do I talk to Santa Claus
where do you go you go to the shopping
mall now this is strange for a saint to
be living pretty much full-time in a
department store that doesn’t go other
Americans because we are after all a
capitalistic society it makes perfect
sense for us to have our national saint
and in a department store that’s that’s
commercial sense for us dollars and
cents
author and humorist Jean Shepard
immortalized this rite of passage in a
Christmas story an autobiographical
account of one boy’s Christmas you know
I’d been thinking for weeks what I
wanted for Christmas
I figured the best thing to do is to
tell Santa Claus about that and I looked
up at that Santa Claus near these big
watery blue eyes and the huge beard and
all he’s looking me right in the eye and
he was so impressive that my mind went
blank
it’s like if all of a sudden this you’re
sitting on the president’s lap what
would you like me to pass in legislation
Sonny I mean your mind is going to go
blank you can’t remember any of this
stuff and so at that point Santa Claus
looked at Maine he says all right how
about a football kid I wanted a BB gun
so he pushed me off his lap and this elf
grabbed me and threw me down a slide
that went down into the snow and I
played there for a minute and I knew
that I was not a fit person to talk to
the great Santa Claus was obviously a
star
[Music]
a celebrity of this magnitude obviously
needed a sidekick
in 1939 Robert may a copywriter at the
Montgomery Ward department store dashed
off a promotional children’s book to
lure Christmas shoppers into the store
may story told of an ostracized reindeer
with a big red nose reindeer noses are
brownish and tiny Rudolph was read very
large and quite shiny this physical
which I say disability turns out to be
an asset because it’s a foggy Christmas
Eve this fog will be hard to get through
and this light notes enables poor old
stumbling Santa Claus to get through
[Music]
so you have this handicap sort of child
figure helping the benign a parent I’ll
figure make Christmas gospel Rudolph
brought Christmas full circle it was now
the children who really made Christmas
possible only they understood the
meaning of this enchanted day from
Washington Irving to Montgomery Ward a
battle for Christmas had been fought and
won by kids
[Music]
by the 1920s few vestiges of the
carnival Christmas were left in America
one exception was this Christmas parade
in New York City where a glimpse of
Santa Claus was worth the all-day wait
[Music]
but by the 1950s Christmas was strictly
a family affair with eggnog by the fire
being on the hi-fi and a load of
presents under the tree
[Music]
[Applause]
[Music]
I need not with their eyes all aglow
we’ll find it hard to sleep
[Music]
the joy of opening up gifts is one of
the things that makes Christmas what it
is you’ve loaded not surprised it’s the
mystery of all these packages and I
think that’s why we wrapped them it’s
exciting to have a package lying there
with silver paper on it you don’t know
what’s in it and you opened it up and
and there it is it’s something that’s
really great that you really want it but
to give presents you have to shop for
them and shopping has long been at the
heart of the Christmas season
critics say this yearly buying frenzy
obscures the real reason for Christmas
to celebrate the birth of the Christ
child celebrating the birth of Christ
the gift that God gave us as much as the
gifts we give our children and Christmas
Day she wants all the toys I think a lot
of it is more commercialized than when I
was younger I remember going to church
and having family dinners being more of
an important aspect of it it’s difficult
because the children don’t grow up
realizing what the real meaning is
people say that Christ has been lost in
Christmas implicit in that is the idea
that Christ had ever been totally the
center of Christmas and as Christmas has
been celebrated ever since it was
instituted as a Feast of the Nativity
there has always been other ritual other
ceremony other activity associated with
Christmas in addition to Christ
[Music]
at the All Souls Church in New York City
Christmas Eve services give the secular
side of the holiday some stiff
competition at All Souls we sing carols
we bring in choir and orchestra who do
great music from the Christmas tradition
certainly today most churches revel in
the celebrations as completely as do the
corporate malls that’s not a bad thing
it actually goes back to the sources of
this kind of holiday where we recognize
that people have deep needs at this time
of year
to connect with that which is very
important but also to celebrate
and gets 50 60 % of the population go
into one kind of Christmas religious
service or another so clearly a lot of
people haven’t lost sight of the
religious meaning but what seems to be
the concern here is that there’s a
struggle a competition over what the
real meaning is and a sense that the
religious is not competing effectively
with all these other competitors but
perhaps Christmas in America is more a
combination of the sacred and the
secular and less a competition between
the two I think that if people had
Christmas with just Christ in it it
would not be a holiday that would come
out into the streets the way that it
does because the trees the carols the
shopping all of that becomes the
cultural material that holds the
religion in place
[Music]
this cultural material is everywhere
[Music]
certain songs and movies have become as
much a part of Christmas as the tree
[Applause]
I don’t want to get married anybody you
understand I want to do what I want to
do I mean you
movies such as it’s a wonderful life our
hunger for the Mart our delight in them
reflects a deep potential goodness in
the human soul that these are good
movies they have people do good things
and they get rewarded for them to my big
brother George the richest man in town
someone might say that this was a
trivialization of Christmas I think it
probably is coming a little closer than
many of the things we do to tapping the
true Christmas spirit and then in the
broadest sense of that word that’s a
Christmas present for a very dear friend
that’s right that’s right
[Music]
nowadays kids watch new films and new TV
shows and they will grow up thinking
that that was the way Christmas always
used to be you leave me no give you toys
I’m giving you a please we always
reinvent and every time we reinvent we
think that what we’re reinventing is
something that has no beginning
you can reinvent Christmas or celebrate
it the way your great-grandparents did
the only thing you cannot do is ignore
Christmas to not catch a glimpse of a
Christmas tree or hear a note of jingle
bells would be nearly impossible and
since 98 percent of Americans celebrate
Christmas in some form it looks like
that won’t change for quite some time
you see gives you a kind of sense of
belonging you are who you are because of
the way you celebrate Christmas in part
I mean if you’re if you’re celebrating
an Armenian Christmas or an Italian
Christmas whatever it is whatever your
group is if you celebrate Christmas the
same way every year there’s a sense of
continuity here and the new children are
brought in and in fact are socialized by
saying well no this is how we celebrate
Christmas our own family something
touches American somewhere down deep in
his bellybutton about Christmas he can’t
really explain what it is about
Christmas that he enjoys so much he just
knows that when all those red and green
lights go up you know on the street and
you see Santa Clauses walking around
with their bells if something happens to
you you enjoy it
now you can be cynical all you want but
you still enjoy it
[Music]
Christmas Tradition History

Christmas Tradition History