Bah! Humbug! When the early Christians decided to celebrate the birth of Christ sometime in the fourth century, why did they choose December 25? Some say it was simply nine months after the Annunciation, March 25. Others suggest they wanted to co-opt pagan midwinter ceremonies, such as those of Sol Invictus, the Unconquered Sun. Of course, they were living in the Mediterranean, where the weather is relatively mild in December. They had no idea that the celebration of Christmas would become the commercial frenzy it is today. And they certainly didn’t expect that people in northern climes would insist on traveling long distances in abominable weather in order to be together at Christmas.
After dealing with trains delayed by broken rails, switch failures, and engine breakdowns, driving past slide-offs on Interstate 74, and finally being diverted off the same highway due to a fatal accident, I concluded that we’re insane to be traveling at this time of year. I’m insane, as I had been planning to drive back to Indiana in below-zero weather to be home with my family. Kathleen talked me out of it. With another winter storm rolling across the Midwest tomorrow, it doesn’t make a lot of sense, especially since I‘ve got to be back to Galesburg to work on Wednesday. (I’ll be working the evening shift Christmas Eve and Christmas Day.)
I’ve often muttered, “The Puritans were right.” Oliver Cromwell banned the celebration of Christmas when he became Lord Protector, though Charles II brought it back when the crown was restored. The Puritans of Massachusetts banned the public celebration of Christmas. Puritans saw the trappings of Christmas--the Yule Log and wassailing--as pagan. And of course they were. There’s some indication that wealthy Puritans were more bothered by wassailers demanding food and drink.
What became Christmas--the tree, the presents, Santa Claus, et cetera--was a Victorian invention. In fact, by marrying Albert of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha, Queen Victoria had a lot to do with it. Albert brought the Christmas Tree, a German tradition, to England, where it migrated to America, and to the rest of the world. Charles Dickens, “the man who invented Christmas,” gave us The Christmas Carol, which is still a major influence on our perception of Christmas. (I admit to enjoying the book, and even more, the movie with Alistair Sim as Scrooge.)
Over here in the States, Clement Clarke Moore, or someone (there‘s a controversy about the authorship), wrote “A Visit from St. Nicholas,” usually known by its first line, “Twas the night before Christmas.” The poem confounded the Dutch traditions of St. Nicholas’ Day with Christmas. There are many legends about Nicholas of Myra, a fourth-century Greek bishop who lived in what is now Turkey, but the most famous is of the three bags of gold. A poor man had three daughters, but not money enough to provide dowries for them. Without dowries, the young women would almost certainly have had to become prostitutes just to support themselves. The man was too proud to accept charity, so Nicholas, under the cover of darkness, tossed three bags of gold, one for each daughter, through the man’s window. Thus began the tradition of gift-giving on St. Nicholas’ Day, December 6. In Holland and Germany, children set their shoes outside their door or by the chimney on the night of December 5, and “Saint Nicholas,” (Sinterklaas in Dutch) fills them with candy or small toys. (Kathleen brought this tradition to our household. This year was the first where there were no children at home to put shoes outside their door.) Moore (or whoever wrote the poem) took these Dutch St. Nicholas Day traditions and transferred them to Christmas. Sinterklass became Santa Claus, lost his bishop’s miter, and began saying little but “Ho, Ho, Ho.”
And while I’m down on Christmas right now, especially the way we celebrate it here in the United States, I expect to be enchanted by a beautiful Episcopal mass Wednesday night or Thursday morning. Once the buying spree is over, and we get to the babe in the manger (or in the house, if you use Matthew’s gospel), then Christmas is an entirely different holiday. In fact, the celebration of Christmas goes on, culminating on January 6, with the arrival of the magicians from the East. My Bah! Humbug!, will, I hope, turn to “Happy Christmas to all, and to all a good night!”