The cultures of Christmas have changed a bit since I was a kid in 1919. We did not have pre-Christmas sales beginning in October. No Christmas lay-away plans at the village store. Never saw signs like, BUY NOW---PAY LATER and plastic credit cards were nonexistent. That was an era when Christmas was not commercialized. People seemed happier: smiles were broader , eyes sparkled when they said, "Merry Christmas!" Hand shakes were more snappy and conversation livelier. Everyone was waiting for Santa Claus to arrive in another few days.
Christmas moved at a slower pace than it does now. There were no busy airports or train stations crowded with people going to visit far away relatives. No busses or taxis to take you to and fro, no snow plows to open up the roads. The horse and cutter were your transportation. It was slower, but more refreshing and animated.
The village store keeper shoveled off his porch and a small path leading to the hitching post, that was it. The deep snow lay where it fell. The store was never crowded. John Keating and his wife ran the store and people were not in a hurry. They took the time to spend a few words with their smile. They sold every thing from coal scuttles, lamps, general clothing, candy and odds and ends of household things. Anything special was ordered from the Sears and Roebuck catalog. He also ran the Post Office. After Christmas, if you were nosy, you could check out what your neighbors got for Christmas by looking up the article in the catalog and find out how much they paid for it. (They had nosy people then too.)
Christmas shopping is easier today with our modern malls that carry such a variety of things that itís mind boggling, with prices to match.
If you love someone just a little, you had better make it at least a twenty-five dollar present. If you really love someone, better make it fifty to a hundred bucks. If you are madly in love, be on the safe side and go a couple of hundred. If you're so blindly in love you can't eat or sleep, well, youíre in deep financial trouble. Better use the credit card.
I thought I saw Santa Claus once or twice, but I am not sure. Long before he came and for some time after he left, you could feel the presence of his spirit, the spirit of Christmas.
The holiday season began very subtly with Thanksgiving and gradually the house began to take on the aroma of Christmas. With pies baking in the oven, especially those apple and mince pies with fragrant spices. My father would say, "The house is beginning to smell as though Santa Claus is coming to dinner."
It was nice going to church during the holidays. Mother drove our Morgan horse hitched to a fancy cutter. The harness and sleigh had their bells and the horse jogged a merry jingle bell tune all the way to church. If you have never ridden in a sleigh and listened to the jingle of sleigh bells, you have missed a wonderful episode of living, especially on a moonlight night.
The history of sleigh bells goes back to 500 BC where the Bible tells, in Zachariah 14:20, of horses harness with bells inscribed, "Holiness unto the Lord." For my mother, the sleigh bells had a special meaning. Their jingling was making a joyful sound unto the Lord, to let Him know we were on our way to church for the Christmas services.
Our church was a typical country church set in a clearing of mighty oak trees, the kind you see on old fashion embossed Christmas cards; the kind you did not put in an envelop to mail, just a penny stamp and an address.
The church was painted white because white was a sign of purity. It was a sinless building. For some unknown architectural reason, churches had to have a steeple to hang a bell. Neither of these two requirements had anything to do with religion or getting you to heaven.
The use of church bells began in 400 AD when Paulinus, the Bishop of Nola in Campania, Italy, put the first bell on the roof of his church. >From this comes the word campanology, the art of bell ringing. This later developed into a set of tuned bells called a carillon. The first carillon in America was a set of eight bells installed in the belfry of the Old North Church (now Christ Church), Boston, Mass., in 1745. Our church in the woods had only one monotone bell. On rainy, nights, it sounded very lonesome.
Old one-bell country churches are hard to find today. There are a few of them around but you have to look for them. Now we have million dollar glass cathedrals and marble sanctuaries. I wonder if God has moved up to a higher class neighborhood. It's a far cry from the olive trees under which Christ taught.
Once inside my little country Church, you would find our preacher was a plain man, with a pleasant voice that boomed out from the pulpit as loud as the ringing bell in the steeple of his church. He delivered his sermons without the gyrations of the present day TV-preachers who wiggle like rock singers. He did not pace back and forth like some animal in a cage at the zoo. He did not rant and rave while swinging his Bible around in the air like some flag twirler in a Fourth of July parade. He didn't shout his message like a fish peddler hawking his wares. My mother said he conducted himself much like Christ as he taught along the shores of Galilee. I reminded her she never saw Christ teach anywhere, for which I got a loving swat on the butt.
The preacher's suit came from the mail order catalog. He wore no fancy hats, no flowing robes, carried no scepter, swung no smoking incense containers and, I noticed, sometimes, his shoes weren't shined. As I look in churches today, I wonder, what happened to these simple men of God? Where would you find these humble servants? The only time you see them is on TV in some old western movie. How did religion get so complicated? The Bible hasn't changed since 1919 and I don't believe God has either.
During the Christmas services our church was cold. We sat wearing our coats. Sometimes we wore our mittens just as the Pilgrims did many years ago. The preacher kept one hand in his pocket to keep his fingers warm to turn the pages of his big Bible. The church had no central heating system, just two big pot bellied stoves that glowed red, but kept only themselves warm. In summer the ladies brought their hand fans, and kept them in motion like the wings of birds flying south for the winter.
Folks didn't come to church on Sunday to be seen or because it was the custom, or the proper thing to do on Sunday. They came to pay their respects to their God. The Sabbath was the Lord's day. However, I noticed on Easter and Christmas, attendance doubled. These two days got to the heathen and the hypocrites. It took the birth and the death of Jesus Christ to remind them, they were supposed to be Christians.
In early America during the time of the Pilgrims and the Puritans, the recognition of Christmas was forbidden. That great dream of religious freedom for everyone did not exist amongst these early, so called Christians. Wherever the Puritan settled, you had to obey their doctrines or you were run out of the community. When you were run out of the settlement you were forced into the woods where the Indians were waiting for you. That was not a very Christian act.
Christmas was outlawed in New England until the middle of the 19th century. Christmas did not gain acceptance in America until the immigrants from Ireland and Germany grew in population strength. Gradually, the rest of the people, except some of the churches, saw it as a day of happiness and accepted it as such.
In 1856, in Boston, Christmas was a regular work day. Those not reporting to work were subject to being fired. Many were. Schools were open. Children not coming to school were severely reprimanded and ridiculed by the other religious children.
Another Christmas memory is when my father and I went into the woods to get our Christmas tree. This was not always an easy thing to do, especially if the snow was very deep. Walking through deep snow, if you get your feet wet, can give you a miserable time. You are glad to get home next to the fireplace. Last year I bought one of those plastic trees that are odorless. The fresh smell of the pine tree is missing. The smell of the real Christmas tree now comes in spray cans for ninety -nine cents plus tax. The real joy of going out into the woods for your own tree is gone. It is a part of Christmas that died a long time ago.
Where did this Christmas tree idea get started? Historians tell us the history of the Christmas tree began with the Romans, the Egyptians and the medieval Germans. They used trees in their religious rituals. Some groups worshipped trees as a symbol of their gods.
When my father had the tree set up, the next fun thing was trimming the tree. We popped our own corn and strung it on a thread. Then dipped it into a bowl of sugar syrup that had been colored with cake coloring, red and green. It made the pop corn look pretty and the sugar coating made it nice to eat afterward. After all the decorations were hung on the tree, the last thing to go on were the candles. The candles were lit only on Christmas eve and Christmas night. They were a very dangerous Christmas decoration. Fire was always a hazard. Christmas candles have burned down many homes on Christmas night.
I remember one sad Christmas night when fire destroyed a farmer's barn. The fire cast a sickening yellowish glow over the Christmas sky. Everyone for a few miles around, stopped their Christmas festivities and went to his aid.
There wasn't much one could do to put out the fire except in helping to get the stock out. Different families took what stock they could accommodate back to their barns for the rest of the winter. My father did too. We kept and fed them along with our own. This wasn't done for money. It was the normal thing to do in those days. We did it for him because he would have done it for us. It was the unwritten law of humanity.
Come spring , when the snows of winter left, all neighbors pitched in to rebuild our friend a new barn. Much material was donated. Labor was free. We rebuilt his barn for the sake of one human helping another. This is how it was done 70 to 80 years ago.
Who started the idea of putting candles on the Christmas tree? It was Martin Luther (1483-1546). He did it for his children. The idea caught on and spread throughout Europe. In time it spread to America, and finally, to my house. The candles lasted 10 to 15 minutes and had to be replaced as they burned out. Fortunately, for safety's sake, we no longer use candles. Christmas lights are pretty, but there is something about the flickering candle light, making all the glittering ornaments dance, that no colored bulb can do. I have always felt when the candles left the Christmas tree, part of Christmas left with it. It was an era that was, and is no more.
My mother had a small nativity scene beneath our tree. My father, called it "God's happy little barnyard," which upset the minister of the church quite a bit. The minister told us the nativity scene originated in Greece, Italy, in 1223, by St. Francis of Assisi. He assembled the scene using real people and animals. It became part of Christmas.
Christmas caroling, kissing under the mistletoe, and exchanging of gaily wrapped presents began with the English. It was a lovely addition to the spirit of giving but it was also the beginning of the commercialization of Christmas.
Like everything else, Christmas had its lean times along with its fat times. I remember some very lean Christmases when the presents were scant. But the love that came with them was just as big, sincere and warm. Love is something you cannot buy in a store, put in a box, wrap with pretty paper and tie with a bow. It has to come from the heart. It's the only source of supply.
The presents were very different from what they are today. Most were hand made by the giver. A pair of knitted mittens; A woolen scarf, or a couple pair of knitted socks. The store merchandises such as a heavy coat or snow shoes, perhaps a sleigh, had labels on them, Made in America. In those days, no item carried a label saying, "Made in Taiwan," "Made in Korea," "Made in Japan." When you do your Christmas shopping this year, read the labels. Things have changed since 1919.
Christmas cards went through a drastic change in the past seventy years. An embossed card use to cost a penny. A fancy card with glittering speckles cost a nickel and came with an envelop. It cost a penny to send the card and twice as much to send one in an envelope.
I had a special aunt to whom I was going to send a fancy nickel card. However, the cards were next to the candy counter and they too were only a penny. That year, my aunt got a penny card and I got four cents worth of Christmas candy. She never knew my Christmas spirit weakened at the candy counter, and I hope Santa Claus never told her.
Christmas cards started in Early America in 1847 when Louis Prang of Roxbury, Massachusetts, engraved Christmas cards and exported them to England. The following year the people of Roxbury asked him to make Christmas cards for the people of Roxbury. He did, and, that was the beginning of a billion dollar a year enterprise.
Sixty years later, in 1907, Emily Perkins Bissel decided to raise money to help fight tuberculosis. She designed a small seal the size of the postage stamp, and had them printed. They went on sale that year in the Wilmington, Delaware Post Office. The first year sales were over $3,000. After you addressed, sealed and stamped your Christmas card, it became the custom to put a couple of Bissel's Christmas seals on the back side of the envelope, to help raise money to fight that dreaded disease.
Three years before Bissel's Christmas seals, a Danish Postal clerk, Einer Holboell made Christmas seals to raise funds to build a new Childrenís Hospital. His idea was a success. This method of fund raising for charitable causes soon caught on, especially around Christmas time when most people are full of the spirit of giving. No doubt, this is where Bissel got the idea.
Where did lovable Old Santa Claus originate? Once upon a time, legend says, there lived in Myra, in Asia Minor, a good bishop known far and wide as Saint Nicholas. Very little is known of his life. Stories about him emphasize his kindness to the poor, especially the children. Others say he came from the same place gods came from. During the Middle Ages, St. Nicholas had the habit of suddenly appearing out of the sky, and saving sailors from being shipwrecked during violent storms. He is also credited with helping poor young maidens to gain a dowry so they could get married.
In the 17th century, the Dutch of New Amsterdam, corrupted his name from St. Nicholas to Saint Claus. Through the years the name changed to Santa Claus. From then on his reputation grew quickly to its present status and the glory that is Christmas.
At the start of the 19th century, Santa was portrayed as a tall, thin and very stern patriarch dressed in the sober robes of a Bishop. Although, as legend has it, St. Nicholas was a good and kind man, his stern face did not help to spread much joy. His appearance was just too stern.
In 1822 something happened. Clement C. Moore wrote his famous poem, T'was the Night Before Christmas . This poem changed the appearance of Santa Claus to a jolly, chubby, sky-riding, reindeer driving, happy looking Santa Claus. Two years later, in 1824, the famous cartoonist Thomas Nash, portrayed Santa to match the spirit of Moore's poem. It was Nash who dressed Santa in a red and white suit. This is the Santa we know today, but because of the original good old St. Nicholas, the Bishop of Myra, we can still refer to Santa Claus as Good Old St. Nick!
Did you ever wonder why we hang our stockings by the fireplace on Christmas Eve, and expect to find them full of goodies on Christmas morning? Well, once upon a time there lived three sisters who wanted to get married. Their father was very poor and they had no dowry. It was a custom in those days, no dowry, no marriage. That night, before the girls went to bed, they washed their stockings and hung them by the fireplace to dry. Christmas Eve, when everyone was asleep, St. Nicholas tossed three little bags of gold through their window. A bag landed in each of the sister's stockings. They got their dowry and finally, were married. And thus began the custom of hanging stockings by the fireplace on Christmas Eve.
Christmas is a many splendor thing. It has something for everybody. There are those who go to church on Christmas and those who don't. Those that do not are not heathens or sinful. The churches have their beliefs and don't agree with each other. They are entitled to their beliefs and others are entitled to theirs. Judge not that ye be not judged (Matt. 7:1).
Christmas is for everybody. Sinners or saints, believers and non-believers, white or black, regardless of the country of your birth. Santa Claus loves all of us as long as we are good boys and girls, regardless of age.
This Christmas thousands of people will go to many different churches or other places to celebrate the birth of Christ. The ritual itself is a beautiful story. Many believe every word of it as absolute truth. Being human, man believes what he wants to believe and we all believe differently. If that is what makes one happy at Christmas, so be it. "Peace on earth, good will towards men" is only a nice saying like, "Have a nice day". Our earth has not known peace for thousands of years. Good will toward men is overshadowed by the greed to capture the almighty dollar. There is not much good will toward men in Northern Ireland, or Africa, or in the Far East. But, on Christmas night the moon will shine over these places just as it will shine over my house and yours---and nothing will change, and it will still be, Christmas Night.
How do I look at that wonderful happy day called Christmas? I believe one of the greatest teachers was Jesus. I like what he said in Matt. 22:21, "Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar's and unto God the things that are God's." Thus, for Christmas, I render unto others the choice of their beliefs and unto myself the choice of my mine. If that was good enough for Christ, it's good enough for me.
Where does this leave you and me? It leaves you and me as individuals
to do the best we can. We grab every bit of happiness that comes our way
and grab it with both hands, and hang on to it tightly as long as we can.
But don't just grab for yourself. Make sure you also give. Love is a funny
commodity, it only works when it is shared. Until you learn to share it,
you will never understand what Christmas is all about.
Christmas Carols / Christmas Stories
Advent Calendar2002 / 'Twas the night before Christmas