Monday, December 23, 2013


     The struggle for Christmas is as old as the holiday itself. It is  the struggle between those who view it as a sacred day, meant for worship, thanksgiving to God, and family bonding and those who see it as a time to party, profit, and play.
     In the time of the English Civil War, George Withers wrote the following:
"So, now is come our joyful'st feast;
Let every man be jolly;
Each room with ivy leaves is drest
And every post with holly.
Though some churls at our mirth repine,
Round your foreheads garlands twine;
Drown sorrow in a cup of wine,
And let us all be merry.”

    The uncivil low class boors (churls) of that day were dismissed by the poet for their complaining and disapproval of the drunken celebration. They were no doubt the simple religious folk who had to put up with the besotted on a holy day. Doesn't this ring a bell? Isn't this the same dichotomy we find today in human behavior? It was considered anti-social to refrain from the party to fast and pray:

(From "Poor Robin's Almanack," 1711
"Christmas day approaches near,
Trim up the house with holly,
And set abroach the strongest beer,
For neighbours to be jolly.
Let fanatics old customs blame,
Yet Christmas is a High day,
Though they will fast upon the same,
And feast upon Good Friday."

     In the book Little House in the Big Woods, Laura Ingalls Wilder tells of the Christmas she received Charlotte, her rag doll.  Laura Ingalls Wilder was born in 1867, so her story relates to Christmas in 1870's Wisconsin.  By that time Christmas customs were changed considerably from those of a generation earlier. When we think of Christmas past we think of families together, decorated Christmas trees and the wonder of children opening gifts wrapped with bright paper, ribbons, and bows.  That is not the way it has always been.  Christmas tradition has changed many times over the centuries and what we have now are customs added layer by layer over the centuries; an amalgam build by new waves of immigrants coming to our country. The Christmas tree and Candy cane came from the Germans.  Eggnog, Christmas pudding and Mistletoe came from the English.  Saint Nicholas was the contribution of the Dutch.  In the Netherlands and parts of Germany and Austria “Sinterklass” and his helper filled shoes (we have made it stockings) with treats.  In German speaking areas of Europe “Saint Nikolaus” comes with an evil figure called "Krampus".  Saint Nicholas gives gifts to well behaved children and Krampus either beats bad children, or, if they are particularly bad he captures them in his sack and carries them away to his lair.  Obviously, this is not a joyful prospect for children so I think we can do without that custom.  The first commercial Christmas cards were manufactured by Sir Henry Cole in London in 1843.

      Most of us have read at times the stories of Christmas' pagan roots in the Roman winter solstice celebrations and sun worship.  The church fathers wisely kept native celebration days and changed their purposes as the faith spread throughout the world.  In 1645, with the ascendancy of the Puritans to power, the celebration of Christmas was outlawed.  The celebration, the Puritans believed, was a hedonist atrocity characterized by drinking, bear baiting, and debauchery.  They believed there was no biblical justification                             

for celebrating on the 25th of December, or for that matter for celebrating the birth of Christ at all.  To the Puritan the true Christian should be modest and prayerful every day, not given to feasting and revelry.  This was not what December 25th produced in their experience.  Pilgrim suppression of the customary activities of Christmas made them hated fanatics in the eyes of many English citizens, but the entertainments of the day were, as we would say "Over the top."  From 1659 to 1681 the Puritans of New England outlawed Christmas celebrations for the same reason their English brethren had.

     We need look no further than the popular sport of bear baiting to see what I mean by “over the top.”  Spectators sat around a ring in which a bear was chained.  The beast was set upon by vicious dogs. Desperately defending itself the bear ripped with its terrible claws and crushed with its  powerful jaws.                                                                         Krampus and  Saint Nikolaus 
Multiple canines attacked from all sides.  The bear killed or maimed them one after another; bloody mayhem for a crowd of inebriated, cheering onlookers.  Today this bloody sport is still practiced in Pakistan. 

      Were our ancestors any better?  To be sure, such spectacles were outlawed in early New England, but not in the south.  In the Virginia colonies they tried to keep up the traditions of the old world, so blood sports, alcohol, and parties ruled the holiday.  We need not entertain a sense of superiority however.  On Christmas day of 1850 the entertainment at Lancaster was -- bear baiting!  In the 1881 History of Grant County is found the following:  "Among the early sports of the new country, which at times afforded much amusement, was bear and dog fights...A performance of this kind was advertised for Christmas day in this year, and resulted as usual (the bear killing or maiming the dogs), after which followed the inevitable resort to the hotel for liquid refreshment, but, in the language of one of the earlier settlers, "the whiskey was better then than now", and only the best of humor was the result of these bacchanalian revivals."  Another common attraction was wolf and dog fights.  Both "amusements" were accompanied by wagering on the result.  

    Christmas was not about children and their gifts before the middle of the19th century.  A stoic practicality forbade such silliness among the religious protestants, and for the rest entertainment for the adults was more the order of the day.  Christmas Balls were one popular means to keep the holiday, and children were usually not welcome.  Both the Denniston House in Cassville, and Barnetts in Boscobel hosted balls attended by folks from all over the county. Think of Fezziwig's Ball from Dicken's A Christmas Carol: dancing, singing, food and drinking.

     And so we have created our own American ways of celebrating Christmas; some sacred, some joyful, some over the top, but we are on the whole no better or worse than those of olden days.  Those who seek the true meaning of Christmas will approach it with reverence and joy.  Those who don’t particularly give a damn will use it as an excuse for excess.  A little mischief does not make a scoundrel.  A little church going does not make a saint.  We live in the middle of many merging cultures, and we can expect that as we have adopted foreign cuisines, we may in the future incorporate the customs of others into Christmas.  It should be interesting.nks, games, and kisses under the mistletoe. 


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