It seems that Christmas time gets closer and closer to Halloween. Maybe the colors for the fall should mix and mingle to make one big holiday. Thanksgiving is almost overshadowed by the trees and decorations in the stores so that it makes it hard to decide whether to line the walls with paper decorations of turkeys and cornucopias or Santa and his reindeer leaning over the feast.
But the flicker and glow of candles on the table evokes another tradition, that of the yearly celebration on December 13, the Feast of St. Lucia. History has a young Swedish girl, in the 3rd century, bringing food and aid to Christians who were hiding from terror, wearing a wreath with candles on her head to light her way. In modern celebrations, the youngest girl in the family dresses in white with a red sash wearing a wreath to symbolize Lucy’s journey into the catacombs. Today, candles add a tenderness and warmth to our homes and with a bit of green, red and gold, and perhaps a pine bough or two, today’s homes can be transformed into the homes of yesteryear when only the simplest of decorations were used during the winter holidays.
In days gone by, a homestead, like the Bryan-Andrew house, had a fireplace over nine feet wide and, as in those long ago days, it warms the home with its expansiveness. Known as the keeping room, it keeps the house warm, holds the heat in the many iron kettles hanging there and beckons visitors to enter into another world, out of the cold. Decorating our modern kitchen can be exciting with the many herbs that can hang from the ceiling on a simple dowel. As in the days when storage was a challenge, herbs from the summer garden could be suspended in such a way as to dry them and keep them from those little hitchhikers that come inside in the winter.
Although our society rushes out to the malls right after Thanksgiving for those “bargains”, it was not the tradition in the 18th and 19th centuries to do such a thing. First of all, there were no malls and 2nd, the love of giving from the hearth and home WAS the tradition. Gifts of food are true expressions of country spirit using the harvest of one’s efforts during the year. The appreciation of something made from the kitchen not only pleases the recipient but the giver as well. Almost any delicacy can be found on store shelves, but the most memorable are those made at home by the littlest, loving hands.
It seems hard to believe that Christmas, as we know it today, was not celebrated when our ancestors first set foot upon our New England shores. Christmas was banned by our stern Puritan ancestors who reacted to the “relics of the Pope” and sought to purify their religious lives. There was, in the old country a centuries-old conflict between Catholics and Protestant faiths with over 80% of the earliest settlers seeking the Protestant life having arrived from England and Germany. It was in the south that more revelry was condoned with an obvious antidote to the harsh winters which were dull, grey and cold. As the settlers moved west, both European born and the “new” Americans found themselves making merry with a somewhat festive meal and homemade gifts. Yes, they actually made a gift.
The most powerful influence was the British Christes Maesse or Crist’s Mass; a church ordained reenactment of the nativity. As early as the fourth century A.D. Christians had adopted the 25th of December as Christ’s birthdate giving rise to the Epiphany, the Twelve Days of Christmas for the arrival of the Wise Men. Pagan celebrations crept into the religious celebrations with the week long Roman Saturnalia where gifts were given to children and the poor. Since the Middle Ages, the Yule Log and evergreens symbolized survival and eternal life and although we have become more materialistic, one can find these aspects in our homes not knowing their origin.
December 6th, St. Nicholas Day, had become the day for gift giving, leaving the 25th for sacred reflections. Nicholas grew up in Turkey to wealthy parents, he being a very precocious child. He wished to devote his life in a monastery but was required to rid himself of the wealth his father had bequeathed to him. It is this thought that has given us his identity as a gift giver. As the story goes, a family in his town of Myra, with three daughters of marriageable age, had no dowry. Their lives would be sold and hearing of this Nicholas placed three bags of gold coins into the window of the widower’s home and left under cover of night. One version says he threw the bags down their chimney, landing in the stockings hanging there to dry. In any case…the girls now had a dowry. His generosity made him the patron saint of merchants or what we now know as a pawnshop; thus, the three gold balls hanging in front of the shop.
Nicholas was now able to enter the monastery and became the Bishop of Myra. On a trip through rough seas to the Holy Land, Bishop Nicholas prayed for the safety of the ship and crew and upon the prayer, the storm subsided and all were safe. So important had Nicholas become to sailors that Greek and Russian seamen always sailed with an icon of St. Nicholas, known as the patron saint of sailors. December 6th is the day of St. Nicholas’ death marking the beginning of the Christmas season. Though popular throughout Europe, nowhere is the saint more celebrated than in Holland which leads us to the origin of “Santa Claus”, Sinter Klaas. His clothes were typical of a Dutchman with breeches, a long pipe, a broad brimmed hat and a beard.
St. Nicholas may have had a reputation of only good deeds but his legend has a dark side. He is also depicted as a rather ominous wandering visitor, giving gifts AND switches for naughty children. According to the Dutch, Sinter Klaas spends the majority of the year in Spain with his black servant Black Peter (a Moor) who keeps records of the behavior of boys and girls.
As stated before, religion was a strong influence in the new world leaving the cult of saints and anything associated with it behind. However, the legend of St. Nicholas, the patron saint of children, was so popular that he remained in the hearts of mankind. However, there was one hitch in this, his name was changed. In England he was Father Christmas, in France, Pere Noel, Holland, Sinter Klaas, and Sweden Jultomten. Many people give credit to the Germans for Kris Kringle but the true name for their Nicholas is Weihnachts-mann. In this country, it can be said that the true Christmas of today did not emerge until after the American Revolution with slow acceptance.
Clement Moore’s influential poem “A Visit from St. Nicholas” was written in 1822, but it did not become popular until several years later. He had written the poem for his children. Moore was not the first to assign reindeer to St. Nicolas but was the first to assign eight to the sleigh and the names of each; Dasher, Dancer, Prancer, Vixen, Comet, Cupid, Donder and Blitzen. So, where is Rudolph? Well, he came later in a story written by Robert L. May in 1939 and put to song, an ever-popular holiday song.
Merry Christmas Everyone!