Saturday, December 12, 2009

Dec. 25 Thoughts From Past


Christmas Day comes in all sizes. By sizes I mean our Christmas Days have come with good or bad, happy or sad, memories of all sizes.

Beyond the pleasant, peaceful, and meaningful day of giving and receiving gifts is remembering that God gave His Son on that first Christmas Day. (I don't know the how of it, but by faith I know 'tis so.) To some people Christmas is a lovely custom, to others a grand holiday, but to one writer-scholar, "The Christmas story is precisely the story of one grand miracle, ... If you take that away there is nothing specifically Christian left." (from "God in the Dock" by C.S. Lewis.)

There is an advantage for some Christians who are of the Orthodox (or Eastern Church) as they can celebrate two Christmases a year if they so choose. They can celebrate December 25 according to the Gregorian calendar or January 7 according to the Julian calendar.

History tells us that on Christmas Day of the year 800, Charlemagne was crowned as the Holy Roman Emperor and a mere 266 years later, in the year 1066, William the Conqueror was crowned as king of England.

St. Francis of Assisi is said to have assembled the first Nativity scene. (Wonder if he had to get a permit?) In Austria, in 1818 the first singing of "Silent Night" performed.

1868, the United States President Andrew Johnson granted unconditional pardon to all Civil War Confederate soldiers. The state of Alabama was the first state to recognize Christmas as an official holiday, beginning in 1836. In part one of this series, it was noted that Christmas was declared a federal holiday on June 26, 1870.

Texas colonizer, Stephen F. Austin, freed on bail from a Mexico jail on Christmas Day, 1834

The Christmas of 1941
was not a pleasant one for the people of Hong Kong. That was the day the Japanese forces took the colony in World War II. The Emperor of Japan ruled Hong Kong for most of the next five years. The late Oz Quick, a Southern Baptist missionary from Guilin, China, was in Hong Kong recovering from an illness that day. He spent Christmas in a Japanese jail. We worked together years later in Taiwan.

Speaking of Taiwan, in 1947, the Constitution of the Republic of China on Taiwan went into effect and became a holiday they called Constitution Day. Being mostly a Buddhist country, they assured the people this was not a religious Christian holiday. It was a religious holiday for the Christians and Constitution Day for the Buddhists, Daoists and non religious.

A history-making meeting on Christmas Day, 1977, was that between – Prime Minister of Israel Menachem Begin and the President of Egypt, Anwar Sadat. The date was also Sadat's birthday.

Others born on Christmas Day include: Sir Isaac Newton; Clara Barton (founder of the American Red Cross); hotel magnate Conrad Hilton (San Angelo's Cactus Hotel was the second one he built?). Musicians Cab Calloway and Tony Martin. (Dean Martin died on Christmas Day). Actors Humphrey Bogart, Sissy Spacek; scriptwriter Rod Serling (The Twilight Zone and "Requiem for a Heavyweight.") American footballers Ken Stabler (the Snake, Oakland Raiders and Houston Oilers) and Larry Csonka, Miami Dolphins running back in Super Bowls VI, VII, VIII).

Nineteen short years ago, the first successful trial run of the system which has become known as the World Wide Web, was on Christmas Day, 1990. The Internet Era began. If our Christmases cannot be historic, they can be happy.


Friday, December 4, 2009

A Little Christmas History

CHRISTMAS THROUGH THE YEARS (First of Three on Christmas 2009)

Wandering through the Internet as Christmas approaches there is a wealth of facts, legends, customs and mythis evolving from the birth of the Christ Child.

As far back as is known, Christmastime was celebrated at different times during the year, like a moveable feast. During the 4th century, Pope Julius I, chose the time of the Winter Solstice, a pagan celebration about the Return of the Sun, for a set-date to celebrate the birth of Jesus. The Pope had good intentions in setting the date on an already popular holiday. By legally replacing the pagan festival with a Christian one, he hoped to enhance the meaning of Christmas. (Such has been the intentions of Christians down to our day --- "Jesus is the reason for the season" --- "Put Christ back in Christmas." –-- He is the center of these special days, if we individually decide to make it so.)

Of the gifts brought to Jesus in Bethlehem, frankincense is of particular interest. It is a sweet smelling gum resin taken from certain trees which, in those days, grew in Arabia and India. Frankincense was a valuable commodity in the Roman Empire, even considered as valuable as precious gems. Frankincense was used in Roman funerals. Some scholars have speculated that the gift of frankincense foretold the death of Jesus.

Over the years, any traditions have evolved around the Christmas season. The Old Norse phrase "ves heill"--to be of good health – we call "Wassail." This custom gradually became a tradition of visiting neighbors on Christmas Eve and drinking to their health. Wassailing was the forerunner to the English custom of Christmas caroling, wishing neighbors to a long and healthy life.

I have not been wassailing for a long time. I remember, the Christmas I got a 78 rpm portable record player, taking out my trumpet and joining John Robnett (grandson of Howard Payne University founder) and Tommy Savage, we three went caroling the neighborhood. I don't recall our being ask to play after the first home we visited. We learned singing alone was better than sounds from cold lips on coronets.

A traditional Christmas dinner in early England was the head of a pig prepared with mustard. I am thankful the Pilgrims didn't bring that custom with them in 1620. Actually, the Pilgrims (who were English separatists) did not observe Christmas, or Easter. This resulted in Christmas not being a holiday in early America. It was even outlawed in Boston from 1659 to 1681.

During and after the American Revolution, Christmas like other English customs, were seldom observed. General George Washington and his army crossed the Delaware River on his way to Trenton on Dec. 25, 1776. The 1777 Christmas at Valley Forge saw the troops freezing and "enjoying (?)" a Christmas dinner of fowl cooked in a broth of turnips, cabbage and potatoes. Ten years later, Congress was in regular session on December 25, 1789, the first Christmas under America's new constitution.

Christmas was not declared a federal holiday until June 26, 1870 The 14th president, Franklin Pierce (b.1804 - d.1869) was the first president to decorate an official White House Christmas tree.

Next week, Friday Dec. 18th, I will continue this column on Christmas through the years.


Great Christmas Books


Picking up from last week's thoughts on Christmas, there is no writer more linked to Christmas (not counting the New Testament writers), than the prolific 19th century author, Charles Dickens.

Dickens was born into a big family and had a big family of his own. He knew poverty personally. He became known for the remarkable characters and situations he created. He was a spokesman for the poor and the dispossessed. He made the "haves" see the state of the "have-nots."

In 1843, his "A Christmas Carol," tells an unmatched story of the rich and poor, the believers and skeptics, as they confront the reality of what the Christmas story is really about.

Dickens wrote several other Christmas stories. He wrote one a year for some years, but none was as popular or successful as his first. One of the most famous of his characters was Tiny Tim. Dickens considered three other names for the little boy before he settled on Tiny Tim. The other possibilities considered were Small Sam, Puny Pete and Little Larry. Millions of readers agree he used the right name. I just can't see Puny Pete or Little Larry saying, "God bless you everyone," with a straight face.

Scrooge's constant "Bah Humbug," was not Dickens' initial choice for that statement. He first had Scrooge's saying "Bah Christmas." Another good change for the master-writer. (For a brief biography of Dickens see the one by C.D. Merriman.)

According to the BBC website, the handwritten manuscript of "A Christmas Carol" is presently on display at the Morgan Library and Museum in New York along with the original watercolor cover of the 1843 first edition. Readers fortunate to be spending Christmas in New York should visit the exhibit.

In a review of the exhibit, Claire Prentice writes that Dickens wrote the classic story in a frantic six-weeks. He began in October 1843, ending in time for Christmas publication.

"The manuscript is a mess," says the Morgan's curator Declan Kiely. "It's a mess because Dickens was trying to get everything down on paper really fast."

"When you look at it, you see him in the full flood of creative energy and excitement right there on the page. When he began writing, he just couldn't put it down," says Kiely.

The story of the miserly Scrooge's redemption, after three frightful dreams, has inspired television, radio, film, opera and theatrical presentations for years. Any of the many editions of the book would make an excellent Christmas gift.

Speaking of Christmas gifts, the late Elmer Kelton's "Christmas At The Ranch," about what Christmas was like in West Texas during the Great Depression is also great reading. Kelton writes Christmas toys "were modest by today's standards because a dollar in those times looked as big as a saddle blanket."

Next Friday is Christmas Day and I will share the last of these Christmas columns. It will be a busy day, but for those who take time to read it I hope it is enjoyable. About some things that happened on other Christmases. What other historic events took place on December 25th?

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