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.



约翰 said...

I just read your book "The Churches of China". I found it while seeking guidance on how I can answer my calling to serve God in China. I am an exchange student at Hong Kong Baptist University studying Chinese Language & Culture. When I saw and read your book, I was overflowing with joy from the newfound perspective I gained towards Chinese Christians. They truly are the hope for the Gospel bearing fruit in China. Which reminds me everyday of God's great faithfulness. I can't stop thinking about his faithfulness and when I realize that he has chosen to use an unfaithful human like me, I can't help but yearn to give my life as a living sacrifice to reach those in need and be the hands and feet for the Gospel. China wants a better society? I would be more than glad to give of my spiritual gifts of communication and leadership to do just that through the love of Christ my Savior, who has changed me from the inside out. You have inspired me in more ways than you will probably realize - and for that I am thankful. With one more semester left on my one year exchange program here in Hong Kong, I am hopeful to get in contact with The Amity Foundation. They seem to be a main source for bearing fruit. I'm an American - my dad is a Southern Baptist minister. I know from your book that I could easily be considered a "外国人" bringing a foreign religion into a country who desperately needs and, as I have now been told, IS forming their own Christian image. God always finds ways to bring himself glory. I hope that I can join in on the work that He is doing in the lives of the Chinese. God bless you. I will never forget the part that you have played in my walk with Christ.

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Britt Towery said...

I am very appreciative of you writing. The book is a bit old now but I feel the basic are right. I wish you well in your studies and feel you are the kind of young people to carry on the hard work of much earlier missionaries and Chinese Christians and those of us who saw in 1982 a way to encourage the churches. Keep in touch.

Britt Towery said...

Thanks for the Chinese note. My reading of Chinese is slipping but thank you for reading and writing

约翰 said...

**Please take notice**First you should know that the person who commented on your blog in Chinese posted some rather crude links to disgusting websites. You should probably delete that comment so that no one clicks on them. I can't believe someone would do that. Sorry that happened to you.
I am so glad to have been able to contact you and would love to keep in touch with you. The Lord has taken me on a quite a journey so far in my life and I would love to be able to share with you some of it. My e-mail is and I see your e-mail is posted on this blog. God Bless You and your family and once again thank you for setting such a wonderful example for me to find encouragement from as I hope to give my life to Christ and allow him to direct my steps each day. Jeremiah 29:11 "For I know the plans I have for you" says the Lord. "plans to prosper you and not to harm you; plans for hope and a future."

Serving Christ w/ You,
Jon 约翰