Wandering through the Internet as Christmas approaches, I’ve found there are a wealth of facts, legends, customs and myths that have evolved from the birth of the Christ Child.
As far back in history as is known, Christmastime has been 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, many 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, as we three went caroling the neighborhood. I don’t recall our being asked to play after the first home we visited. We learned singing alone was better than sounds from cold lips on cornets.
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, was seldom observed. Gen. 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 Dec. 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 Friday, I will continue this column on Christmas through the years.
Britt Towery is a free-lance writer who spent his first 20 Christmases in Brownwood. His columns are published in the Bulletin on Fridays. He welcomes reader feedback at firstname.lastname@example.org. Other columns are available on his Web site, www.britt-towery.blogspot.com.