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Doris writes a weekly column for LaGaceta, the nation's only trilingual newspaper, which has pages in English, Spanish, and Italian.  Begun in 1922 for Tampa's immigrant community, it continues to thrive more than a century later.  Her column is titled "In Context," as it aims to put contemporary issues in the context of the past.

There are a lot of versions of Christmas

Ah, it’s that most wonderful time of the year! Christmas wreaths of lush green pine and red bows hang from the front doors of houses; neighbors cover their yards with lights; and families eagerly await the happy reunion of sisters, brothers, aunts, uncles, and more. We re-create grandma’s recipes and sing carols of European origin that are centuries old. But few of us are aware that Christmas traditions are relatively newer in America.

Our zealously Puritan foremothers and fathers associated it with the merriment of European royal courts, most of which were Catholic. In England and abroad, the holidays meant ten days of feasting, drinking, and adult play -- think “Ten Lords A Leaping” and “Don We Now Our Gay Apparel.” The religious dissidents who came to America in the 1600s did not intend to observe Christmas. In fact, I mentioned in my recent Thanksgiving column that the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth on December 25, 1620, but that date meant nothing to them.

This anti-Christmas attitude grew with other New England settlements. The (all male) members of General Court of Massachusetts saw Christmas as so nearly sinful that it enacted a 1659 law declaring that any observance of the holiday was a punishable crime. People in the Southern colonies, which were more secular, were somewhat merrier, but in the theocracies of New England, you could be fined for displaying a Christmas decoration.

Things lightened up a bit in the 1700s, but Christmas was far from considered sacred in 1776, when George Washington used it to his tactical advantage. His British opponents had hired professional mercenary soldiers from the German province of Hesse, and they were encamped on the New Jersey side of the Delaware River. Washington was correct in assuming that the Hessians would be lonesome enough at Christmas that they would drink themselves into obliviousness, and he led his ragged, non-professional American rebels across the dark and icy river. Sure enough, the professionals were passed out in their barracks, and Washington’s forces won control of the crucial river that flows into Philadelphia, then the capital of the nascent nation.

General Washington knew that he wouldn’t offend local sensibilities with this Christmastime invasion because much of the New England Puritan attitude towards Christmas remained in the 1700s -- and beyond that, many newcomers who came to the Philadelphia area were religious dissenters who also were ambivalent about the holiday. They were Quakers, Mennonites, Moravians, and other minority religions, and they resisted anything that wasn’t plain and frugal. Thus it wasn’t until the 1800s that austerity began to be replaced with greater holiday festivity.

It was, in fact, a woman who is most responsible for our American Christmas. Victoria became monarch of the British Empire in 1837; she would reign until 1901, and during that time, had much influence on America’s domestic scene. Her popularization of Christmas began in 1846, when she and her husband, Prince Albert, were sketched with their children standing around a large decorated Christmas tree in the Illustrated London News. Albert was German, and Queen Victoria, who adored her husband, exported his Christmas tree to the English-speaking world. The famous illustration of “Christmas Tree at Windsor Castle” became an instant phenomenon, and tree decorating became increasingly popular.

Most decorations were homemade, and it was women who were largely responsible for making them. Chains of colorful paper were popular, as well as strings of popcorn and cranberries. From handcrafting ornaments and sewing Christmas stockings to making fresh eggnog and warm Christmas cookies, women were the ones who preserved traditions and brought joy to Christmas. Celebrations gained more popularity because of the Civil War in the 1860s, especially in the North. The Christmas that is depicted in Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women, for example, showed the emotional strength of a mother who created a happy day for her children, despite worry of a husband gone to war.

Clement Moore’s poem, widely known as “The Night Before Christmas” originally was titled “A Visit from St. Nicolas.” If you trace St. Nick’s origins far enough, you find that he was Greek – and remembered for helping young women obtain the dowries they needed to marry. For reasons that aren’t entirely clear, he became especially popular in Holland, and the Dutch celebration of St. Nicolas Day on December 6 now begins the European season. Sweden follows up with Santa Lucia Day, December 13. Lucia was originally Sicilian, and again, it isn’t clear how these Mediterranean saints made their way north, but Swedes long have celebrated her. Girls wake their families carrying sweet bread and wearing long white dresses – with lighted candles in wreaths on their heads! With the advent of electric batteries, I worry less about these girls.

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Christmas trees definitely began in Germany – perhaps with prehistoric Druids and probably with the Protestant Revolution and Martin Luther in the 1500s. At least that was what I was told when I grew up Lutheran in Minnesota. The story was that a fir tree in the forest sparkled with snow and ice, and Luther was entranced. He bought it home for his numerous children (by a nun who recanted her vows to marry him). They allegedly attached small candles on the fir to recreate the sparkle of light.

My mom, who was born in 1907 and became the oldest of twelve, remembered her German parents emulating Luther. On Christmas Eve, behind the locked doors of the seldom-used parlor, they decorated a tree, and after lighting the candles, opened the room to their wide-eyed children. Because she had so many younger siblings, Mom’s parents encouraged her to believe in Kris Kringle, which translates to Christ Child. She was thirteen before she realized that the guy her non-German friends called Santa Claus was not real, and in some ways, I think she never recovered from that crash of faith. I wanted to believe, but never did: my dad discouraged it with comments about how he wished Santa would pay the bills.

Dad came from a Norwegian family and was more likely to use “St. Nick” than “Santa Claus.” In Norway, however, the holiday is Julefest, and presents supposedly come from a bearded man in green, Julesveen. Norwegian ornaments mostly replicate the figurines that originally were made from straw; they’ve recently become popular as reindeer, but in Norway, a goat is more common for Jule (or Yule, in English). And the dill pickle that now is so popular as a German tradition? I never knew of it until recently, although my mother’s family was thoroughly German – with some of them coming from Hesse, the home of the Revolutionary War soldiers.

I usually decorate at least three trees at Christmas. The one in Hubby’s study features foreign ornaments and includes souvenirs from Korea, Morocco, and other places we have visited that do not celebrate Christmas. When we went to the Baltic last summer, I made a point of looking for ornaments from Poland, Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia – and was surprised that they were fairly hard to find. Souvenir shops are not nearly as numerous there as elsewhere, and the ones that were available featured Christmas items much less. Especially Estonians still cling to pre-Christian traditions, and it would have been easier to buy a totem or May pole.

* * *

The first documented usage of “Santa Claus” in America was in a New York newspaper in 1773, whereas “Father Christmas” had been used more than a century earlier. “Santa Claus” doubtless came from the Pennsylvania Dutch, and when I was in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, a couple of Christmases ago, I learned of “Sinter Klaus.” I’ve wondered for a long time why this image, which is depicted as male everywhere except Russia, has the feminine form of “saint” – as in Santa Anna, Santa Barbara, Santa Clara, and on through the alphabet. For guys, it’s San Antonio, San Bernandino, etc. How did a male figure end up as Santa Claus?

I’ve never figured that out, although I once did a lot of research for a book that I intended call A Month of Christmas. It would begin with St. Nicholas Day in the Netherlands on December 6, continue into Sweden for Santa Lucia Day on the 13th, and perhaps other saint days in other countries before going on through Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, and England’s Boxing Day, December 26. It’s called that because servants and employers were supposed to reverse roles, and the servants were presented with boxed gifts. Germans had a version of this, too, and my grandparents referred to December 26 as the “Second Day of Christmas.”

New Years Eve is big in Austria, with many Viennese balls, and in Scotland, New Years Day is as important as Christmas. January 1 is reserved there for exchanging gifts and eating a bit during quick visits to friends. My Month of Christmas would have ended on January 6, Epiphany. This commemorates the arrival of the Wise Men from the East (probably astrologists from modern Iran) and is celebrated by many people of Mediterranean origin as “Little Christmas.” When I taught school in Massachusetts, my kids from Greek and Italian families considered January 6 to be an obligatory day off – even though school had just begun after New Years. Some Italian kids attributed their gifts to Lady Befana. Hubby and I also have seen this January holiday observed in Portugal and in Puerto Rico – and now most of us folks know that “Three Kings Day” is important to our local Mexicans. In recognition of that, we keep our decorations up until January 6 is over; we hope you will consider this, too.

I just pulled out the paper file for A Month of Christmas – this was long before computers – and was surprised to see how thick with research it is. The bottom line, though, is that there are lots of versions of Christmas – and that’s just in nations with a history of Christianity. In the northern hemisphere, all of these observances, both Christian and non-Christian, are related to the winter solstice. The North Pole is in total darkness, and days are shorter than nights all the way to the equator. That’s why light is so important to us at the holidays. We yearn for it, even though we know that the sun will rise again.

Doris Weatherford writes a weekly column for La Gaceta, the nation's only trilingual newspaper. With pages in Spanish, Italian, and English, it has been published in Tampa since 1922.

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