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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.

It’s That Most Wonderful Time of Year

By which, yes, I mean the time between Christmas and New Year’s. It’s a time for relaxing and enjoying the toys you got as gifts, a time for visiting with friends and family. We often went to Arkansas or to Georgia to see our big families during this period (especially because my Georgia sister’s birthday is New Year’s Eve, and they belonged to clubs that had fantastic parties), but we are increasingly reluctant to face the holiday traffic jam on the way to Georgia.

The season, of course, is all about family and childhood memories. My early years were in Minnesota, and I still have family there – but after falling on ice in Alaska and breaking three ribs, Hubby refuses to go very far north in winter. Maybe one year, I’ll get my niece who lives in the woods near Canada to pick us up at the Minneapolis airport, and we’ll just enjoy the snow from her many-windowed house. Anyway, my earliest memories are of Christmas lights reflecting on snow. The town hired someone to wind actual garlands of real spruce around streetlights, and it was beautiful. Snow is a sound absorber, and it was so quiet and serene -- very different from today’s Christmas lights that go up in our paved shopping centers at Halloween.

We Americans sing carols of European origin and emulate Martin Luther’s use of an indoor evergreen tree at Christmas, but few of us realize that Christmas in America is relatively new. In fact, it was illegal in early New England. Zealous Puritans associated it with the merriment of European royal courts, most of which were Catholic, and they objected to twelve days of Christmas with its feasting, drinking, and adult play. Think “Ten Lords a Leaping” and “Here We Go Wassailing” and “Don We Now Our Gay Apparel,” and you get the picture.

The Pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock on December 25, 1620, but they did not acknowledge Christmas. America’s anti-Christmas attitude grew with other New England settlements, and in 1659, the General Court of Massachusetts made its observance a punishable offense. People in the Southern colonies were more secular and merrier, but you could be fined for displaying a Christmas decoration in the Puritan part of America.

Christmas and the American Revolution

Things lighted up a bit in the 1700s, as evidenced by the fact that we pretty much stopped using church courts to execute witches. (Clergy and judges, of course, were all male, while most witches were women. It was the ultimate in sexual harassment.) Yet Christmas was so far from sacred that George Washington chose Christmas Eve to make one of his most important attacks on the British. Well, actually, these particular soldiers were not British, but Germans from the province of Hesse, and from at least the days of Martin Luther in the 1500s, Germans were serious about the Tannenbaum and Christmas.

These Hessian soldiers were mercenaries -- hired guns -- and Washington knew they were encamped on the New Jersey side of the Delaware River. Yes, it’s that picture you have in your mind of a grim Washington with an American flag in a small boat crossing the icy Delaware. He was correct in assuming that these men, far from their German homes where Christmas was important, would be lonely enough to drink themselves into oblivion. Late on Christmas Eve, he led his ragged rebels across the cold dark water, and sure enough, the professional fighters were passed out in their barracks. American forces easily 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 Christian sensibilities with the timing of this invasion because much of the anti-Christmas sentiment from the 1600s remained in the 1700s. Beyond that, many newcomers who came to the Philadelphia area were religious dissenters who also were ambivalent about the holiday (holy day, you know). These religious rebels were Quakers, Mennonites, Moravians, and other minority faiths, 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.

The Beginnings of Today’s Holiday

It was, in fact, a foreign woman who is most responsible for our American Christmas. Victoria became monarch of the British Empire in 1837 and would reign until 1901. During that long time, she had much influence on America’s domestic scene. Magazines aimed at women were just beginning, and the queen who lent her name to the Victorian Age was a popular topic. When she and her husband, Prince Albert, were sketched with their children standing around a large, decorated Christmas tree in 1846, the tree became mandatory for American families. Prince Albert was German, and Queen Victoria, who adored him, exported German Martin Luther’s tree to the world.

Most decorations were homemade, and it was women who were largely responsible for them. Chains of colorful paper were common, as well as strings of popcorn or cranberries. Celebrations gained popularity in the 1860s, especially in the North, with the Civil War and its aftermath. 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 the 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. Nicholas.” (My father’s favorite Christmas carol, by the way, was “Jolly Old Saint Nicholas.”) If you trace St. Nick’s origins far enough, you find that he was Greek – and remembered for helping young women obtain the dowries that they needed to marry. For reasons that aren’t entirely clear, this Greece-based saint became especially popular in Holland, and the Dutch observance of St. Nicholas Day on December 6 now begins the European season.

Sweden follows up with a big Santa Lucia’s Day on December 13, which happens to be our daughter’s birthday. Lucia (Lucy) clearly is related to “lunar” and other words associated with light. She originally was Sicilian, and again, it isn’t clear how these Mediterranean saints made their way north, but Swedes long have celebrated Santa Lucia. Girls wake their families carrying sweet bread and wearing long white dresses – with lighted candles in wreaths adorning their heads! With the advent of electric batteries, I worry less about these girls.

Next door in Norway, the holiday is Julefest, and the presents come from a bearded man in green, Julesveen. Although Norway has real reindeer, the traditional Jule (Yule) figure is a goat made of straw. Across the Baltic Sea in Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia, many vestiges of pre-Christian paganism remain even in the 21st century. I always shop for my foreign-ornament tree when I’m in another country, and it was surprisingly hard it was to find Christmas decor in these Baltic nations. I could much more easily have bought a maypole or a totem pole.

The Evolution of Santa Claus

The first documented use of “Santa Claus” in America was in a New York newspaper in 1773, just prior to the American Revolution. “Father Christmas had been the common usage earlier, and “Santa Claus” probably came from the people called “Pennsylvania Dutch,” most of whom emigrated from what is now Germany, and whose term for the magical guy was “Sinter Klaus.”

I’ve wondered for a long time why this male image has the feminine form of “saint” – as opposed to Santa Anna, Santa Barbara, Santa Clara, and on through the alphabet. With male saints, it’s San Antonio, San Bernardino, etc. How did a male figure end up as Santa Claus? Especially when we have St. Cloud (Claude). I’ve never figured out how that happened, nor why Russia’s gift-giver, back when the czars imposed Christianity, was female. On the other hand, she seems to have been a subordinate, being the fairy goddaughter (or granddaughter) of the guy who drove the sleigh. It was pulled by three horses, not reindeer, and he wore a blue coat, so you know that’s wrong.

All of this and much more, of course, is based on the fact the year’s shortest day is the Winter Solstice, which falls between December 20 and 22. Our pagan ancestors understood the sun, moon, and stars much better than most of us today, and they celebrated the end of December darkness. All pagan societies had ceremonies for summer and winter solstices, and the first Christmas (Christ Mass) was not until at least 300 years after Christ’s death. The Church slowly introduced it to replace the popular Roman holiday at that time of the year, Saturnalia. Yes, the root of that is the planet Saturn. And root of “Sunday” is, of course, our Sun.

Our ancient ancestors knew that the sun would turn around in dark December and head north again from its sojourn in the Southern Hemisphere. Their world was very limited and they did not yet know of the Southern Hemisphere, but it would make sense when Portuguese navigators began to figure it out in the 1400s. Several hundred years later, when the Brits settled Australia and other places in the Southern Hemisphere, December Christmas traditions had to accommodate the heat of what is mid-summer. Some celebrate Christmas in July, when it is colder there.

People adjust, and we bend our traditions to what works. I won’t live long enough to know, but I’m wondering about holidays on Mars. I am sure there will be some, and people will celebrate and create memories for their children. Happy New Year!


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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