Whether one celebrates the traditional “religious” Christmas or not, all of us during December are inundated with Christmas carols, tinsel and lights, scenes and symbols. Did you ever stop to question the origin of some of these? Why do put up trees, and wait for Santa, and sing songs named after a girl called Carol?
My pastor, Dr. Bryan Cutshall, decided to investigate some of these, just to see if there was really any historical or religious significance to some of this.
Could there possibly be any truth to the red-suited fat guy we call Santa Claus? He found that actually, there is! St. Nicholas of Myra was a 4th Century bishop who traveled throughout Asia Minor giving gifts to orphans and widows. He was known as the “bishop of charity.” He wore the standard bishop’s robe of his day. It was red, representing the blood of Christ, and trimmed in white fur because it was a wintery climate. The white of the old bishop’s robe represented the purity of Christ. As was customary for bishops in his day, his transportation was a sleigh pulled by reindeer.
Does any of this sound familiar? St. Nicholas was indeed a real man who spent his life helping the poor, especially orphan children. One interesting true story to his credit is the story of a farmer who couldn’t pay his debts. The farmer was scheduled to sell his three daughters as slaves to pay his creditors. Each evening in a fourth-century wintery climate, the people of the house would take off their socks and hang them by the fire to dry. Saint Nicholas walked behind the house that was dug into the ground and dropped a gold nugget down the chimney. He hoped the farmer would find the gold nugget and pay off his debt. Instead, the nugget bounced into one of the stockings hung by the fire to dry. The next morning, when putting on her stockings, one of his daughters discovered a miracle in her sock. News of this spread quickly and many checked their stockings each morning to see if good fortune had found them. Hanging stockings by the chimney to dry—a once dreaded chore—became exciting because now there was a new hope.
I have often wondered myself why we have Christmas trees? I used to just think, “I guess it’s tradition.” But my pastor asked us to consider the origin of the words to an old German song,”0 Tannenbaum, 0 Tannenbaum, how lovely are your branches.” The church began to use various types of symbols to celebrate the Christ-mass. In A.D. 680, St. Boniface, a German bishop, was walking through a field in the dead of winter. He noticed that the trees, grass, and other plant life were leafless and lifeless. Suddenly he saw an evergreen tree. It was the only tree in the field that looked alive. He also noticed that the tree formed an arrow pointing upward. This prompted him to fall on his knees and worship. Since it was impossible to bring everyone to the field, he decided to bring the tree to them. He took this magnificent symbol of life back to the church to illustrate how God brings life in the midst of winter. His sermon was the talk of the town, and his object lesson would soon change history. For months they talked about the ingenious “tree” sermon.
Having taken six years of French back in my school days, I remember a little of my parallel Latin and Italian roots. But I didn’t know why we call our Christmas songs “carols.” My pastor found that the “carolare” was performed during celebrations and festivals, especially during the Christmas season. Italian shepherds would come from the hillsides into the towns and dance the carolare at Christmas to spread joy from house to house. It was a favorite holiday event for most of Italy. As time went on, people began to write lyrics to the music describing the dances. These verses became the first Christmas carols. The streets were filled with music, dance, and festivity about the Christ child who was born in a manger to redeem mankind.
So whether you are Christian, Jewish or none of the above, at least historically there are some answers to the traditions of Christmas. For me, it is a Holy Day and that is why I choose to still say, “Merry Christmas.”
Dr. Debra Peppers, a professional speaker for 25 years, is one of only five inducted into the National Teachers Hall of Fame upon her retirement from Lindbergh High School. A member of the National Speakers Association, she has traveled to all 50 states and 60 countries teaching others that if she can go from being a 250-pound high school dropout, to Teacher of the Year there is hope for every child and adult. Her web site is www.pepperseed.org