Clark County Press December 1951
The Legends of Christmas
There are almost as many Christmas legends and superstitions as there have been Christmases. Countless customs from the Old World have been absorbed through the centuries into the celebrations that we participate in today. A few however, have been passed down from one generation to another, remaining always the same.
The Indians of Canada, for example, believe that the deer kneel in prayer each Christmas Eve. An early missionary probably is responsible for the idea, but it still lingers and wily Indians have always attempted to catch the deer in the act. In England, it is believed that the bees express veneration for the nativity by singing in their hives at midnight. The beehives are always adorned with holly sprigs for the Yuletide season.
In Europe it was a custom for a young girl to creep to the family woodpile on Christmas Eve and pull out the first stick that her hand touched. If the stick was a straight one, with no knots, tradition said that she would have a good husband.
Farmers in Europe also gave torches to their children and sent them singing into the apple orchards and the fields. The mice, caterpillars and moths were said to flee before the approaching songsters.
In early Germany it is a belief that water turned into wind during the hour before midnight on Christmas Eve.
Tree decorating has an ancient source in an Arabian Legend.
When you fasten the ornaments to your Christmas tree this year, you will be commemorating a centuries-old Arabian legend that relates how plants blossomed and flowered and trees miraculously bore ripened fruit on the eve of the first Christmas.
In fact, the Christmas tree itself stems from the story of a Scandinavian “sacred” tree and Martin Luther, of Germany. Luther is said to have brought the first Christmas tree indoors and decorated it for the Yule season in the early 16th century.
These are only two of more than a score of legends from which today’s Christmas symbols and customs stem. According to Jeannette Lee, who had probed their origin for nearly a dozen years, the American Christmas symbols, from candles and bells to kissing under the mistletoe, have no common nationality. They have come from all parts of the world.
At one time, the observance of Christmas was forbidden in England, the home of the Yule Log, the Carol-singer and the wassailers.
During the Reformation, many believed the undue jollity of Christmas day was sacrilegious. Parliament on December 24, 1652, ordered that “no observance shall be held of the five and twentieth day of December, commonly called Christmas day; nor any solemnity used or exercised in churches upon that day in respect thereof.”
This edict proved to be very unpopular with the masses of the people. It was not until many years later, however, that Christmas was once again regarded as a holiday.
Trees of cedar are well protected by religion and law near the Mediterranean Sea.
On a shelf-like plateau, 600 feet above the Mediterranean, the world’s oldest Christmas trees stand where they have stood for centuries. The cedars of Lebanon, a total of 400 of them, are protected by religion and law from harm at the hands of either the Moslems or the Maronite Christians.
The magnificent trees “that sing of the nativity” were venerated as monarchs among trees long before Judah had her first king. Some of them have a girth of 40 feet and a branch circumference of 30 inches.
In the days of the conquerors thousands of conscripted Hebrew workers were sent into the Lebanons to take to Jerusalem “cedar trees without number”; the result of one of the first building contracts, between Hiram of Phoenicia and King Solomon.
Today, however, the trees are protected by law and the government’s department of agriculture sponsors the planting of seedlings, so that the giant cedars will grow forever.
St. Francis of Assisi is believed to have originated the custom of displaying the Christ Child in a crib at Christmas time.
He is reported once to have said to one of his followers: “I wish to celebrate holy Christmas night with you. In the woods near the cloister you will find a cave where we shall arrange a manger filled with hay. We shall have an ox and an ass just as at Bethlehem. I wish to see how poor and miserable the Infant Savior became for us.”
So at midnight, in the small Italian village of Garcia, in the year 1200, St. Francis and his followers celebrated mass at the cave and sang hymns in honor of the Christ Child.
The practice of holding “Open House” has been a Christmas tradition through the years.
The Saxon lords threw open the doors of their great halls to peasant and noble alike during the festive season and all enjoyed great feasting, songs and the exchange of gifts. A tremendous Yule log was dragged upon an open fire pit and festivities lasted until the embers alone remained.
The same custom was followed in the pre-Civil War South. The slaves often soaked a log in the cypress swamps long before Christmas so that it would burn slowly, thus extending their Christmas freedom.
“Open House” during the Yuletide season is a true mark of democracy and a realization that he who was born on Christmas day came to save all men.
One of the most typical of our American holiday celebrations is the Cowboy’s Christmas Ball, which has been held almost every year since 1884 in the small town of Anson, Texas.
The celebration started as a wedding party in the old Star Hotel when ranchers poured in from the widely scattered ranges to honor Cross P. Charley and his bride. It was such a success that it was repeated year after year.
Christmas Eve brought the spirit of the old West on Anson. Cowboys donned their colorful dress, their gay shirts and decorated boots. Cowgirls outfitted themselves in gingham dresses “like mother wore.” A cowboy band swung out and the dancers performed the heel and toe polka, the Varsouvienne and other folk dances.
On a December day in 1846, a middleclass Englishman, Henry Cole, sat at the library desk of his London home addressing to his friends what were probably the first Christmas cards ever printed. The cards depicted a Victorian family assembled at the festive board and the traditional Christmas customs of giving to the poor. They also bore the now-classic greeting: “A Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to you.”
Cole, on a historic move, two months before, had commissioned John Calcott Horsley, a Royal Academy artist, to paint the illustration for the card and had struck off a thousand lithographed copies. He dispatched them that December. This was such a markedly successful stroke of good will that plain Henry Cole subsequently became Sir Henry Cole.
Horsley’s art was a far cry from today’s Christmas card paintings, but he started a cycle which a hundred years later was to bring fine art into high favor on Christmas cards.
An American shopping for cards now may select, for instance, a painting called “Snow Under the Arch” by another Royal Academy member, Winston Churchill, Briton’s wartime prime minister and famed amateur artist. Or he might choose Peter Hurd’s “One Night in Winter,” or “Grandma Moses,” or “The White Church,” or “The Nativity” by Alexander Ross.
Although the White House and Rockefeller Center outdoor tree decorations have become famous in recent years, the practice of lighting outdoor trees began in smaller towns and cities long before these two displays became an annual affair.
Four widely separated communities lighted up as early as 1913. Two of them, McDonald and Germantown, were in Pennsylvania. Salem, Oregon, decorated a large Sitka spruce. Riverside, California, illuminated a large evergreen, an Aracuria.
The first national Christmas tree was in 1924 and was sponsored by the American Forestry Association. For the past five years, the lighting of the White House has been televised.
Candles have lighted Christmas Eve around the world for generations.
It has long been a custom in Ireland to place a lighted candle in the window to guide the Christ Child on his way. The use of Christmas candles appears in other lands in many ways.
In Czechoslovakia, for example, tiny candles are set upright in nutshells and floated in pans of water. Armenians use myriads of candles in preparing their Christmas decorations.
At unique church services in Labrador each child receives a little lighted candle standing in a turnip and keeps it until after the services, at which time the turnip is eaten.
In Norway, families arrive at church on Christmas Eve, each carrying a flaming torch. These are stuck in the snow while the good folk attend the services.
The scene of the Redeemer’s birth at Bethlehem is the site of a full day’s worship and prayer each Christmas Eve. The faithful come from all parts of the world to join their voices in adoration and to see the solemn re-enactment of the birth of Jesus of Nazareth.
Discontinued for six years during World War II, the Pontifical Mass and ceremony was renewed in 1945. As the stars on the hillside and the pale moon wrapped the town of Bethlehem in an aura of holiness, the voices of the humble echoed in prayer from the little Church of St. Catherine, built on the hallowed rock of the most sacred spot of the Christian world.
The mass ws celebrated at 10 p.m., the voices of the choirboys ringing out over the surrounding hills. At the stroke of 12 midnight the great bells of the tower of the nativity rang out, loud and clear.
The vicar, holding an image of the Christ Child, joined a procession of priests, acolytes and choirboys. By flickering candlelight, the procession filed over the stone steps leading to the grotto of the nativity. The vicar placed the tiny representation of Christ on the sacred spot where, many years before, the Redeemer came.
The origin of the Christmas tree symbol is shrouded in legends that reach back to the period of Druid tree worship long before the advent of Christianity. Credit for tree decoration and gift giving, however, is generally given to Germany, where the customs were started in the 16th or 17th centuries. Over a period of years the practice spread into Northern Europe and from there to America.
Outdoor tree decorating is essentially an American trademark and a special feature of community spirit.
Although many towns have names directly or indirectly associated with Christmas, there is but one town named Santa Claus, in Indiana.
Except for a lucky break, the town would have had another name and hence would not have enjoyed the annual fame that it gathers around the Yuletide season.
The original intention to name the town Santa Fe fell through when the officials at Washington suggested that the town be named something else, since there was already a Santa Fe in New Mexico.
On Christmas Eve, in 1882, the citizens held a mass meeting to select another name, but every one proposed was discarded for one reason or another. The meeting was about to break up when Santa Claus, making his yearly visits in the neighbor-hood, strode in to get warm. He was in costume and his arrival put one name in every mind.
And so the town was named Santa Claus.
Four years ago, a festival in Denmark paid tribute to one of the greatest helpers Santa Claus ever had. He was Hans Christian Anderson, fairy tale writer and compiler of many Christmas stories.
His works have sold more copies than any other book except for the Bible. His books have been translated into 35 languages, including Arabic, Hebrew, Chinese, Japanese and Greenland languages.
Since 1875, the year that he passed away, visitors from all parts of the world have come yearly to the town of Odense to see the home of the writer of such tales as “The Light Match Girl,” and “The Ugly Duckling.’
Anderson’s fairy tales, released just before Christmas each year brought him money, fame and the attention of princes, as well as the adoration of children.
Once he received a United States dollar bill, enclosed in a letter written by a young American girl. It read: “Papa says that the dollar is my own, that he does not suppose you are in particular need of money, but I owe you this and a great deal more. He thinks it proper that I should send it to you.”
Of all the songs that return to bring warmth to the Yuletide season, no carol is so universally known as “Silent Night.” Certainly no other is as loved and sung as this simple German song.
For years its origin was unknown, except that it supposedly dated back for many centuries. Recent investigations, however, disclosed that it was produced in 1818. The poem was originally written by Joseph Mohr, an assistant priest in Oberndorf, Germany. The melody was composed by a schoolmaster, Franz Gruber.
Both the poet and the composer were part of the choir that sang the now famous carol that Christmas Eve in the Oberndorf church. The beloved song was sung first to the accompaniment of a guitar, for the church organ ws out of order that Eve of 1818.
It has since been sung to the tune of almost every musical instrument in the world, in the languages of many men.
Frost covered trees, snow on the ground and the dome of the 1870’s Clark County courthouse set the scene of Christmas on a wintry day in Neillsville years ago.
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