Sunday, December 25, 2011

Christmas History and Facts: The Twelve Days of Christmas

Have you ever seen swans swimming in a pond and thought I should get that as a gift for my sweetie? Yeah me either especially when, according to PNC’s Christmas Price Index, it would cost $6300 to make that happen. As we all know that wonderfully repetitive song, the 12 Days of Christmas which gets played so often this time of year, however if one were to purchase all of those gifts for their significant other it would cost them a whopping $24,263. But seriously who in their right mind would buy all of these gifts for an individual or in what century would someone have purchased turtle doves and men jumping around as a Christmas gift. The question is when and why was this song created?
Many people hear the 12 days of Christmas and believe they are gifts leading up to Christmas Day, the 12th day, however the first day, a partridge in a pear tree, starts on Christmas Day and ends on January 5th. The period after Christmas is a Christian celebration dating as far back as the Middle Ages known as Christmastide, Twelvetide, or Yuletide. Whatever the name may be, this period after Christmas is meant for reflection on the birth of Jesus Christ with traditional feasts such as the feast of St. Stephen, which is meant to give leftovers to the poor, along with the feast of John the Evangelist and the feast of the Holy Innocents. Many of these traditions and celebrations vary throughout different countries and various religions. Here in the United States the traditions and celebrations of the Twelve Days of Christmas had largely been forgotten and relegated to a song.  
So the question is what is the origin of the song “The Twelve Days of Christmas”? The song was published for the first time in England in 1780 however many historians believe its origins are French and the song could date back much further than that. Why the song was written and published at the time is unknown. In 1979, a Canadian teacher wrote an article suggesting that the song 12 days were coded catechisms for the Catholic Church. His argument was that the English people were not permitted to practice Catholicism publically from 1558-1829 so they secretly celebrated their traditions of Twelve Night through the song. Here are each of the meanings.
A Partridge in a Pear Tree –          Jesus
Two Turtle Doves  –                          The Old and New Testament
Three French Hens –                        The Kings bearing gifts
Four Callet (Calling) Birds –          The Four Gospels
Five Golden Rings –                          The Pentateuch (first five books of the Bible)
Six Geese-a-Laying –                       The Six Days of Creation
Seven Swans-a-Swimming –          Seven Gifts of the Holy Spirit
Eight Maids-a-Milking –                  The Eight Beatitudes
Nine Ladies Dancing –                     Nine Fruits of the Spirit
Ten Lords-a-Leaping –                     The Ten Commandments
Eleven Pipers Piping –                     Eleven Apostles
Twelve Drummers Drumming –    Twelve Points of the Apostles Creed
However there are some problems in this theory. For one the first mention over the last century about a coded catechism in this song is with this Canadian teacher. The idea had been further perpetrated by religious scholars however with little additional evidence. You would have to believe that there would be more significant sources to back up this claim over the last couple centuries. The other major problem is that most of these meanings are not a departure from the Protestant church. In reality they are directly in line with nearly all major Christian denominations and faiths. The actual origin of the song and its purpose are unknown with ideas ranging from a child’s counting song, to a memory game played during Twelve Night in which the leader would start and would have to memorize the subsequent verses given by the participants. Whatever the purpose and origin of the song one thing we do know is that there are a “Twelve Days of Christmas” which do not lead up to Christmas Day but actually begin then. 

Friday, December 23, 2011

Christmas History and Facts: "Account of a visit by St. Nicholas"

I am very excited about starting our family tradition this Christmas Eve with reading “Twas the night before Christmas” to my son. I would expect this is a typical tradition in many households around the country. The words from the story are so familiar to all of us:
Twas the night before Christmas, when all through the house
Not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse.
The stockings were hung by the chimney with care,
In hopes that St Nicholas soon would be there.
Those lines role off the American tongue like no other story in our history, however what makes this story so famous, why is it so popular. The story was first published December 23, 1823 in the Troy Sentinel, by an anonymous writer under the title “Account of a visit by St. Nicholas.” It is surprising to see that this poems popularity exploded so much when it was buried on page 3 in between random stories and marriage announcements. Despite being credited to an anonymous writer the poem is widely attributed to Clement Clarke Moore, a professor and writer. At the time the poem was written, Christmas Day was slowly surpassing New Year’s Day as the family gathering holiday of the season however many Protestants were apprehensive of the holiday because Christ’s apparent birth was not in the winter months of December. The traditions of Christmas we have today, especially in connection with Santa Claus and gift giving, were not in existence like they are today. The historical figure of St. Nicholas was known by some, especially those who practice Catholicism, for giving generous gifts to the poor. The idea of Santa Claus transcended from there to a Sinterklaas and then a character named Father Christmas from the British tradition. The notion of incorporating characters such as Santa Claus, Father Christmas, or others during the Christmas season was far from the norm. Moore’s story actually helped establish many of our Christmas traditions including the character of Santa Claus that we know and love today. His physical appearance, the night he visits, his sleigh and reindeer, along with the number and names of the reindeer, as well as his mode of operation which involved landing on top of the house and going down the chimney to deliver toys to children all came from Moore’s story.
He was dress’d all in fur, from his head to his foot,
And his clothes were all tarnish’d with ashes and soot;
A bundle of toys was flung on his back,
And he look’d like a peddler just opening his pack:
His eyes – how they twinkled! His dimples how merry,
His cheeks were like roses, his nose like a cherry;
His droll little mouth was drawn up like a bow,
And the beard of his chin was as white as the snow;
The stump of a pipe he held tight in his teeth,
And the smoke it encircled his head like a wreath.
He has a broad face, and a little round belly
That shook when he laugh’d, like a bowl full of jelly:
He was chubby and plump, a right jolly old elf,
The jolly fat man, in a white beard and red suit visiting house to house every night was created by Moore in his story “Account of a Visit from St. Nicholas. New York was one of the first major cities to embrace Moore’s Santa Claus, which saw a large proportion of non-Christian families using Santa Claus as their reason for celebration and gift giving. From there the story of Santa Claus was reproduced over and over again in various versions and from multiple perspectives. Between 1823 and today Santa Claus has grow into a center piece of the American culture and Christmas tradition. People from all over the world have taken this version of Santa and adapted it to fit to their own culture. So as you read and listen to “Twas the Night Before Christmas” this time of year, remember that this is the story that helped give birth to the legend that is Santa Claus.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Christmas History and Facts: The Strange

The history of Christmas is such a fascinating story. Many of us grow up with Santa Claus, Christmas Trees, and mistletoe as just a normal part of the December 25th tradition. However many of these traditions and symbols have a history that do not go back as far as you may think. I have come across so History Channel videos as well as documents which I would like to share that may surprise you or enlighten you on why we celebrate Christmas the way we do and how other people celebrate Christmas that is much different than our own.

This video is from the History Channel which will surprise you in the different ways people have celebrated Christmas.

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