The Cross & the Pen: The Great Traditions of Christmas
- 2003 11 Dec
Can I take a moment to tell you how much I love Christmas! I love everything about it. I love Dickens and Christmas trees and ornaments and parties and candlelight in the windows. More than anything, I love knowing we’re celebrating the entrance of the Light of the World…Joy of Joys…Emmanuel! God with us!
Christmas is rich with traditions, both social and personal. I do believe my friend Ace Collins has managed to talk about every single one, too, in his new book Stories Behind The Great Traditions of Christmas (Zondervan). While on a road trip I read the book, the rushed home to contact Ace. We had a holly jolly time talking! Wanna listen in?
Eva: Ace, is this REALLY the most wonderful time of the year?
Ace: I think it is. You see and feel the excitement. Old friends, such as traditions and music, bring back incredible memories. There is the food, the decorations, the cards, there is simply so much going on. I mean not just in the United States, South America and Europe, but even in places like Japan, which is not a Christian nation, Christmas is a
big deal. With all the troubles we have in the world, this is the time when there seems to be a new hope. It is a time to give the child in us a moment to spring forth, no matter our age.
Eva: Oh, how I agree with you there! I just love this day…but tell me…how long did it take Christians to choose a day in which to celebrate Christmas? And why December 25th?
Ace: About 350 years. Before that the only real Christian holiday was Easter. As Christ's birth was an important part in the Bible, folks wanted to mark it as they did their own birthdays. At first different churches chose different days, with early January being the most common. Yet the church ultimately moved it to December 25 in an attempt to erase a Roman celebration of the time. This pagan holiday centered on Saturn and involved a lot of drinking, partying and about every sin that could be imagined. Church leaders felt that if Christmas were celebrated on December 25, the depraved behavior would change.
In truth, in the old Roman Empire, it did not. Folks forgot the Roman holiday, but exhibited the same behavior on Christmas. In other words, in many places, such as England, the partying at Christmas, the drinking and violence, continued for over a thousand years. In fact, the New York City police department was started to combat the criminal behavior that took place on Christmas Day. In the U.S., Congress met on Christmas Day for almost 70 years. Believe it or not, for Americans, Christmas, the joyful day of Peace on Earth, is only about 160 years old.
Eva: Good grief. Just when you think you know everything…okay, so here’s something I didn’t know…the part Albert and Victoria play in our modern view of Christmas?
Ace: As we just said, Christmas was a violent and often vile day in old England, so it took a German like Albert to redirect the holiday in a new direction. In Easter Europe, Christmas was a holiday of worship, one that centered on family. Albert brought that type of Christmas to London when he married Victoria. As everyone wanted to be like the queen, the German customs caught on and were added to. This was true in the United States as well. By the days after the Civil War, Christmas was a time for family everywhere.
Eva: Who was Clement Clark Moore?
Ace: A Christian, an educator and a father who probably wrote or, at least first published, "’Twas The Night Before Christmas." Initially this poem established Santa Claus as an important facet of the American Christmas, but that was really just the beginning of Moore's magic. As Christmas was a holiday that was all but ignored in the New World, the poem opened the door for real celebrations. When combined with the popularity of Dickens' "A Christmas Carol," and the traditions brought to England and America by Prince Albert, the holiday began to focus on children. Finally, in the United States, churches began to open on Christmas Day for worship. The government got with the program and closed up shop for Christmas. Business shut down as well. By the Civil War, Christmas became a day of staying with family.
Also, Moore's poem opened up the door for gifting giving to become an important part of Christmas. In a very real sense, especially for English and American Christians, who for centuries had little positive to embrace at Christmas and the church who all but ignored it, it was Santa Claus who saved the holiday and brought Jesus back into the spotlight.
Eva: Ace, I spent 16 years in Albany, Georgia. I married there, my children were born there, and I know that a candy maker from there holds a special place in Christmas tradition.
Ace: No doubt. Bob McCormick took the cane, which had been invented as a teaching aid and reward for a children's choir in Germany in 1670 and turned it into a world reminder of the real reason for the season. That complete story is told in a special chapter of the book.
Eva: And what a chapter it is! Okay…from candy to songs…what is the most recorded song in history?
Ace: "White Christmas," but "Rudolph" is not far behind.
Eva: A white Christmas, yes, but why are red, green, and gold the most popular colors of Christmas?
Ace: The gold is easy; this is the color of royalty and the most precious metal on earth. It was also one of the gifts to Jesus from the wise men. The red and green can really be traced to several different important traditions, such as holly and ivy, wreaths, Christmas trees, as well as mistletoe, all initially pagan symbols, given new life and depth through Christian faith. In essence, the green represented life that went on through the difficult times of winter, just like faith that could not die in the difficult times of life, and the red reminded Christians that Christ's blood was shed on the cross for sins, the real
reason for His coming to earth in the first place.
Eva: Ace, I literally wept when I read the story about Handle's Messiah. Then I made my husband listen while I read it to him! I was especially interested to hear why we stand during the Hallelujah Chorus.
Ace: The story is amazing and one of the two in this book that literally blew me away too. In truth, getting the book just to read about Handel's "Messiah," would probably make the holidays more meaningful for everyone and give a new passion for each day of life in the process. This is one chapter not to miss. In the initial performances of this musical, no one stood at any time except the end of the performance. Yet, when the "Messiah" made it's way to the English stage; that changed. King George II was so moved by the first notes of the "Hallelujah" chorus that he stood. In England at that time,
when the King stood so did everyone else. That was 1742 and we have been standing every since. And well we should.
Eva: Agreed. Christmas, for me, is not Christmas without holiday movies. You talk about quite a few and call one the best Santa Claus movie ever made. Which one and what makes you refer to it thusly?
Ace: The wonderful movie "Miracle on 34th Street," probably defined Santa as well as any and placed him not only on street corners and flying through the air on a sleigh, but also deep within each childlike heart. In a way, this movie is about believing, giving and service and that is a very old Christmas message that can be found in the Bible. It seems strange now that the film was actually first released in the summer.
Eva: Speaking of Santa...would you share briefly a bit about the 2 men who inspired the legend?
Ace: Two wonderful Christian men really began the Santa Claus legend through their selfless actions and their faith. The first was Nicholas, a clergyman who gave presents to poor peasant children in the third century, even before the church actually recognized the holiday. The second was a devout duke in Borivoy, who became the leader of Bohemia
at a very early age. Each Christmas Eve, this man would go through the snow giving out gifts to his poorest subjects. We now remember him through the song he inspired, "Good King Wenceslas." These two probably shaped the image and personality of Santa more than any others.
Eva: Ace, I can't say that I loved your book enough! But, I loved, loved, loved your book if for no other reason than that you've explained Christ in all of our Christmas traditions so eloquently. Hmmm...or is it X in Xmas?? (Laughing) Want to explain what I just said?
Ace: There are two unique and ancient traditions of Christmas. The origin of gifts are obvious, but few know that using X as a sign for Christ predates even our initial celebrations of Christmas. X or Chi was the first letter of Christ's name in Greek. Many early followers of Christ were Greek and would place an X over their doors or wear something on their persons with this letter to reflect their faith as followers of Christ. I could go into great detail here, but the book does that, so let's move onto Xmas. For more than 1,000 years, the church spelled out Christmas with just an X. It was not done to take Christ out of Christmas, but to put Him there where everyone, even those who could not read, could understand that this day of worship was for the Son of God.
As I tell kids at church, Jesus was not only the original "X-man," but the most powerful one too. The early church also would put an X on a page, then ask a believer at Christmas to turn the page 90 degrees. When they did, the X became a cross and they were reminded not only of the beginning of Christ's life on earth, but the end as well.
Eva: Awesome. Thank you, Ace, for your book…and your time. Would you offer a prayer for our readers during this "most wonderful time of the year?"
Ace: Christmas is a wonderful, Lord, but it is a time of not just shopping and wrapping gifts, but of remembering that your story as Savior began on this day as you came to earth as one of us. This year, let us take our faith and reach out to others in acts of kindness. Through a special note on a Christmas card, an unexpected Christmas gift or greeting, or maybe just an old fashioned hug, we can shine the spotlight back on You and bring Peace on Earth to the heart of one who has known nothing but turmoil. In your name we pray, Amen!
For more information on Ace Collins, go to: www.acecollins.com
Award-winning national speaker, Eva Marie Everson is the author of Shadow of Dreams, Summon the Shadowsand the recently released and highly anticipated Shadows of Light. She can be contacted for comments or for speaking engagement bookings at www.EvaMarieEverson.com