Skip to content

History Articles

History of the Christmas Tree

December 11, 2005 /
Categories:

HISTORY OF THE CHRISTMAS TREE

It is generally believed that the first Christmas tree was of German origin dating from Boniface, English missionary to Germany in the 8th century, who replaced the sacrifices to Odin’s sacred oak by a fir tree adorned in tribute to the Christ child. The legend is told that Boniface found a group of “pagans” preparing to sacrifice a boy near an oak tree. He cut down the oak tree with a single stroke of his ax and stopped the sacrifice. A small fir tree sprang up in place of the oak. He told the pagans that this was the “tree of life” and stood for Christ.

Accounts persist that Martin Luther introduced the tree lighted with candles. Returning home after a walk one winter night, the story goes, he tried unsuccessfully to describe to his family the beauty of the starry night. He went out and cut down a small fir tree and put lighted candles upon it.

In a manuscript dated 1605 a merchant in Strasbourg, Germany wrote that at Christmas, “they set up fir trees in the parlors in Strasbourg and hang thereon roses cut out of paper of many colors, apples, wafers, spangle-gold and sugar. The custom of decorating the trees may have developed from the medieval Paradise Play. This play was a favorite during the Advent season because it ended with the promise of a Savior. The action in the play centered around a fir tree hung with apples.

In the fifteenth century, trees were decorated with wafers. Later, stars and flowers made from white pastry, and men and animals made from brown pastry, were used.

The earliest date in England for a Christmas Tree was at Queen’s Lodge, Windsor by Queen Charlotte, the German born wife of George III, for a party she held on Christmas Day, 1800, for the children of the leading families in Windsor. Her biographer Dr John Watkins describes the scene:

In the middle of the room stood an immense tub with a yew tree placed in it, from the branches of which hung bunches of sweetmeats, almonds, and raisins in papers, fruits and toys, most tastefully arranged, and the whole illuminated by small wax candles. After the company had walked around and admired the tree, each child obtained a portion of the sweets which it bore together with a toy and then all returned home, quite delighted.

The Christmas Tree was most popularized in England, however, by the German Prince Albert, soon after his marriage to Queen Victoria. In 1841, he began the custom of decorating a large tree in Windsor Castle. In 1848, a print showing the Royal couple with their children was published in the “Illustrated London News.” Albert gave trees to Army barracks and imitation followed. From this time onwards, the popularity of decorated fir trees spread beyond Royal circles and throughout society. Even Charles Dickens referred to the Christmas tree as that ‘new German toy’. German immigrants brought the custom to the United States and tree decorating is recorded back to 1747 in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania.

Many individuals and communities vie for the honor of having decorated the first Christmas tree in America. One interesting story tells of Hessian soldiers who fought for George III in the Revolutionary War. As they were keeping Christmas in Trenton, New Jersey around a decorated tree, they left their posts unguarded. George Washington and his troops were hungry and freezing at Valley Forge, but they planned their attack with the knowledge that the Hessians would be celebrating and thus would not be as able to defend themselves.

Christmas trees really became popular in the United States following the invention of the electric light. In 1895, President Grover Cleveland decorated the tree at the White House with electric Lights. This idea caught on and spread across the country.

Bill Petro, your friendly neighborhood historian
www.billpetro.com

History of Santa Claus

December 10, 2005 /
Categories:

HISTORY OF SANTA CLAUS

One of the traditions of Christmas is Santa Claus, a contraction for Saint Nicholas, who was born in the 3rd century, perhaps in A.D. 270. He became a bishop in Greece and gained distinction in the councils of the church, being especially famed for unexpected gifts, and later associated with the giving of presents during the season at the end of the year. “I am Nicholas, a sinner,” the old saint would say. “Nicholas, servant of Christ Jesus.” He was imprisoned during the 303 persecutions under the Roman Emperor Diocletian but freed by decree of Emperor Constantine. Thereafter, he served as Bishop in Myra for another thirty years. Nicholas participated in the famous Council of Nicea in 325. He died on December 6, about 343, and the Feast of St. Nicholas is now held on that day.

Many stories are told of his kindness, such as the one of the poor man and his three daughters. To save the daughters from being sold into prostitution for want of doweries, St. Nicholas dropped a bag full of gold down the man’s chimney. It landed in one of the stockings the eldest daughter had hung up to dry. Now she could be married. The other two daughters quickly hung up stockings for St. Nicholas to fill with gold, so that they, too, could soon be married. By the way, the three gold globes of the pawn shop are attributed to this story.

He seems to have been adopted by the Netherlands as the patron saint of children, and there, on St. Nicholas Eve, they leave their wooden shoes, or sabots, filled with hay for the Saint’s white horse. He is real to children the world over, under various names as Kris Kringle, La Befana, Yule Tomten, and Christkindli.

In 1809 Washington Irving, under the pen name Diedrich Knickerbocker, wrote ‘A History of New York’, wherein Saint Nicholas, a jolly personage smoking a Dutch pipe, skimmed over the treetops in a wagon and dropped presents down the chimneys.

A few years later, in 1822, Clement C. Moore reputedly wrote a poem for his own children which is most often called ‘The Night Before Christmas.’ However, Don Foster in his book “Author Unknown,” makes a case that Henry Livingston actually penned it in 1807 or 1808, but whatever the case, the correct title of the poem is ‘A Visit from St. Nicholas’. Many are unaware that never once was used the term Santa Claus, although the reindeer are there, a part of the legend undoubtedly developed in America, probably by Scandinavians in the United States. At last, during the Christmas season of 1862, Thomas Nast, the cartoonist, drew a picture of Santa Claus for Harper’s Weekly during the Civil War. Nast combined his own native German traditions of Saint Nicholas with other German folk traditions of elves in creating the image, seen above. His various pictures of Santa Claus ran through 1866, firmly cementing the image in the American mind. The name Santa Claus also became more familiar to American ears than the German Sankt Niklaus or Dutch Sinterklaas.

Finally, in the 1930s that the now-familiar American Santa image solidified. The artist Haddon Sundblom began Coca-Cola Santa advertisements running for thirty-five years which finally established Santa as an icon of contemporary commercial culture. This Santa was not an elf, but a man — jolly, and wearing the now familiar white fir-trimmed red suit.

Bill Petro, your friendly neighborhood historian
www.billpetro.com/holidayhistory

History of Christmas Music

December 8, 2005 /
Categories:

HISTORY OF CHRISTMAS MUSIC

Music early became a marked feature of the Christmas season. But the first chants, litanies, and hymns were in Latin and too theological for popular use. The 13th century found the rise of the carol written in the vernacular under the influence of Francis of Assisi. The word carol comes from the Greek word choraulein. A choraulein was an ancient circle dance performed to flute music. In the Middle Ages, the English combined circle dances with singing and called them carols. Later, the word carol came to mean a song in which a religious topic is treated in a style that is familiar or festive. From Italy, it passed to France and Germany, and later to England, everywhere retaining its simplicity, fervor, and mirthfulness. Music in itself has become one of the greatest tributes to Christmas, and includes some of the noblest compositions of the great musicians.

Interestingly enough, during the British Commonwealth government under Cromwell, the British Parliament prohibited the practice of singing Christmas carols as pagan and sinful. Its pagan roots in the 13th century and its overly “democratic” 14th century influences made it an unsuitable activity for the general public and it was to be mandated so, by the Commonwealth government of 1647. Puritans at this time disapproved as well of the celebration of Christmas, and did not close shop on that day, but continued to work through December 25. During this brief interlude in English history, during which there was no monarch, this activity by the populace was to remain illegal. But this activity was prohibited only as long as the Commonwealth survived, and in 1660, when Charles II restored the Stuarts to the throne, the public was once again able to practice the singing of Christmas carols.

No musical work is more closely associated with the Christmas season than “Messiah” by George Frederick Handel (1685-1759). It may come as something of a surprise that it had nothing to do with the Christmas season when it was composed. Incidentally, the full title of the work is merely “Messiah”; it is widely and incorrectly recorded as “The Messiah”. The composer was German by birth but became a naturalized Englishman in 1726. He wrote “Messiah” in the summer of 1741, and his first performance was the following spring in Dublin.

“Messiah” is usually attributed to have been originally done at Christ Church Cathedral, but that is only half true. While the Christ Church choir performed it, along with the choir from St. Patrick’s Cathedral three blocks away, pictured above, the actual performance was done at a music hall on Fishamble Street half a block away. The music hall no longer exists, but the plaque below commemorates its location. The premiere was a benefit for prisoners in jail for debt as well as for a hospital and an infirmary. Enough money was raised to free 142 unfortunate debtors.

Bill Petro, your friendly neighborhood historian
www.billpetro.com/holidayhistory

History of a Sacred Oratorio

December 7, 2005 /
Categories:

HISTORY OF A SACRED ORATORIO

The genteel reception accorded the original debut performance stood in marked contrast to the savage hostility which greeted the work less than a year later in London. The English aristocracy and churchmen began an unrelenting campaign against the work and its creator. They labeled it “a profanation,” scandalized at “the sacrilege of converting the Life and Passion of Christ into a theatrical entertainment.”

Some clergymen objected so strongly to the idea of printing the actual title on the program that the author was obliged to announce his great work as “a Sacred Oratorio.”
The city of London was hit on the one hand by fierce propaganda against the work, wherein the Oratorio was denounced as unsuitable and sacrilegious, and on the other hand by those – who never bothered to attend any performances – calling the author “an insufferable German upstart” and “a dissolute fellow.”

This was the man who Haydn, on hearing the chorus, later said, “He is the master of us all” and of whom Beethoven, when asked who was the greatest composer said, “to him I bow the knee.”
Yes, the London debut was quite different from the enthusiastic reception that Handel got a year earlier in Dublin when he first performed the sacred oratorio “Messiah.”

Indeed, when Handel’s Messiah premiered in Dublin in 1742 at Christ Church pictured above, the demand for tickets was so great that the newspapers made an unusual request. Editors asked that ladies who planned to attend refrain from wearing hoop skirts and that gentlemen leave their swords at home. This would free up more space and allow more people to be seated.

Bill Petro, your friendly neighborhood historian
www.billpetro.com/holidayhistory

History of the Poinsettia

December 6, 2005 /
Categories:

HISTORY OF THE POINSETTIA

Some thirty years ago, I studied one summer in Cuernavaca, a little town south of Mexico City. There is a story told there that long ago the people flocked to church on Christmas Eve because they loved to fill the Christ child’s manger with flowers. A little boy named Jose was too poor to buy any flowers. The story continues that an angel appeared to him and told him to pick some weeds from the side of the road. Following the instructions, Jose brought the weeds to the church. When he put them in the manger, they changed into beautiful scarlet flowers, which the Mexicans call the “Flor de la Noche Buena,” the Flower of the Holy Night.

These striking blooms caught the attention of Dr. Joel Roberts Poinsett, America’s first ambassador to Mexico. Dr. Poinsett brought the plant to America and raised it in his greenhouses in Charleston, South Carolina. It was named in his honor in 1836.

There are also white, pink and dappled poinsettias. By the early 1900’s, they were sold as potted plants in California. Many poinsettias are still raised in the state, especially for use as Christmas gifts and decorations. The city of Ventura, California is even known as the Poinsettia City.

Bill Petro, your friendly neighborhood historian
www.billpetro.com/holidayhistory

History of the Creche

December 5, 2005 /
Categories:

HISTORY OF THE CRECHE

One of the most beautiful Christmas traditions is setting up a creche during the Advent season. A creche is a model of the scene at the manger on the first Christmas in the stable at Bethlehem. A creche can be a small model, set up in the home or a large scene set up at a church or lawn.

The word creche is from the French word for manger. The French word comes from the Italian word Greccio. Greccio was the town where the first manger scene was set up by St. Francis of Assisi, in 1223. Before that time, many churches had built mangers, but these early mangers were covered with gold, silver, and jewels. They were much fancier than the original manger in which the Christ child was laid.

St. Francis wanted people to remember that Jesus was born in a humble stable. He asked a farmer friend of his to help by bringing an ox, a donkey, a manger and some straw to a nearby cave. On Christmas Eve, St. Francis and the people of Greccio met in this cave. By candlelight, they acted out the story of Jesus’ birth.

Bill Petro, your friendly neighborhood historian
www.billpetro.com/holidayhistory

History of Christmas: Traditions

December 4, 2005 /
Categories:

TRADITIONS

Many of the customs that we associate with Christmas come from largely pagan or pre-Christian backgrounds. The word ‘Yule’ comes from an old Norse word for a twelve-day celebration. Mistletoe was prominent in the traditions of the Druids and the lore of northern Europe. The wassail bowl was first known in Scandinavia. Holly was used for decoration in the twelve-day Roman holiday known as the Saturnalia, which was followed by twelve holy days ending on January 1, and is where we get the ‘Twelve Days of Christmas’. Incidentally, the “X” in ‘Xmas’ is not an abbreviation for ‘cross’. It represents “chi” (which looks like our ‘x’), the first letter in the Greek word “christos”, which like the Hebrew word “messiah” means “the anointed one”.

Bill Petro, your friendly neighborhood historian
www.billpetro.com/holidayhistory

History of Christmas: King Herod

December 1, 2005 /
Categories:

HISTORY OF HEROD THE KING

When the wise men asked Herod the King “Where is he who is born king of the Jews?” their question was not really spoken in a vacuum, for even the Roman author Suetonius wrote, “There had spread all over the East an old and established belief that it was fated for men coming from Judea at that time to rule the world”. But as wise as they were, their inquiry before the King showed no great tact. For instead of understanding the question to mean “Where is he who will someday succeed you”, Herod’s suspicious mind warped the query into “Where is the REAL king, you impostor?” At the time Herod mistrusted everyone and thought himself surrounded by young aspirants all plotting to seize his throne.

Rather than clap the Magi in irons for asking such a question, his native shrewdness tried to ferret out whatever information he could from them in order to kill off a possible rival. From the information he had gained about the date of the appearance of the star, and from the Old Testament prophesies his own scholars knew of, Herod concluded that the “king of the Jews” was about 2 years old and living in Bethlehem. By the way, since Herod died in 4 B.C., and Jesus was around 2, we might surmise that Jesus was born between 6-4 B.C. Furthermore, the wise men did not visit Jesus in the manger, contrary to the Hallmark Christmas cards, but some time later, perhaps 2 years later, when he was living in a house (Matthew 2:11).

The young Herod had been an exceptionally able ruler, governing Palestine as client-king in behalf of the Roman emperor Augustus. The House of Herod had the uncanny knack of being able to sniff the airs of Mediterranean politics and make the right choices. Herod’s father had given crucial help to Julius Caesar when he was down in Egypt, cut off from his supplies, and Caesar rewarded him handsomely for that. Herod himself shrewdly advised his friend Mark Antony to drop Cleopatra and make peace with Rome (advice he should have followed). And once Augustus emerged victorious from the civil wars, he was so impressed with young Herod that he allowed him to become one of his most trusted friends.

Herod beautified Palestine during his 33 year reign. He erected palaces, fortresses (Masada, for example), temples, aqueducts, cities, and – his crowning achievement – the great new Temple in Jerusalem. He created the magnificent port of Caesarea in honor of Augustus and stimulated trade and commerce. He also patronized culture in cities far from Palestine and easily became the talk of the eastern Mediterranean. He even sponsored the Olympic games of 12 B.C.!

But he had little support in his own kingdom. As a half-Jew he seemed far too Romanizing for his subjects, whom he taxed heavily. Soon he was hated as a tyrant, even by his own family. Herod was so jealous of his favorite wife (he married ten wives) that on two occasions he ordered that she be killed if he failed to return from a critical mission. He finally killed her anyway, as well as her grandfather, her mother, his brother-in-law, and three of his sons, not to mention numerous subjects. In his advancing paranoia, he was continually writing to Rome for permission to execute one or two of his sons for treason. Finally even his patron and friend Augustus had to admit, “I’d rather be Herod’s pig than his son”. It was not only a play on the similar sounding Greek words for son and pig, but a wry reference to the fact that pork, at least, was not consumed by Jews.

Old and very ill from arteriosclerosis, Herod worried that no one would mourn his death – a justified concern. So he issued orders from his deathbed that leaders from all parts of Judea were to be locked inside the great hippodrome at Jericho. When Herod died, archers were to massacre these thousands in cold blood, so there would indeed be universal mourning associated with his death. Although the leaders were gathered, the order was never given. Not only did this plan fail, but so did his plan to kill “he who has been born king of the Jews”.

Bill Petro, your friendly neighborhood historian
www.billpetro.com/holidayhistory

From Paul L. Maier’s In the Fullness of Time

History of the Wise Men: the Magi

November 30, 2005 /
Categories:

THE WISE MEN

You’re familiar with the song that begins “We Three Kings of Orient Are…” but it is inaccurate in at least three ways. We don’t know how many there were, but we know they weren’t kings. They did not originate in the Orient, meaning the Far East.

How could they have seen the star “in the East” and arrived in Jerusalem unless they began somewhere in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea, as it says in the Gospel of Matthew 2:2 “We saw his star in the east, and have come to worship him”. One easy explanation is to see it in the sense of “We saw his star when we were in the east and have come from the east to worship him”.

A number of tradition places their number at three, with the presumption of three gifts for three givers: gold, frankincense, and myrrh. But some earlier traditions make quite a caravan of their visit, setting their number as high as twelve.

The term “magi” is usually translated wise men, astrologers, or magicians (the word “magic” comes from magi). “The East”, has been variously identified as any country from Arabia to Media and Persia, but usually no further east.

What we know about their origin suggests to Mesopotamian or Persian origins for the magi, who were known to be an old and powerful priestly caste among both the Medes and Persians. These priest-sages who were extremely well educated for their day, were specialists in a variety of disciplines, including medicine, religion, astronomy, astrology, divination, and magic, and their caste eventually spread across much of the East. As in any profession, there were both good and bad magi, depending on whether they did research in the sciences or practiced augury, necromancy, and magic. The Persian magi at least were credited with higher religious and intellectual attainments, while the Babylonian magi were sometimes deemed impostors. The safest conclusion is that the Magi of Christmas were Persian, for the term originated among the Medo-Persians, and early Syriac traditions give them Persian names.

Primitive Christian art in the second-century Roman Catacombs of Pricilla, which I have visited, dresses them in Persian garments, and a majority of early church fathers interpret them as Persians.

The Church of the Nativity was built in the 4th century by Emperor Constantine’s mother upon the traditional site in Bethlehem where Jesus was born, and indeed it is the only major church in the Holy Land that survives intact from the early Christian period. In 614, the church had a narrow escape. A Sassanian army from Persia had invaded the Holy Land and proceeded to destroy all the churches. However, they desisted at Bethlehem because they recognized the images of their ancestors, the Magi, above the entrance to the Church of the Nativity in Persian headdress. This account makes sense by virtue of the fact that the Magi were traditionally represented in early Christian art as Zoroastrian priests

Bill Petro, your friendly neighborhood historian
www.billpetro.com/holidayhistory

Inspired by Paul L. Maier’s In the Fullness of Time

Scroll To Top