History Articles

History of St. Valentine’s Day

February 12, 2006 /
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St Valentine 776391ST. VALENTINE’S DAY

Valentine or Valentinus, is the name of at least three martyred saints. The most celebrated are the two martyrs whose festivals fall on February 14, the one, a Roman priest, the other, bishop of Terni. It would appear from the legends that both lived during the reign of the emperor Claudius (Gothicus); that both died on the same day; and that both were buried on the Via Flaminia, but at different distances from Rome. A third was a martyr in the Roman province of North Africa about whom little is known. It seems that the first celebration of the feast of St. Valentine was declared to be on February 14 by Pope Gelasius I in 496. Many authorities believe that the lovers’ festival associated with St. Valentine’s day comes from the belief that this is the day in spring when birds begin their mating. There is another view held, however.

In the days of early Rome a great festival was held every February called “Lupercalia”, held in honor of a god named Lupercus. During the founding days of Rome the city was surrounded by an immense wilderness in which were great hordes of wolves. The Romans thought they must have a god to watch over and protect the shepherds with their flocks, so they called this god Lupercus, from the Latin word, lupus, a wolf. One of the amusements on this festival day was the placing of young women’s names in a box to be drawn out by the young men. Each young man accepted the girl whose name he drew, as his lady love.

This custom has changed throughout the years, during Christian times the priests put the names of saints and martyrs into the boxes to be drawn out. The name that was drawn out was called one’s “valentine” and the holy life of that person was to be imitated throughout the year. It was at one time the custom in England for people to call out “Good morning, ’tis St. Valentine’s Day”, and the one who succeeded in saying this first expected a present from the one to whom it was said, making things pretty lively on St. Valentine’s Day.

Paper valentines date back to the 1500’s but it took the enterprise of America to make a buck at it. Esther A. Holland, who produced one of the first American commercial Valentines in the 1840’s sold $5,000 worth – when $5,000 was a LOT of money – in the first year.

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

History of Groundhog Day

January 29, 2006 /
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groundhog 767753HISTORY OF GROUNDHOG DAY

Groundhog Day comes from Candlemas Day, observed for centuries in parts of Europe on February 2 where the custom was to have the clergy bless candles and distribute them to the people. This seems to have derived from the pagan celebration of Imbolc, coming at the mid-point between the Winter Solstice and the Spring Equinox. The Roman Legions, it is said, brought the tradition to the Germans.

Said the old Scottish couplet:

If Candlemas Day is bright and clear
There’ll be two winters in the year

By the 1840s the idea had caught on in the U.S., particularly in Pennsylvania whose earliest settlers were German immigrants. If the groundhog sees its shadow on a “bright and clear” day, six more weeks of winter are ahead.

Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania is the headquarters of the celebration where the groundhog “Punxsutawney Phil” regards his shadow at Gobbler’s Knob, a wooded knoll just outside the town.

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

History of Benjamin Franklin

January 17, 2006 /
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Franklin 788527HISTORY OF BENJAMIN FRANKLIN

As we celebrate the 300th birthday of this great American, we know him as a writer, publisher, merchant, scientist, moral philosopher, and inventor. Musically he invented the glass harmonica, but he also invented the Franklin stove, and started the first lending library and fire brigade in Philadelphia.

He did experiments in electricity and developed the lightning rod.

As one of the earliest and oldest of the Founding Father, he served as lobbyist to England.

He was one of the five drafters of the American Declaration of Independence, along with John Adams and primary drafter Thomas Jefferson. Franklin was 70. At 81 he served as the oldest delegate at the Constitutional Convention, recommending a bi-cameral legislature.

During the Revolutionary War, he served as Minister to France and managed, with his sagacity and salon celebrity, to convince the French King Louis XVI to support the American cause financially and militarily. He dazzled the salon crowd with his notoriety and flirtation, much to John Adam’s chagrin.

He was the most famous private citizen in America and the most celebrated American in Europe.

As a moral philosopher he was a personal mystery. Though he wrote pithy and wise sayings in “Poor Richards’ Almanac” he did not live by all of them himself. He is usually considered a deist, at least in the early part of his life, but he proposed clergy-led prayer each morning during the Constitutional Convention in June of 1787. He said “God governs the affairs of men” yet he also said, “I have some doubts as to [Jesus’] divinity.”

Puritan Ezra Stiles, president of Yale, knew of Franklin’s deist leanings, but wanted, if possible, to pin down the nimble-footed freethinker to some basics. In friendship Stiles asked for some kind of creedal confession, however limited. Franklin, who said that this was the first time he had ever been asked, on March 9, 1790, readily obliged:

“Here is my creed. I believe in one God, Creator of the universe: that he governs the world by his providence. That he ought to be worshiped. That the most acceptable service we can render to him is doing good to his other children. That the soul of man is immortal and will be treated with justice in another life respect[ing] its conduct in this. These I take to be the fundamental principles of all sound religion, and I regard them as you do, in whatever sect I meet with them.”

In addition, Stiles wanted to know specifically what Franklin thought of Jesus: Was Franklin really a Christian or not? Franklin responded that Jesus had taught the best system of morals and religion that “the world ever saw.” But on the troublesome question of the divinity of Jesus, he had along with other deists “some doubts.” It was an issue, he said, that he had never carefully studied and, writing only five weeks before his death, he thought it “needless to busy myself with it now, when I expect soon an opport[unity] of know[ing]the truth with less trouble.” It would be difficult to burn a heretic like that.

For his own epitaph, Franklin wrote:

“The body of Benjamin Franklin, printer, like the cover of an old book, its contents torn out, stripped of its lettering, and gilding, lies here, food for worms. But the work shall not be lost; for it will, as he believed, appear once more in a new and more elegant edition, revised and corrected by the Author.”

Though on his gravestone appeared only “BENJAMIN And DEBORAH FRANKLIN 1790.” His funeral in Philadelphia attracted the largest crowd of mourners ever known, an estimated 20,000 mourners.

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

History of Epiphany

January 6, 2006 /
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epiphany 797003HISTORY OF EPIPHANY

January 6 is known on the Christian calendar as Epiphany. It is sometimes called the “Twelfth Night” being the 12th Day of Christmas. It signifies the event of the Magi, or Wise Men visiting the baby Jesus, and is known in certain Latin cultures as Three Kings Day. In the Eastern (Orthodox and Oriental) churches it is known as the Theophany (God Manifest), commemorating Jesus’ baptism.

So, the 12 Days of Christmas don’t end at Christmas, Advent does. Instead, the 12 days start with Christmas, and end with Epiphany, sometimes called Christmastide. The “season” of Epiphany lasts from January 6 through the day before Lent.

Epiphany is a Greek word that means manifestation, appearance, or showing forth. Historically, Epiphany began in the eastern Church as the celebration of the Nativity of Jesus Christ. As the celebration of Christmas spread eastward, Epiphany changed to its present meaning. It is ironic, this year, as Chanukah overlaps Christmastide — that Epiphany is so close to Chanukah — as we recall that the villain in the Chanukah was Antiochus Epiphanes IV, or “Antiochus, manifest.”

In the Western churches (Protestants, Catholics, and Anglicans) it commemorates the “adoration” of the Christ Child by the Magi as they presented their gifts, thereby “revealing” Jesus to the world as Lord and King. In some traditions, the “Twelfth Night” party on January 5 is followed by the exchange of gifts on January 6th. The Russian church’s “Feast of the Nativity,” Christmas, is celebrated at this time.

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

History of the Twelve Days of Christmas

December 25, 2005 /
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12days 706475THE HISTORY OF THE TWELVE DAYS OF CHRISTMAS

The “Twelve Days of Christmas” are the dozen days in the liturgical calendar of the Western Church between the celebration of the birth of the Christ Child (Christmas, December 25) and the coming of the Magi to visit at his house in Bethlehem (Epiphany, January 6). The Eastern Church celebrates during Epiphany rather than Christmas Day. In Hispanic and Latin American culture, January 6th is observed as Three Kings Day, or simply the Day of the Kings.

Question: Aren’t the twelve days of Christmas the days before Christmas, when you shop for presents?

Answer: No, the four week season before Christmas is called Advent, meaning the coming of Christ. The dozen days following Christmas are the twelve days of Christmas, sometimes known as Twelfth Night. The Twelfth Night is the holiday which marks the twelfth night of the Christmas Season, the eve of Epiphany. During the Tudor period in England, the Lord of Misrule would run the festivities of Christmas, ending on this Twelfth Night. Shakespeare’s play by the same name was intended to be performed as a Twelfth Night entertainment and was first performed during this time in 1602.

This festival was particularly popular during the Middle Ages especially in England, where some of the traditions were adapted from older pagan customs. Modern Neopaganism celebrates this time. This period is also called Yule or Yuletide, which while it serves as an archaic term for Christmas, harkens back to earlier German and Norse traditions.

Question: But wasn’t this song used as a memory aid for catechism by Catholics in England during the period 1558 until 1829, when Parliament finally emancipated Catholicism there, who were prohibited from ANY practice of their faith by law – private OR public — where each gift is a hidden meanings to the teachings of the faith?

Answer: This is unlikely for several reasons:

At first glance, there is nothing in this song that is uniquely Catholic in belief as compared to Protestant catechism. Any of the items in it could be embraced by Catholic and Protestant alike. While Queen Elizabeth I’s “Act of Uniformity” truly did abolished the “old worship,” and the open practice of Catholicism was forbidden by law until Parliament passed the Catholic Emancipation Act in 1829, nothing in this song would have been taken as particularly Catholic or offensive to Anglican sensibilities. Indeed, during the highly Puritan time of the Commonwealth between 1649 and 1660 under the Cromwell government, Christmas was not celebrated in England until the time of Charles I and the restoration of the English monarchy.

Secondly, while there are differences between Anglican (Protestant) and Catholic belief, none of those show up in the “hidden meaning” of the song, with the possible exception of the number of sacraments.

However, it may be possible that this song has been confused with another song called “A New Dial” (also known as “In Those Twelve Days”), which dates to at least 1625 and assigns religious meanings to each of the twelve days of Christmas though not for the purposes of teaching a catechism. During those days there was a custom of singing songs called a “memory-and-forfeits performance” in which people added verses to a song cumulatively until the loser of the game forgot the first verses.

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

History of Chanukah

December 23, 2005 /
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menorah 718388HISTORY OF CHANUKAH

Also spelled hanukkah, means “dedication”. This Jewish holiday traces its roots back more than 2,000 years. At that time the Jewish people were living under the oppressive government of the Syrian ruler Antiochus Epiphanes IV, (a rather ironic name) who was a descendant of Seleucus, the general of Alexander the Great. During his rule he forbade the reading of the Scriptures, circumcision, Sabbath observance, and a number of other religious practices. In order to further promote the “hellenization” of Palestine, he set up in the Temple of Jerusalem an altar dedicated to the Roman god Jupiter where swine were offered in sacrifice. This “Abomination of Desolation” caused the Jews to rebel in what became known as the Maccabean Revolt, and under the leadership of Judas Maccabee (“the hammer”) the Syrians were overthrown, and the Temple had all signs of paganism removed. The statue to Jupiter was ground to dust. A feast was instituted on 25 Kislew, 165 B.C. for the purification of the Temple. The story goes that light of the Temple was relit with only enough pure oil to last one day, but miraculously lasted for eight days, until more could be found. The “Festival of Lights” is celebrated for eight days.

One of the most important Chanukah customs is to light colorful candles in a menorah or candelabrum with eight branches, one for each night of Chanukah and one prominent one that holds the candle to be used to light the others. On the first night, one candle is lit and each succeeding night another is added so that all eight are alight on the last night. Because the Chanukah story involved oil, foods fried in oil are traditional for the holiday. Potato pancakes appear to have come to us from Russia. There the Jews made “latkes” or pancakes from a great variety of ingredients, from cheese to buckwheat flour to noodles. Legend says that women behind the lines, during the Jews’ fight against the Syrians 2,000 years ago, made flat cakes for the warriors because they could be prepared quickly.

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

History of Augustus

December 22, 2005 /
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augustus 736431HISTORY OF CAESAR AUGUSTUS

Perhaps it is fitting that our last article on the History behind Christmas should be about the first person mentioned in St. Luke’s story of the first Christmas. He was neither Palestinian, nor Jew, nor shepherd, nor wise man. He was in fact, 1500 miles away, the Roman emperor, Caesar Augustus. Were it not for his decision, Jesus would not have been born in Bethlehem, but in Nazareth, the home of Mary (and this would have messed up all the Old Testament prophesies). But because of Augustus’ decree Mary and Joseph, descendants of the often married King David, returned to Bethlehem, the city of David. It was here that Mary’s first born child was born, according to Luke, in a manger as there was no room at the inn. Certainly they had not called ahead, and there were a lot of travelers at the time, it being the Christmas season and all.

Some sixty years earlier, the Roman general Pompey had conquered Palestine and was at this time a “client kingdom” ruled by a local king, Herod the Great, who was directly responsible to the Roman emperor. Augustus himself, grand nephew and adopted heir to Julius Caesar, in addition to being emperor was a religious reformer, for he tried to revive the drooping interest in Rome’s state religion. By his day, the average Roman had abandoned his beliefs in the gods of the Greco-Roman pantheon and philosophical skepticism was growing, while the more credulous joined the foreign eastern mystery cults. Feeling that this neglect of the gods was demoralizing Roman society, he set about his religious revival with enthusiasm bestowing temples and shrines on the Empire, restoring eighty-two temples in the city of Rome alone. He became “pontifex maximus” (highest priest) in the state cult and tried to spark a moral renewal in society.

Many Roman men and women of the time were indulging in a very easy morality to escape what they called “the tedium of marriage”, and soon marital and birth rates had dwindled alarmingly. One day, August was disturbed enough to stalk into the Forum and devise a crude test of the situation: he told a crowd of men gathered there to separate into two groups, the bachelors on one side, the married men on the other. Seeing the handful of husbands he said:

What shall I call you? Men? But you aren’t fulfilling the duties of men. Citizens? But for all your efforts, the city is perishing. Romans? But you are in the process of blotting out this name altogether! … What humanity would be left if all the rest of mankind should do what you are doing? … You are committing murder in not fathering in the first place those who ought to be your descendants!

… and on to other such gems of imperial logic.

Augustus followed this with legislation designed to reverse the tide by making promiscuity a crime, while conferring political advantages on a father of three children. Bachelors who shirked “the duty of marriage” were penalized in their right to inherit, and they could not even secure good seats at the games! Bachelors trying to circumvent such penalties by “marrying” infant girls were quickly countered by setting the minimum age for engagement at ten for girls, with a two-year upper limit for the length of engagement.

Acts of Augustus 768141Perhaps it was to gauge his success in raising the marriage and birth rates that Augustus was so concerned about the imperial census, for he took several, as in the Christmas story, during his lengthy reign. Such enrollments, of course, were also the basis for the Roman system of taxation, but the Emperor was pleased enough with the results that he proudly mentioned his censuses in eight place among the thirty-five “Acts of Augustus” for which he wished to be remembered, items that were later engraved on two bronze plaques outside his mausoleum. A subscription for the “Acts of Augustus” also appears at the Temple of Augustus in Ankara, Turkey, pictured here.

Some scholars have doubted that imperial Rome would require her subjects to return to their original homes for such enrollments. But this requirement has been supported by the discovery of a Roman census edict from 104 A.D in neighboring Egypt.

“Gaius Vibius Maximus, prefect of Egypt, says: The house-to-house census having been started, it is essential that all persons who for any reason whatsoever are absent from their homes be summoned to return to their own hearths, in order that they may perform the customary business of registration…”

Had Augustus ever seen these three names on the census returns from Bethlehem?

Joseph Ben-Iacob, carpenter
Mary Bath-Ioachim, his wife
Yeshua or Jesus, first-born son

It is very unlikely, and certainly he never learned the significance of what happened in Bethlehem because of his decision to take the census. And at the time of Augustus’ death in 14 A.D. Jesus was about 19 years old, an apprentice carpenter in Nazareth, and the Emperor still could not possibly have heard of him. Augustus would have been astounded to know that later ages would assign his own death to the year 14 A.D. (“in the year of the Lord”) rather than the Roman date, 767 A.U.C. (ab urbe condita, “from the founding of the city”) all because of this unknown subject, born in Bethlehem. And as the years went by this “King of the Jews” would lead a kingdom far more vast than Augustus ever knew.

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

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

History of A Christmas Carol

December 21, 2005 /
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christmascarol logo 701783HISTORY OF A CHRISTMAS CAROL

This week in 1843 saw the publication of Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol.” No other book or story by Dickens or anyone else (save the Bible) has been more enjoyed, criticized, referred to, or more frequently adapted to other media. None of his other works is more widely recognized or, indeed, celebrated within the English-speaking world. Some scholars have even claimed that in publishing A Christmas Carol Dickens single-handedly invented the modern form of the Christmas holiday in England and the United States.

Indeed, the great British thinker G.K. Chesterton noted long ago, with A Christmas Carol Dickens succeeded in transforming Christmas from a sacred festival into a family feast. In so doing, he brought the holiday inside the home and thus made it accessible to ordinary people, who were now able to participate directly in the celebration rather than merely witnessing its performance in church.

original carol marley 758926Many of our American conceptions of what a “traditional” Christmas is, comes from this time in Victorian history. Indeed, Queen Victoria of England had just married a few years earlier, and her German husband, Prince Albert brought some of his native customs to England (including the Christmas tree), beginning some of the traditions of Victorian Christmas.

In the mid-seventeenth century, the Cromwellian Revolt abolished Christmas as well as the monarchy. However well the monarchy was subsequently “restored,” the traditions of the winter holiday never recovered. But religious prescription was not the only cause of the decline of Christmas. Even by the beginning of the nineteenth century, the industrial revolution, especially in the north, was changing the communities that still tenuously kept the customs of their ancestors.

original carol fezziwig 731323By the time the Carol was written in 1843, the lavish celebrations of the past were a distant, quaint memory. Some still remembered them, and even before the Carol a few popular books attempted to record the celebrations of the past, such as The Book of Christmas by T.H. Hervey (1837) and The Keeping of Christmas at Bracebridge Hall by Washington Irving (1820). But social forces beyond simple nostalgia were at work, rekindling the need for winter celebrations.

Dickens was one of the first to show his readers a new way of celebrating the old holiday in their modern lives. His Christmas celebrations of the Carol adapted the twelve-day manorial (Yule) feast to a one-day party any family could hold in their own urban home. Instead of gathering together an entire village, Dickens showed his readers the celebration of Fred, Scrooge’s nephew, with his immediate family and close friends, and also the Cratchits’ “nuclear family”: perfectly happy alone, without the presence of friends or wider family. He showed the urban, industrial English that they could still celebrate Christmas, even though the old manorial twelve-day celebrations were out of their reach. Dickens’s version of the holiday evoked the childhood memories of people who had moved to the cities as adults.

original carol ghost present 798636The Cratchit family, although quaint and sentimental to modern readers, was a familiar portrait of the lower-middle class families who originally read the Carol, familiar in fact to Dickens himself, who modeled the Cratchits’ lifestyle on his own childhood experience of when he himself lived in Camden Town. (Dickens’ own father was in and out of Debtors’ Prison.) Dickens demonstrates that even in poverty, the winter holiday can inspire good will and generosity toward one’s neighbors. He shows that the spirit of Christmas was not lost in the race to industrialize, but can live on in our modern world.

The publishing of his book was immensely popular, though in a time ofgreat religious controversy, and its lack of babes, wise men, stars,mangers, and other icons of the Christian nativity inspired a multitudeof sermons and pamphlets at that time. Although A Christmas Carol is generally associated with the Christian winter holiday season, for it does contain references to the Christian Jesus; its themes are not exclusive to Christianity and it inspired a tradition for decades in Christmas books and celebrations that appealed to many non-Christians.

His preface to the book reads:

I have endeavoured in this Ghostly little book, to raise the Ghost of an Idea, which shall not put my readers out of humour with themselves, with each other, with the season, or with me. May it haunt their houses pleasantly, and no one wish to lay it.
Their faithful Friend and Servant, C.D., December, 1843.

But the punch line to the book, is the very last sentence, which rarely fails to bring a tear to this historian:

It was always said of Scrooge, that he knew how to keep Christmas well, if any man alive possessed the knowledge. May that be truly said of us, and all of us! And so, as Tiny Tim observed,
God Bless Us, Every One!

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

excerpts from Prof. Gerhard Rempel, Lectures in Western Civilization

History of the Star

December 20, 2005 /
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christmas starChristmas Star 756566HISTORY OF THE STAR

The star of Bethlehem has puzzled scholars for centuries. Some have skeptically dismissed the phenomenon as a myth, a mere literary device to call attention to the importance of the Nativity. Others have argued that the star was miraculously placed there to guide the Magi and is therefore beyond all natural explanation. Most authorities, however, take a middle course which looks for some historical explanation for the Christmas star, and several interesting theories have been offered.

The Greek term for star in the Gospel account, “aster”, can mean any luminous heavenly body, including a comet, meteor, nova, or planet (wandering star). The Chinese have more exact and more complete astronomical records than the Near East, particularly in their tabulations of comets and novae. In 1871, John Williams published his authoritative list of comets derived from Chinese annuals. Comet No. 52 on the Williams list appeared for some seventy days in March-April of 5 B.C. near the constellation Capricorn, and would have been visible in both the Far and Near East. As each night wore on, of course, the comet would seem to have moved westward across the southern sky. The time is also very appropriate. This could indeed have been the wise men’s astral marker. Comet No. 53 on the Williams list is a tailless comet, which could well have been a nova, as Williams admitted. No. 53 appeared in March-April of 4 B.C.-a year after its predecessor – in the area of the constellation Aquila, which was also visible all over the East. Was this, perhaps the star that reappeared to the Magi once Herod had directed them to Bethlehem in Matthew 2:9? Comets do not display all the characteristics described in the full Nativity story. A planet or planets seems more likely.

The astronomer Johannes Kepler noted in the early 17th century that every 805 years, the planets Jupiter and Saturn come into extraordinary repeated conjunction, with Mars joining the configuration a year later. Since Kepler, astronomers have computed that for ten months in 7 B.C., Jupiter and Saturn traveled very close to each other in the night sky, and in May, September, and December of that year, they were conjoined. Mars joined the configuration in February of 6 B.C. The astrological interpretation of such a conjunction would have told the Magi much, if, as seems probable, they shared the astrological lore of the area. Jupiter and Saturn met each other in Pisces, the Fishes.

In ancient astrology, the giant planet Jupiter was styled the “King’s Planet”, for it represented the highest god and ruler of the universe: Marduk to the Babylonians; Zeus to the Greeks; Jupiter to the Romans. The ringed planet Saturn was deemed the shield or defender of Palestine, while the constellation of Pisces, which was also associated with Syria and Palestine, represented epochal events and crises. So Jupiter encountering Saturn in the sign of the Fishes would have meant that a divine and cosmic ruler was to appear in Palestine at a culmination of history.

Meanwhile, new research on the star based on recently available astronomy software and historical research on Josephus’ manuscripts is being conducted and collected at www.bethlehemstar.net.

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

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