HISTORY OF A CHARLIE BROWN CHRISTMAS
On December 9, 1965, A Charlie Brown Christmas premiered on CBS TV as a 30-minute animated Christmas special written by Charles M. Schulz, creator of the “Peanuts” comic strip. The comic was hugely popular at the time when the TV special debuted.
Though this was not Schulz’s first TV special – that would be 1963’s “A Boy Named Charlie Brown” – nor the last, it would become the most enduring. It is a staple of holiday viewing today, and Christmas is not complete without gathering family and friends around the TV to watch it.
San Francisco Bay Area musician Vince Guaraldi, known at the time for his instrumental hit “Cast Your Fate To The Wind,” provided what was then an unusually melancholy jazz soundtrack along with traditional and classical music for the special. Along with producer Lee Mendelson, it took Shultz a day to outline the story for the sponsor Coca-Cola, weeks to write it, and six months to film.
HISTORY OF THE CHRISTMAS TREE
December 8 is National Christmas Tree Day.
It is generally believed that the first Christmas tree was of German origin, dating from the time of St. Boniface, an English missionary to Germany in the 8th century. He replaced the sacrifices to the Norse god Odin’s sacred oak — some say it was Thor‘s Thunder Oak — with 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 near Lower Hesse, Germany. He cut down the oak tree with a single ax stroke and stopped the sacrifice. A small fir tree sprang up in place of the oak. He told the pagans this was the “tree of life” and stood for Christ.
A legend began to circulate in the early Middle Ages that when Jesus was born in the dead of winter, all the trees throughout the world shook off their ice and snow to produce new shoots of green. The medieval Church would decorate outdoor fir trees, known as “paradise trees,” with apples on Christmas Eve. They called it “Adam and Eve Day” and celebrated with a play.
During Renaissance times, there are records that trees were being used as symbols for Christians, first in the Latvian capital of Riga in 1510. One story goes that it was attended by men wearing black hats in front of the House of Blackheads in the Town Hall Square, who, following a ceremony, burnt the tree. But whether it was for Christmas or Ash Wednesday is still debated.
Years ago, I stood in that same square in the winter, surrounded by snow.
HISTORY OF CHANUKAH
Today, at sundown, December 7th begins Chanukah. It is more commonly spelled Hanukkah; both are a transliteration of the Hebrew word חֲנֻכָּה , meaning “dedication.” This Jewish holiday traces its roots back more than 2,000 years.
Events Leading Up to Chanukah
At that time, the Jewish people were living under the oppressive government of the Syrian ruler Antiochus Epiphanes IV (a somewhat ironic name — Epiphanes means “God Manifest”), a descendant of Seleucus, one of the generals of Alexander the Great.
When Alexander died, he left no legitimate heir (who survived); instead, his empire was divided among the Diadochi, his surviving four generals. For several centuries, the divided empire was ruled by the rival dynasties of two of his generals:
- Ptolemy controlled Egypt in the south; Cleopatra was the last of his line in the first century B.C.
- Seleucus controlled Syria in the north; his descendant was Antiochus Epiphanies IV, who ruled Judea in the 2nd century B.C. (more…)
HISTORY OF SANTA CLAUS
December 6 is “Saint Nicholas Day.” The name Santa Claus is a kind of a contraction for Saint Nicholas. The German name Sankt Nikolaus can be pronounced San’t(a) ni-KLOuse (sounding like house.)
Origin of St. Nicholas
He was born in the late 3rd century, perhaps in A.D. 270. Nicholas became a bishop in Greece and gained distinction in the councils of the church. He was 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, Nicholas, servant of Christ Jesus.”
the old saint would say. He was imprisoned during the great persecutions of Christians under the Roman Emperor Diocletian in A.D. 303 but freed by the decree of Emperor Constantine. After that, he served as Bishop in Myra for another thirty years.
He died on December 6, about 343, and the Feast of St. Nicholas is now held on that day.
HISTORY OF CHRISTMAS: THE YEAR
It’s common knowledge that Jesus was born on December 25, A.D. 1, right?
Not so fast.
OK then, was it in Year Zero?
No, there wasn’t a Year 0; the calendar went from 1 B.C. to A.D. 1.
We know that Herod the Great (who killed all the babies in Bethlehem younger than two years of age) died in the Spring of 4 B.C., according to the Jewish historian Josephus 1. The king was quite alive during the Wise Men‘s visit in the Nativity story in the Gospel of Matthew. So Jesus would have to have been born before this time, anywhere from 7 B.C to 4 B.C. (Before Christ, or before himself!)
HISTORY OF THE NATIVITY SEASON
You’ve seen those greeting cards showing Joseph and Mary on the back of a donkey making their way to Bethlehem in the wintry snow.
Have you ever wondered if Jesus could have been born during the year’s close, perhaps even with snow on the ground?
Snow is not uncommon in this part of Palestine, and it occurs every 3 or 4 years. At an elevation of 2,400 feet, Bethlehem is in the desert. But desert means dry, not necessarily hot. Where I live in Colorado is officially the high desert, and we frequently have snow, although we’re at an elevation of 6,500 feet.
In January 2022, there was snow in nearby Jerusalem. But the Biblical narrative doesn’t say there was snow on the ground.
THE HISTORY OF ADVENT: WHY WE CELEBRATE CHRISTMAS ON DECEMBER 25
Here begins our series of articles on the History of Christmas. The traditional season of Advent, leading up to Christmas, begins today. It is celebrated in the church calendar as one of the most festive seasons of the year.
Meaning of Advent
“Advent” from the Latin adventus means the “coming” or “arrival” of the Christ Child and is marked by the four Sundays preceding Christmas, commemorated in churches and homes by lighting four Advent candles. This year, it starts on Sunday, December 3, and ends on December 24. The Greek word in the New Testament for Jesus’ arrival is parousia, (παρουσία) a word commonly used during that time in anticipation of the arrival of a king, emperor, or official.
As we shall see, many of the traditions, customs, and stories of the Advent Season have Christian roots, while others have non-Christian sources. Some are legendary, and others are firmly rooted in history. (more…)
HISTORY OF HOLIDAY FRUITCAKE
You may be wondering:
“My friendly neighborhood historian is writing an article on fruitcake? Is he as nutty as a fruitcake?”
And therein begins our tale…
The Phrase “Nutty as a Fruitcake”
Nutty as a fruitcake was first recorded in 1935, but the adjective nutty, meaning “crazy or eccentric,” goes back to 1821. I admit that I have been called eccentric. But more importantly…
December 27 is National Fruitcake Day, but why wait?
What is Fruitcake?
It’s a pastry, bread, or cake made of nuts, dried or candied fruits, spices, grain, and optionally soaked in alcohol. There are many recipes. It was a special food for weddings or Christmas since the 18th and 19th centuries. (more…)
I’m often asked to explain the history behind a holiday: is it based on history, tradition, or legend? The best historical sources on the birth of Jesus are found in two Gospel accounts in the New Testament: St. Matthew and St. Luke.
St. Matthew was a companion of Jesus during his ministry.
St. Luke was not. Instead, he was a companion of the Apostle Paul during his journeys. Still, Luke shows a detailed knowledge of primary sources, appearing to have spoken directly to Jesus’ mother, Mary, perhaps during his travels while she lived in Ephesus with St. John. Luke’s account contains much more detail and is four times longer than Matthew’s.
IS DIE HARD REALLY A CHRISTMAS MOVIE?
Scholars and historians have debated for centuries the question
“Is Die Hard a Christmas Movie?”
Or at least during the last three decades since the movie was released. This is why readers have turned to me, your friendly neighborhood historian, to wrestle with this age-old question and help them resolve this dilemma.
In this article, I will assemble ancient history, linguistic legerdemain, modern science, and contemporary film criticism to address this question.
The debate has raged amongst the tragically online and is perennially in full bloom during the Christmas season on Twitter. The participants typically fall into two camps, the “Duh!” and the “Nuh-uh.”
I divide this debate thusly:
HISTORY OF THE FIRST AMERICAN CHRISTMAS: 1776
It is called the first “American” Christmas because the Declaration of Independence was created the previous summer, essentially “divorcing” America from England and declaring our country an independent nation.
Admittedly, the country had not yet created a solid form of government. The Articles of Confederation were not produced until 1781, nor was the subsequent Constitution (1788). But there is no doubt that Americans saw themselves as independent of England… at least most did. But these “Patriots” had to fight for their independence in a War of Independence, a Revolutionary War.
Crossing the Delaware
On Christmas Day of 1776, General George Washington led the American Continental Army across the Delaware River to attack British forces in Trenton, New Jersey.
The Patriots had met with an unsuccessful Fall, experiencing defeats in New York.
- Supplies and morale were low.
- The British had overrun Fort Washington in Manhattan, taking 2,000 American prisoners.
- Ninety percent of the Continental Army soldiers who had served at Long Island were gone.
- Men had deserted, feeling that the cause for independence was lost.
- The line between being an American Patriot and being a Loyalist to England was thin, and hard times made it easier to cross that line.
Even the 44-year-old George Washington was discouraged, having written to his cousin in Virginia,
“I think the game is pretty nearly up.”
HISTORY OF CAROL OF THE BELLS: FROM A UKRAINIAN FOLK SONG
The favorite Christmas song, Carol of the Bells, is based on a Ukrainian folk song that initially had nothing to do with Christmas and was, in fact, popular in pre-Christian Ukraine.
How did this folk song become such a popular American Christmas carol, and what was its journey from a Ukrainian folk song to a modern choral favorite?
For a 1919 Christmas concert, Ukrainian choral conductor, arranger, composer, writer, musicologist, and lecturer Oleksander Koshyts commissioned a song based on Ukrainian folk melodies and created a national chorus to sing it.
Ukrainian composer Mykola Leontovych accepted the commission and adapted an old folk song into “Shchedryk,” which he premiered in Kyiv in December 1916. The Ukrainian word shchedryj means “bountiful.”
Leontovych was a prodigious choral conductor, composer, and teacher. Born in 1877 to a religious family in southwestern Ukraine, he completed seminary theological studies. He produced over 150 other classic works for choirs all over Ukraine and Russia.