History Articles

History of Christmas Music

December 10, 2006 /
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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. For a while, Handel lived about a mile 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

History of a Sacred Oratorio

December 7, 2006 /
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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

With thanks to Paul Harvey’s “The Rest of the Story”

History of the Poinsettia

December 6, 2006 /
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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 Christmas Eve.

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. The Latin name is Euphorbia pulcherrima (literally, “the most beautiful Euphorbia”)

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

 

History of the Creche

December 5, 2006 /
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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

History of Christmas: Traditions

December 4, 2006 /
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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

History of Christmas: King Herod

December 3, 2006 /
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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

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

History of Christmas: the Wise Men

November 30, 2006 /
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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 traditions 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

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

History of the Christmas Star

November 29, 2006 /
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christmas starHISTORY 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

History of Christmas: the Year

November 28, 2006 /
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THE YEAR

It’s obvious that Jesus was born on December 25, A.D. 1, right? Wrong. We do know that Herod the Great (who killed all the babies in Bethlehem younger than 2 years of age) died in the spring of 4 B.C., and the king was quite alive during the visit of the Wise Men (Magi) in the Nativity story told in the Gospel of Mark. So Jesus must have been born before this time, anywhere from 7-4 B.C. (Before Christ, or before himself!)

Why is there a gap of this much time in our modern calendar? There was a Roman monk-mathematician-astronomer named Dionysis Exeguus (Dionysis the Little) during the 6th century who unwittingly committed what has become history’s greatest numerical error as it relates to the calendar. As he endeavored to reform the Western calendar to center around Jesus’ birth, he erroneously placed the date of the Nativity in the year 753 from the founding of Rome (753 a.u.c. or Ab Urbe Condita), even though Herod died only 749 years after the founding of the city of Rome. The cumulative effect of Dionysis’ calendar error, which is the same calendar we use today, was to give the correct traditional date for the founding of Rome, but one that is at least 4 to 7 years off for the birth of Christ.

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

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

History of Christmas: Nativity Season

November 27, 2006 /
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NATIVITY SEASON

Perhaps you’ve seen the greeting card — Joseph along with Mary on the back of a donkey making their way to Bethlehem in the wintery snow. But could Jesus have been born during that time of the year, perhaps with snow on the ground? It is possible, as 3 to 4 days a year snow can fall in Palestine. In January on 1950 for example there was 20 inches on the ground in Israel. It is usually pointed out that shepherds don’t have sheep on the hillsides during the winter, though the Nativity story reports “…shepherds watched their flocks by night…” But there were flocks of special sheep, those who were designated for sacrifice at the Temple in Jerusalem who were kept all year round near Bethlehem at Beit Sahur, the “Tower of the Flock”.

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

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

History of Christmas

November 26, 2006 /
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THE HISTORY OF CHRISTMAS

Here begins a series of articles on the history of Christmas.

The Advent Season (Advent means the “coming” of the Christ Child) is marked by the four Sundays before Christmas and is celebrated in the church calendar as one the most festive seasons of the year. This year, because Christmas itself falls on a Monday, Advent starts three weeks before Christmas, or next Sunday.

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.

Ironically, the date for the Nativity — upon which our Western calendar system is based — is not known with certainty. The Feast of Christmas was not an early festival for the church, as Resurrection Sunday (Easter) was and did not see general observance until the 4th century. It was not until the early part of the 5th century that the western church agreed upon the current date of December 25. Historians believe this date was picked to supplant the pagan holiday Saturnalia that was celebrated by the Romans and whose many customs survive today: evergreen, holly, mistletoe, feasting and gift exchanges.

The 25th of December, the ancient date for their winter solstice, was celebrated as the birthday of the unconquerable sun or natalis invicti solis when the sun’s transit was in the lowest point on the horizon with the shortest “day” of the year and then with longer days coming began its transit northward. Under the Christian calendar the 25th was to become known as the birth of the unconquerable Son.

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

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

History of Thanksgiving: Friendly Indian?

November 22, 2006 /
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HISTORY OF THANKSGIVING: FRIENDLY INDIAN?

We’ve all heard the story of how the Pilgrims, landing in Massachusetts on the Mayflower in 1620, were ill equipped to survive the harsh winters of the New World. We’ve also heard how they met an Indian of the Pawtuxet tribe named Squanto who befriended them, taught them how to survive in their new wilderness home, showed them how to plant crops, and acted as an interpreter with the Wampanoag tribe and its chief, Massasoit (pictured above from Plymouth, MA).

The fact that he already knew English before the Pilgrims landed is what is remarkable.

Squanto probably was present at the first Thanksgiving celebration held by the Pilgrims. He was certainly was there by 1621 — after the winter when the Puritans lost half of their population to starvation and diseases — when another Indian, Samoset, introduced Squanto to the Pilgrim settlers, and he became a member of their colony. Because Squanto could speak English well, Governor William Bradford asked him to serve as his ambassador to the Indian tribes.

But it was over a decade before the Pilgrims landed that Squanto was captured from Massachusetts and taken, along with other Indians, by an English ship captain and sold into slavery in Málaga, Spain.

There, Squanto was bought by a Spanish monk, who treated him well, freed him from slavery, and taught him the Christian faith. Squanto eventually made his way to England — where he either learned or improved his English — and worked in the stables of a man named John Slaney. Slaney sympathized with Squanto’s desire to return home, and he promised to put the Indian on the first vessel bound for America.

It wasn’t until 1618 — ten years after Squanto was first kidnapped — that a ship was found. Finally, after a decade of exile, Squanto returned home. There he learned that his tribe had died from an epidemic, probably of smallpox brought by the earlier English colonists. It was while he was living among the Wampanoag near present-day Plymouth, MA that his friend Samoset introduced him to the new Pilgrim settlers.

In 1622, as Squanto lay mortally ill with fever while scouting east of Plymouth, the Pilgrim leader William Bradford knelt at his bedside. According to Bradford’s diary, Squanto asked him to “pray for him, that he might go to the Englishmen’s God in heaven.” Squanto died November 1622, having bequeathed his possessions to the Pilgrims as remembrances of his love.”

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

Taken in part from Chuck Colson’s “God’s Instrument