History Articles

History of New Year’s Day: Why on January 1?

December 31, 2020 /
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CalendarHISTORY OF NEW YEAR’S DAY

We have the ancient Romans to thank for celebrating New Year’s Day on January 1. It wasn’t always that way. Previous civilizations celebrated it in March to observe the “new year” of growth and fertility.

Before calendars existed, the time between seed sowing and harvesting was considered a cycle or a year. But the Romans moved the date of New Year to January 1, as I’ll explain below, but first a little on calendars.

The word Calendar gets its name from the first day of a month in the Roman (Latin) calendar: kalendae

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History of Auld Lang Syne: What Does It Mean?

December 30, 2020 /
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Auld Lang SyneHISTORY OF AULD LANG SYNE: WHAT DOES IT MEAN

Why is it that each New Year’s Eve, we sing “Auld Lang Syne,” but do we know what it means?

The song contains words from a language that few are familiar with, in a syntax that is confusing to most, and is from a poem about friends recalling adventures they had long ago but had nothing to do with New Year’s Eve.

 

What does Auld Lang Syne mean?

Literally, it means Old Long Since, but the syntax is more naturally translated as since long ago or more familiarly for old times’ sake.

The phrase is in the Scots language, which goes back to the 7th century. A great deal of Scots literature was written in the 15th and 16th centuries. When King James VI of Scotland became King James I of England, Scotland, and Ireland in 1603, the Scottish upper classes had adapted and Anglicized their speech and writing, developing Scottish Standard English. But the Scots language experienced a revival among Scottish poets such as Alan Ramsay in the early 18th century and Robert Burns in the later 18th century.

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History of Childermas: Feast of the Holy Innocents

December 28, 2020 /
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Childermas

Childermas

HISTORY OF CHILDERMAS

Childermas, from an Old English word meaning the Mass of the Infants, is the festival in the church calendar begun in the fifth century — celebrated in the Western Church on December 28 and in the Eastern Church on December 29. It commemorated the date when King Herod ordered the massacre of the children under two years of age in Bethlehem in an attempt to kill the baby Jesus, who “was born King of the Jews,” according to the Wise Men as recorded in the Gospel of Matthew Chapter 2.

How many were killed? Some traditional claims involve as many as 6,000 or 14,000 or even 144,000, though based on the population of male children in Bethlehem at that time, a few dozen is more likely.

Did this actually happen, do we have any evidence from outside the Gospel story?

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History of the Feast of St. John: Which St John?

December 27, 2020 /
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St. John

St. John

HISTORY OF THE FEAST OF ST. JOHN

December 27, since the 5th century, has marked the day in the church calendar for celebrating the life of St. John the Evangelist and is known as the Feast of St. John.

We’ve already mentioned that the day before, December 26 is the Feast of St. Stephen. On the following day, December 28 is the Feast of The Holy Innocents, referring to those babies killed by King Herod the Great in Bethlehem.

Which St. John is celebrated in this feast? It is not John the Baptist, the cousin of Jesus; rather it’s the young disciple of Christ, known as “the disciple whom Jesus loved.” Tradition holds that he is the author of the Gospel of John, the Epistles of John (I, II, and III John) as well as the Book of Revelation, also known as The Apocalypse. He’s also known as John the Apostle, John the Divine, John the Theologian, and John of Patmos. Why?
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History of Christmas Fruitcake

December 27, 2020 /
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FruitcakeHistory of Christmas 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…

Today, December 27, is National Fruitcake Day.

 

What is Fruitcake?

Fruitcake construction

It’s a pastry, bread, or cake made of nuts, dried or candied fruits, spices, grain, and optionally soaked in booze. There are many recipes. It was a special food for weddings or Christmas since at least the 18th and 19th centuries. (more…)

History of Boxing Day: and Feast of St. Stephen

December 26, 2020 /
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Boxing Day

Boxing Day

HISTORY OF BOXING DAY

Boxing Day, while unfamiliar to many Americans, is a well-known holiday among the countries of the British Commonwealth. It is celebrated on December 26 as a public holiday in the UK, Canada, Hong Kong, New Zealand, South Africa, and parts of Australia.

Though some believe it has to do with the need to dispose of empty boxes on the day following Christmas, it has nothing to do with that, nor has it anything to do with pugilistic fisticuffs. It is the second day of Christmastide, and some European countries celebrate it as “Second Christmas Day,” but there’s more.

St. Stephen

St. Stephen

St. Stephen’s Day

In Britain, Boxing Day is also known by the name St. Stephen’s Day. Stephen, a man “possessing great wisdom and full of the Spirit,” was the first Christian martyr as recorded in Chapter 7 of the Book of the Acts of The Apostles in the Bible. He was one of the first deacons or ministers of the early church, serving table to the Hellenistic (non-Jewish) widows of the church who were being neglected.
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History of the Christmas Truce of 1914: Peace in the WWI Trenches

December 25, 2020 /
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Christmas TruceHISTORY OF THE CHRISTMAS TRUCE OF 1914: PEACE IN THE WWI TRENCHES

Over a century ago, across the 400-mile battle line of Europe, World War I had claimed almost a million lives over the previous 5 months of battle. The Great War, “the war to end all wars,” was about to experience something almost unheard of in two thousand years of warfare: a temporary though unofficial truce. As Christmas Eve fell in the trenches of Flanders Field, German soldiers had erected Christmas Trees with lighted candles.

At about 8:30 pm, as the firing of guns began to subside, the Germans began to sing “Stille Nacht.” The song was originally written in German, but the British soldiers knew the English words to “Silent Night.” They replied with a British chorus of “The First Noel.” During this time, soldiers wrote in diaries to tell of local armistices established between both sides, occurring across dozens of other locations along the battle line as well. One British soldier told that

… down the line of trenches there came to our ears a greeting unique in war:
“English soldier, English soldier, a merry Christmas, a merry Christmas!” 

German and British soldiers left their trenches. They crossed “No Man’s Land” to meet and exchanged gifts they’d received from home: chocolate, tobacco, alcohol, articles of clothing, buttons, badges, and hats. The British soldiers bartered tins of plum pudding and tobacco sent to them by King George. The Germans had pipes with a picture of the Crown Prince.
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History of Christmas Eve: Polish Christmas Wafer

December 24, 2020 /
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Polish Christmas Wafer

Christmas Wafer

HISTORY OF CHRISTMAS EVE: POLISH CHRISTMAS WAFER

My friend and neighbor Phil gave me Opłatek, or Christmas wafers as part of his Polish Christmas tradition. This practice is now common in many countries across Eastern Europe — among Lithuanians, Czechs, and Slovaks — but in Poland it is a legacy from the past to celebrate the vigil of Christmas Eve, going back to the 10th century.

During the 17th century, it spread from there and was emblematic — especially since the 19th-century partitioning of Poland — of the country becoming independent again. During WWII, families would send pieces of oplatek to relatives dispersed around the world wherever they were.

History

Each wafer is embossed with an image from the Christmas story, usually the nativity scene or the Star of Bethlehem. An empty place is set at the family table in memory of ancestors, departed loved ones, and the Unseen Guest, Jesus Christ. There is high hope that the “Unexpected Guest” will come and bless the gathering. As Christmas Eve marks the end of the Advent fast, to be followed by the 12 Days of Christmas, at the start of dinner just after grace, the male head of the house takes the wafer and expresses his hopes for his wife in the year to come.

It might be good health or a request for forgiveness for his shortcomings. His wife breaks off a piece and eats it, then returning the blessing and shares the wafer with her husband. The ceremony continues with older relatives, guests, and children from oldest to youngest.

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History of Christmas Eve and the Battle of the Bulge: 76 Years Ago

December 23, 2020 /
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Christmas Eve Battle of the Bulge

American troops in the Battle of the Bulge

HISTORY OF CHRISTMAS EVE AND THE BATTLE OF THE BULGE: 76 YEARS AGO

On Christmas Eve, 1944, my father, Staff Sergeant John Petro, had arrived in Strasbourg with the 42nd “Rainbow” Infantry Division. Eight days earlier, the Battle of the Bulge had begun, and the 42nd Division, along with others, supplied much-needed reinforcements to the biggest and bloodiest battle of World War II involving American forces.

The German Wacht am Rhein “Watch on the Rhine” offensive had begun a week before my father arrived. By Christmas Eve, the American troops at the Battle of the Bulge had taken heavy casualties, and reinforcements were very much needed. The bad weather had weakened the American supply lines. The winter of 1944 was one of the coldest in recorded history; temperatures averaged 20 degrees. Frostbite was rampant.

Of all the uniformed American troops in the world at that time, 1/8th participated in the Battle of the Bulge.

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