Today's Christmas traditions bring nostalgia for the simpler times of childhood – something that can benefit all of us in these challenging times. Yet behind each of these traditions lies a historical lesson that is both poignant and instructive for today, and the future.
A young couple was preparing to celebrate their first Christmas together.
Barely in their twenties, they were starting out their married life under some unusual circumstances. She held a position of great power and had actually proposed marriage to him. He was a studious but strong-willed man who had left behind his life in Germany to be with her in England. Noticing his homesickness she decided to adopt as many German holiday traditions as possible. She had a beautiful evergreen tree brought into their house for him to decorate with candies, strings of nuts and raisins, and glowing candles.
The man in the story is Prince Albert, the husband of Queen Victoria. During that time, the mid-1800s, although a newer tradition in England, Christmas trees had already established popularity across Europe. But the Germans, in the 17th century, were the first to use evergreens for Christmas. In the early 1800s German immigrants brought the tradition to America, when they settled in the new land.
Half a world away and 1,500 years earlier in, 300 AD, another Christmas tradition was born.
That's when the Bishop of Myra walked the streets of Asia Minor – our modern-day Turkey. What the Bishop saw with his eyes went straight to his heart. There was so much poverty, so much heartache, so little hope.
"I can't help them all," the Bishop must have thought, "but I can do something." As an orphan, the Bishop had inherited a great sum of money from his wealthy parents. So he began to secretly buy gifts for those in need. Eventually, his good deeds became known, and after a lifetime of unselfishness he was named a saint by the Catholic Church – Saint Nicholas.
The most enduring story told about Saint Nicolas helped create one of the most beloved holiday traditions. It involved a kindly, widowed nobleman who had lost all of his money. The despondent father moved with his three daughters into a tiny cottage. As the girls approached marrying age their father's despair deepened. Without a dowry the girls could never marry since they had no property or wealth to give the groom's family, as social custom required. Many women in their circumstances were driven to life on the streets as beggars or prostitutes.
One night after the daughters had hung their freshly washed stockings on the mantle to dry and had gone to bed, the Bishop of Myra came walking by.
Knowing of the family's sad situation, the Bishop quietly climbed atop the roof and dropped three bags of gold coins down the chimney. Softly they fell into each of the girls' stockings. The next morning when the coins were discovered the grateful father wept with joy, and the legend of Saint Nicolas grew and grew.
Throughout the following centuries observances honoring Saint Nicolas spread around the world. The Dutch especially hallowed the Saint, and when they emigrated to America they brought their "Sinterklaas" with them. Their version of the kind-hearted man featured a stone-faced figure in a red bishop's robe on a white horse. The rotund and lovable Santa Claus in American culture first came to life in 1823, in the poem often attributed to Clement Moore, A Visit from St. Nicholas – known to most as, 'Twas the Night Before Christmas. "He was chubby and plump a ripe jolly old elf and I laughed when I saw him in spite of myself."
Of course, the overall celebration of Christmas dates back to the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem in 3 AD.
Here we first see gift giving in relation to Christmas when the wise men brought gold, frankincense and myrrh to Christ. But beyond material gift-giving Christians see Jesus as the greatest gift to mankind. Even those not of the Christian faith see significance in the life of Christ and his sacrificial giving. That spirit of sacrifice is the greatest tradition of Christmas and can truly unite the world as it hopes for another gift, "peace on earth, goodwill to men."
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