Just why do we put these odd things in our houses?
When I have questions about church history, I often turn to one or the other of our family’s dear friends (and our older kids’ godparents) Jennifer and Edwin Woodruff Tait. So naturally, when my wife came back today from shopping for a Christmas tree (empty-handed! The trees at the only lot she could find were dried out and $75!), and I began musing over this odd tradition, I turned to an article by the Woodruff Taits that reminded me how odd, indeed, is the history of the Christmas tree:
The evergreen tree was an ancient symbol of life in the midst of winter. Romans decorated their houses with evergreen branches during the New Year, and ancient inhabitants of northern Europe cut evergreen trees and planted them in boxes inside their houses in wintertime. Many early Christians were hostile to such practices. The second-century theologian Tertullian condemned those Christians who celebrated the winter festivals, or decorated their houses with laurel boughs in honor of the emperor:
“Let them over whom the fires of hell are imminent, affix to their posts, laurels doomed presently to burn: to them the testimonies of darkness and the omens of their penalties are suitable. You are a light of the world, and a tree ever green. If you have renounced temples, make not your own gate a temple.” Continue reading
A 17th-c. Saint Nicolas icon, Historic Museum in Sanok, Poland
I could apparently spend my entire day just posting on interesting articles around the web about St. Nicholas, whose feast day is today. But this will be the last one. It’s a brief piece in the Huffington Post by new monastics Shane Claiborne and Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove, giving their own particular take on the jolly old guy . . . well, at least on his prototype, St. Nicholas of Myra:
Even though we don’t expect Santa for another few weeks, December 6th is the day when we remember the original “Old St. Nick.” Nicholas was bishop of Myra in fourth-century Turkey. Little is known about his life except that he entrusted himself to Jesus at an early age and, when his parents died, gave all of their possessions to the poor. Continue reading
January 3, 1863 cover of Harper’s Weekly, one of the first depictions of Santa Claus
John McGuckin is one of those wonderful creatures, an erudite historian who can also communicate history compellingly to a lay audience. I know because he wrote a great, colorful article for Christian History‘s issue on the Council of Nicea–my last issue as editor at that magazine.You can see a preview of his article here and buy the issue here.
The “powers that be” at Union Theological Seminary in New York chose Thursday, December 6, 2007 as the date of Dr. McGuckin’s installation as Nielsen Chair in Late Antique & Byzantine Christian History. That was all the excuse the good Dr. needed: since Dec. 6 is the Feast Day of St. Nicholas, he took St. Nick as his text.
The result was this enjoyable (and yes, compelling) talk. (That link seems broken, 12-6-14 – try this iTunes link: http://itunes.apple.com/us/podcast/john-mcguckins-inauguration/id85098839?i=32825222.) Skip the intro material and just jump ahead to 3:30. Here Dr. McGuckin begins to spin the tale of how Nicholas morphed into Santa Claus–jolly American consumerism and all–by way of Norse mythology!
Enjoy, and Happy Feast Day of St. Nicholas!
Sinterklaas or Saint Nicholas, considered by many to be the original Santa Claus
Yup, there’s a traveling exhibit on St. Nicholas that’s been going around the country for the past few years, and now it’s here in St. Paul. MN.
The exhibit has actually been here since November 7 and will stay through December 26, 2010. It’s at the Landmark Center, 75 West 5th Street, St. Paul, Minnesota. For more information, see here.
The exhibit’s website tells us this about the original St. Nick:
The true story of Santa Claus begins with Nicholas, who was born during the third century in the village of Patara. At the time the area was Greek and is now on the southern coast of Turkey. His wealthy parents, who raised him to be a devout Christian, died in an epidemic while Nicholas was still young. Obeying Jesus’ words to “sell what you own and give the money to the poor,” Nicholas used his whole inheritance to assist the needy, the sick, and the suffering. He dedicated his life to serving God and was made Bishop of Myra while still a young man. Bishop Nicholas became known throughout the land for his generosity to the those in need, his love for children, and his concern for sailors and ships. Continue reading
Saint Nicholas (Greek: Άγιος Νικόλαος, Aghios [“holy”] Nicolaos [“victory of the people”]) (270–6 December 346) is the canonical and most popular name for Nikolaos of Myra, a saint and Greek Bishop of Myra (Demre, in Lycia, part of modern-day Turkey). Because of the many miracles attributed to his intercession, he is also known as Nikolaos the Wonderworker (Greek: Νικόλαος ο Θαυματουργός, Nikolaos o Thaumaturgos). He had a reputation for secret gift-giving, such as putting coins in the shoes of those who left them out for him, and thus became the model for Santa Claus, whose modern name comes from the Dutch Sinterklaas. In Britain he is known as ‘Father Christmas’. His reputation evolved among the faithful, as is common for early Christian saints. In 1087, his relics were furtively translated to Bari, in southeastern Italy; for this reason, he is also known as Nikolaos of Bari.His feastday is December 6.
The most famous story about Nicholas is this one (pictured above):
A poor man had three daughters but could not afford a proper dowry for them. This meant that they would remain unmarried and probably, in absence of any other possible employment would have to become prostitutes. Continue reading
It’s that time again: the bells are ringing and the red kettles swinging in front of grocery stores and other public places all over America. And in this holiday season, when even the staunchest of of Scrooges can’t help but think of what part they should play in “goodwill to all men,” a historical Wesleyan church has its hour of highest profile. That’s right. The Salvation Army is a church, and an “evangelical” one to boot. In 2004, this church got an extra dose of publicity when McDonalds heiress Joan Kroc sent 1.5 billion dollars their way. And we did an e-newsletter for Christian History about this much-misunderstood group:
The Blood-and-Fire Mission of the Salvation Army
Where did this tuba-playing, kettle-wielding social force come from, and what’s it all about?
Joan Kroc’s 1.5 billion dollar bequest recently put the Salvation Army on the front pages of many newspapers (and raised important questions about the potential effects of wealth on Christian organizations). But we didn’t need the reminder—we’ve known all about the Army for a long time.
Or have we?
We tend to associate them with Christmas kettles, brass bands, and the upright, do-gooder stance gently mocked in the Loesser musical (and Marlon Brando movie) Guys and Dolls. Continue reading
With Thanksgiving just around the corner, so’s the advent season (November 29 to December 24). These days our family is doing a wreath and even (when we can find all the bits & pieces) a Jesse tree. No more advent calendars with chocolate behind the doors, though (my wife’s mother used to send these): the kids just drag it into a dark corner and extract all the goodies at once!
I just find it interesting that evangelicals are starting to do this “liturgical” stuff at all! This year even the increasingly Calvinist Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary has created a set of faculty-written Advent devotionals. I posted on this phenomenon for Christian History & Biography:
Advent: Close Encounters of a Liturgical Kind
‘Tis the season when even the free-ranging revivalist pulls up a chair to the table of historic liturgy.
I confess: as an adolescent, when my parents tried to impress on my two brothers and me the importance and the intricacies of Advent observance, I could hardly keep from rolling my eyes. In a country that spends its cold Decembers in hot pursuit of food, presents, and parties, the historical niceties of an ancient liturgical season seemed … well … irrelevant. Continue reading