Friday, December 24, 2010

History of Christmas Part 2

Many of Santa's attributes are thanks to the poem, "Twas the Night Before Christmas." From this poem, we learn that Santa rides in a sleigh that lands on people's roofs with a bulging sack of toys to deliver to children. The poem also introduced the notion of Santa going down the chimney to get into the house. Santa is described as being a large man, with a belly like a bowl full of jelly. This poem also introduced the eight tiny reindeer that Santa used to deliver his toys.
Thomas Nast, a cartoonist in the late 1800's immortalized the image of Santa Claus that we know today. He published his own rendition of Santa Claus that looks like what we know today. From his cartoons the legend of Santa Claus living in the North Pole also came. By the 1870's all of this was widely known by the American public. Further lore on Santa Claus came from the story "The Life and Times of Santa Claus" by L. Frank Baum in 1902. Baum is best known for penning "The Wonderful Wizard of Oz." This gives another back story of Santa Claus and where his immortality comes from. The story was made into a stop motion animation in 1985, and is one of the weirdest Santa Claus stories ever. Check out the cartoon if you can find it. I have it on VHS and have watched it since I was a little kid out of pure nostalgia.

Santa Claus' image has changed slightly since then, only changing a little for advertising reasons for the Coca Cola company. Though Coke seems to have an embargo on Santa advertising, the jolly old elf has been a part of almost every other company in existence. Santa has been used also for charity. You will see a Santa perched outside of a department store ringing a bell for Salvation Army every season. Santa's wife was created around the in the early 1800's, being made more popular with more publications.

Several traditions have found their way into our lives because of Santa. Kids for ages have been writing letters to Santa, hoping that Santa will give them their wish for plentiful gifts. Stepping into the computer age, we even have children e-mailing Santa Claus. Also popular on the Internet and on your local news channel is Santa Tracker. This allows kids to know where Santa is at the time. Another tradition, this one for Christmas eve, is to leave something out for Santa. It varies from country to country what a family will leave for Santa. In the U.S., we usually leave him some cookies and a glass of milk. In some cases, carrots would be left out for Santa's reindeer. In Britain and Australia, kids will leave out mince pies and sherry instead. In Sweden they leave out rice porridge, and in Ireland they leave out Christmas Pudding and a Guinness. I'm thinking that Santa likes Ireland the best. He had to stop visiting there so early in the night though, as some countries would be accidentally passed over. For many kids now, there is less fear of a being such as Krampus or any other malevolent person punishing you for your bad deeds during the year, since most kids are just threatened with coal in their stockings.

Speaking of stockings, the story of their beginning is an interesting one: Very long ago, there lived a poor man and his three very beautiful daughters. He had no money to get his daughters married, and he was worried what would happen to them after his death. Saint Nicholas was passing through when he heard the villagers talking about the girls. St. Nicholas wanted to help, but knew that the old man wouldn't accept charity. He decided to help in secret. He waited until it was night and crept through the chimney. He had three bags of gold coins with him, one for each girl. As he was looking for a place to keep those three bags, he noticed stockings of the three girls that were hung over the mantelpiece for drying. He put one bag in each stocking and off he went. When the girls and their father woke up the next morning, they found the bags of gold coins and were of course, overjoyed. The girls were able to get married and live happily ever after. This led to the custom of children hanging stockings or putting out shoes, eagerly awaiting gifts from Saint Nicholas. Sometimes the story is told with gold balls instead of bags of gold. That is why three gold balls, sometimes represented as oranges, are one of the symbols for St. Nicholas.

We in America associate Christmas with so many things now, that it's hard to keep it straight what the whole point is. Is it about Santa and gifts? Is it about spending quality time with family? Or is it about celebrating Jesus' birth? If you are like many Americans, it is all three. Many people, even if they aren't religious, will go to a Christmas Eve service, then spend time with their loved ones. The family wakes up, then opens presents together and had a great feast. Many argue that Jesus' birth has been taken over by Santa and commercialism. It has in a way, but that doesn't mean that people should stop celebrating for the right reasons. Christmas is the epitome of holidays in my opinion. You have the best of everything; family, gift-giving, and a religious celebration. So, from me to all of my readers, hope you all have a very Merry Christmas!


Demosthenes' Christmas favorites:

-Mickey's Christmas Carol
-The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus
-Muppet's Christmas Carol
-A Christmas Story
-Christmas Vacation
-Home Alone

Saturday, December 18, 2010

History of Christmas

Christmas is a special time of year where we all get together, give presents, eat food, and sing carols. Before the holiday, we decorate our houses, put up a tree, and put ornaments on it. Christmas night, as kids, we waited to hear Santa Claus on our roof, or perhaps sneak a peek of him from upstairs as he is putting our presents under the tree. Christmas is full of many different traditions and celebrations that have given people joy throughout the years.

Christmas is like many other holidays, such as Easter and Halloween, in that there is a religious theme around it (Remember that Halloween had All Saints Day), but that day is not specifically holy. What I mean by that is these holidays may be considered celebrations of Jesus’ birth and death, but neither holiday coincides with the actual days of those events. Pagans had festivals on these days and Christian Romans implanted Christianity into these festivals to slowly wane the people off their many gods. Does that take away from Christians celebrating the birth of Christ? Not at all, because though it may not be the exact day, we really don’t know when that day is, and at least we are celebrating it. In this case, it’s the thought that counts. I’m sure that the Lord will forgive us if we are a few months off.

Christmas started as a winter festival, just as Samhain was a fall festival, and Easter was a spring festival. In many cultures, it was the most important. This may be attributed to the fact that there was much less agricultural work to do and that made more time for merriment. From the pagan days, some of Christmas’ customs still live one. The Roman Saturnalia had gift-giving during this time in celebration of the god Saturn. The Romans also had greenery, lights and charity during their new year. Yule logs and various foods came from Germanic feasts. And pagan Scandinavians celebrated a winter festival called Yule.

Around the 300’s, a feast honoring the birth and baptism of Jesus started, as many speculated that Jesus was conceived during the Spring Solstice, thus giving him a December birthday. This was convenient as it put Christmas right around the pagan winter celebration. This celebration coincided with Epiphany, which was a festival celebrating the visit from the Magi. The celebration of that visit overshadowed Christmas for quite some time in the middle ages. Christmas made a comeback as the main festival once Charlemagne was crowned on that day in 800. Christmas, by the high middle ages, became extremely popular. Caroling became commonplace, as did drunkenness, promiscuity, and gambling. Never thought those would all go together. England at the time exchanged gifts, but it was on New Year’s Day. The holiday in this time period took on ivy, holly, and other evergreens. During the next couple centuries, the date of gift giving was changed several times before they decided on Christmas Eve in the 17th century, and that baby Jesus was the gift giver.

And then came the Puritans again. They just didn’t like anyone having any fun. After the Protestant Reformation, the Puritans condemned the celebration of Christmas, claiming it was born of the Catholics. The Catholic Church responded by making the day more religious, and less about drunkenness. As royalty changed hands in England, Christmas was banned and un-banned. Puritans who went to America carried over their hate of the holiday, and it wasn’t until much later that Christmas was widely celebrated by colonist. It got worse after the American Revolution though, as Christmas was considered a European holiday. The Americans had just gotten over fighting the English and German hessians, and didn’t feel like carrying on their traditions. Christmas trees and nativity scenes were first introduced in colonial America by German immigrants.

In the early 1800’s in Britain, people started to worry that Christmas was fading away and was not as popular as it used to be, so Charles Dickens decided to write A Christmas Carol. The book was immensely popular and turned Christmas into a holiday emphasizing family, goodwill, and compassion. Dickens sought to construct Christmas as a family-centered festival of generosity, in contrast to the community-based and church-centered observations, the observance of which had dwindled during the late 18th century and early 19th century. Dickens single-handedly created a Christmas we all know today; a more secular celebration with family gatherings, seasonal food and drink, games and a festive generosity of spirit. We can also thank Dickens for the term “Merry Christmas”, as it was first used in his story. The term Scrooge became synonymous with people who don’t like Christmas.

The Christmas tree became popular in Europe when Queen Victoria and her German cousin Prince Albert got married. The trees were hung with lights and ornaments, and with presents underneath. Does this sound a little familiar? The image of the royal couple next to their Christmas tree was distributed around Europe and eventually found its way to America. By the 1870’s, putting up a Christmas tree had become common in America. Interest in Christmas was revived in America in the 1820’s thanks to Washington Irving who wrote of old Christmas celebrations in England, and Clement Clarke Moore who wrote A Visit from St. Nicholas (otherwise known as Twas the Night before Christmas). The poem helped popularize the exchanging of gifts, which led to seasonal Christmas shopping becoming an economic importance. This also led to the conflict of the consumerism getting in the way of the spiritual part of Christmas. So yes people, this was a problem way back in the 1820’s. The holiday became an official federal holiday in 1870, signed into law by Ulysses S. Grant. Also at this time you had the introduction of Christmas cards by Louis Prang, who is considered the father of the American Christmas card.

Christmas has had its share of gift givers, the most notable being Santa Claus. Other gift givers included Pere Noel, Saint Nicholas, Kris Kringle, Christkind, Joulupukki, Babbo Natale, Saint Basil, and Father Frost. All are essentially Santa Claus with different names due to area of origin. The name Santa Claus can be traced back to the Dutch, Sinterklaas, which means simply Saint Nicholas. Nicholas was Bishop of Myra, in modern day Turkey, during the 4th century. Among other saintly attributes, he was noted for the car of Children, generosity, and the giving of gifts. His feast on the 6th of December came to be celebrated in many countries with the giving of gifts. Saint Nicholas traditionally appeared in bishop's attire, accompanied by helpers, inquiring about the behavior of children during the past year before deciding whether they deserved a gift or not. By the 13th century, Saint Nicholas was well known in the Netherlands, and the practice of gift-giving in his name spread to other parts of central and southern Europe. At the Reformation in 16th–17th century Europe, many Protestants changed the gift bringer to the Christ Child or Christkindl, corrupted in English to Kris Kringle, and the date of giving gifts changed from December the 6th to Christmas Eve. The modern Santa Claus came to us from the colonist in New York who needed Christmas without the influence of the English. Luckily, they had Dutch backgrounds and used Santa Claus as a new basis for the holiday, as a gift giver. The image of Santa Clause has changed over time from the saint attire to the Father Christmas attire with a robe and fur as we generally see him today. Father Christmas predates Santa Claus, as a jolly, well nourished; bearded man who wants to spread the spirit of good cheer, but more in the way of getting totally hammered and less in the gift giving way. His image was later retooled to be more like Santa Claus due to people not wanting to associate a man who was delivering presents to the town drunk that people avoided on the street.

Santa has had lots of different helpers over the years. In German folklore he is accompanied by a shepherd, Knecht Ruprecht, who according to tradition asks children whether they can pray. If they can, they receive apples, nuts, and gingerbread. If they cannot, he beats the children with his bag of ashes. DANG! I mean, I know it’s harmless, but still…that’s pretty dang terrifying.

In Dutch folklore, Santa is accompanied by Black Peter. Black Peter gives all the good little children sweets. Other countries have other helpers of Santa, that don’t help as much as beat children. Krampus is my personal favorite, another punisher of children in Germany during the Christmas season. Instead of a shepherd like Knecht Ruprecht, this guy is a demon. And instead of a bag of ashes, he hits you with a switch. This is much more terrifying than an old dude with a bag of ashes. In our own culture, he is helped by elves, which make his toys for children. In Latin America, many of the countries believe that Santa makes the toys, and then gives them to baby Jesus, who then delivers them.

There is a lot more to Christmas then I can get to today so stay tuned for Part 2!

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Herbert Hoover

Term: 1929-1933

Party: Republican

Nickname: about "The Vacuum."

Hoover gets a bad rap. He was blamed for the Great Depression, and still is to this day. But like most economic calamities, they are inherited by the new president, and started by the old. While he didn’t start the Depression, he couldn’t stop it either, which is what the public needed.
Hoover grew up a Quaker and became an international engineer. This meant two things: First, that he had a humanitarian background, and second, that he was a self made millionaire. Hoover did a lot to help people before he was president. He led humanitarian food programs for those displaced by World War I. In 1917, Woodrow Wilson asked him to manage the nation’s wartime food conservation programs. He became immensely popular and was a shoe in for the presidency. Hoover’s attitude about helping others stopped at being president though. He felt that personal responsibility was the key to progress. While individuals and private institutions were responsible for serving humanity, the federal government was not. Hoover felt that the Constitution did not permit direct federal relief to individuals. This put him at odds with the Bonus Army. The Bonus Army marchers were veterans who wanted Hoover to allow them to borrow against military bonuses they had been given six years earlier. Hoover refused and had the crowd dispersed with force.

This attitude carried over into his other dealings with poverty stricken America. Hoover took little to no action to soften the blow of the depression. Any steps he took were either wrong or too little. People became so disillusioned with Hoover that they began calling the ragged shanty towns Hoovervilles. Hoover left office under one of the darkest clouds ever to shadow the presidency.

Grade: D

Ok, so we have a string of bad presidents. It’s the Gilded Age all over again. Hoover may have not been to blame for the depression, but he did nothing to stop the spread of it. Hoover may have been a nice guy, but the country needed a man who could inspire people and get America back to work.

Calvin Coolidge

Term: 1923-1929

Party: Republican

Nickname: Silent Cal

Now tired of corruption, the U.S. public needed someone who was going to lead them in the right direction. Calvin Coolidge, or Silent Cal, as he was called for his quiet personality, was determined to do that for America, but with doing as little as possible. His straightforward reserve was popular with the American public, but most people today can’t figure out why anyone liked him. Coolidge was a strictly small government man. The government was to stay out of everyone’s business…literally. As farms nationwide suffered financial crises, he vetoed bills to send them aid. He also opposed a bill that provided WWI vets with bonuses, and he cut taxes dramatically to shrink the size of government coffers. Coolidge also failed to take any steps to rein in the massive stock speculation that helped bring on the Great Depression. Although he was warned about the danger of this sort of speculation, Coolidge scrupulously noted that as president, he had no direct authority over Wall Street. Although, he could have used his influence to request the Federal Reserve Board to tighten regulations, he chose not to do so. So, when people say that Hoover caused the Great Depression, they are wrong.

Coolidge did do some good. He passed the Air Commerce Act, which required that all airplane pilots and aircraft be registered. In addition to this, the Federal Radio Commission was founded to regulate the radio industry. Coolidge conveniently left the presidency when the crash happened and people looked to the next president to make things better.

Grade: D

Coolidge did do a very small amount in his six years as president. He kept the government out of everything, which is what he said he would do, so he was more honest than Harding. The fact that Coolidge turned his back on his citizens when they needed his help, just so he could keep the government small makes him a bad president in my book.

Funny Story:

Coolidge’s penchant for silence was well known. During a party, a guest went up to Coolidge and said that he bet he could get him to say more than two words. Coolidge replied, “You lose.”

Warren Gamaliel Harding

Term: 1921-1923

Party: Republican

Nickname: Eyebrows...not really...but he doesn't have any apparently.

The United States had just gone through a terrible World War, or known at that time as the War to End all Wars. Citizens of the U.S. were officially sick of dealing with outside powers. Luckily for them, as soon as Woodrow Wilson suffered his stroke in 1919, the Progressive Era was done. People wanted a president who would bring the focus back to the United States. What they got was Warren G. Harding. Harding did look right for the job. He declared that he wanted the country to be put back into normalcy, a word which he made up, which refers to a return to the political and economic isolation that had characterized the U.S. before the First World War. Harding handily beat his progressive Democratic adversary, James M. Cox. It might be for the better that we didn’t have a President Cox. This election was landmark in a few ways. First, it was the first time that a sitting senator became president. Second, it was the first election where all women could vote. Third, it was the first election to have the election results broadcast from the radio.

From the get-go, Harding was overwhelmed by the job of President of the Free World. He confessed that he didn’t know what to do or where to go. He was more than happy to rely on the Republican Congress for directions. Wartime controls were eliminated, taxes cut, tariffs raised, and immigration tightened. Things were looking up for Harding, and he remained immensely popular going into 1923. What the public didn’t know was how corrupt Harding’s administration was. His Interior Secretary Albert Fall, accepted bribes from private oil interests for naval petroleum reserves at Teapot Dome, Wyoming, and Elk Hills, California. Harding did not take place in the scheme, but he knew of it, and did nothing for fear that it would damage his reputation. Several other scandals surfaced during Harding’s administration, but the biggest, the Teapot Dome scandal, didn’t become public knowledge until after his death. In 1923, Harding, while on a national tour with his wife, died of heart failure. By the time a sensational book by a woman alleging to have been Harding’s former mistress-and mother of his illegitimate child-surfaced in 1930, Harding’s reputation was already sullied.

Grade: F

Harding is almost always listed as the worst president, or the second to last. He got a few things done, but that was more of Congress’ doing than his own. He allowed his administration to run free with corruption and did nothing to stop it out of fear for his own reputation. Harding literally had no idea how to be president and relied on Congress the whole way. He is even quoted as saying that he was not fit to be president. Plus, he had really creepy bushy eyebrows.