Wednesday, December 13, 2017

The First Christmas Tree

Perhaps the most endearing and widely recognized symbol of Christmas is the Christmas tree. Because they retain their green needles year-round, evergreen fir trees represent eternal life.
One of the oldest stories about how the tradition of the Christmas tree came about began with St. Boniface, a missionary in 8th century Germany. Around the year 732, he entered a northern town and learned that the people worshiped the god of thunder, Thor. They believed that Thor resided in a great oak tree in the village. Boniface realized that he would never convert the villagers to Christianity while Thor remained among them. He announced that he was going to cut down the oak and as he began to chop at the tree, a mighty wind blew and knocked it over. Supposedly, right next to the mighty oak, a small fir tree was growing, which remained undamaged when the big tree fell. Boniface told the people that the fir tree was a symbol of Christ. The villagers turned from their pagan worship and became Christians.

The tradition of a fir tree in the house at Christmas spread and eventually traveled to the United States with German immigrants.  There are many more stories out there, such as how the various decorations came to be, but you can look that up if you'd like. 
When I was a kid, Mom spent what felt like hours decorating our tree, hanging the tinsel, strand by strand. Then, after Christmas, she actually took the tinsel off the tree, laid it carefully in a box and saved it until the following year. For those of you who don’t remember, this was not the tinsel we have today (or does anyone even use tinsel anymore?); this stuff was thick and gutsy. It could actually be re-used.

Me? Here are a few of my trees. No tinsel, not even garland.

  My mother-in-law decorates her tree a little differently than I do.
 And these are a couple of my church’s trees. Beautiful, but only in a church, right?

As it is my tree is up, the lights are on it, and I don’t know when I’ll get around to hanging the ornaments. I have some time yet. 

Sunday, December 10, 2017

The Christmas Star

If you read Friday’s blog, you know that I can be long-winded at times. I could write even more about today’s topic, but I’m thinking – well, you’ll see.

For the month of December, I’m blogging about various symbols of Christmas, any of the many items which remind us of this blessed time of year.

  God made two great lights—the greater light to govern the day and the lesser light to govern the night. He also made the stars. (Genesis 1:16 New International Version)

So God gave us the sun by day and the moon by night, but he gave us a multitude of stars.

  He took him outside and said, “Look up at the sky and count the stars—if indeed you can count them.” Then he said to him, “So shall your offspring be.” (Genesis 15:5 New International Version)

Stars have fascinated us for as long as mankind has been on this earth. The ancient Greeks looked up at the night sky and picked out groups of stars to name, constellations. Astrologers took it a step further and believed that people’s lives could be influenced by the stars they were born under. In general, most of us, today, still look up at the stars and imagine what it’s like “out there”, if there is intelligent life on a distant planet, if Luke Skywalker could ever have cruised out there in his X-wing fighter. And who hasn’t wished on a shooting star.

You all know the story of the wise men who followed a star to find the Baby Jesus. It’s believed that they were astronomers who had been studying the night sky for a long time waiting for the sign that the King had been born. It also took them weeks, possibly months to travel the great distance needed to get to the young Savior.   

  When they saw the star, they were overjoyed. (Matthew 2:10 New International Version)

Scientists over the years have had multiple theories on just what this star was. A super nova? A comet? The alignment of several planets causing that unusual bright spot in the sky? There is even evidence that some of these events actually occurred around the time of Jesus’ birth. I still find it surprising that people doubt the existence of God when there is such evidence all around us. 

In any event, it doesn’t matter to me if science can explain the star in the sky at the first Christmas. God put that bright light in the sky not only so that the wise men could find what they were searching for, God put that star up there for all of us to follow. Which is why the Christmas Star continues to shine bright on Christmas. 

Friday, December 8, 2017

The History of our Christmas Icon

 Well, I messed up this time. St. Nicholas Day was two days ago; I should have written this blog on Wednesday. As it is, since my son is named Nicholas – though he wasn’t named after the saint which inspired Santa Claus – I always want to do something for him on that day. And I always forget. So I guess it is no surprise that I am posting this two days late.

For the month of December, I’ve been writing about symbols of Christmas, some religious, some secular and some just for kids. Like today’s.

The legend of Santa Claus goes back hundreds of years to a monk named St. Nicholas. It is thought that Nicholas was born sometime around 280 A.D. in modern-day Turkey. He was admired for his virtue, kindness and generosity. It is believed that he gave away all of his inherited wealth and traveled the countryside helping the poor and sick. Over the years, Nicholas’s popularity spread, and he became known as the protector of children and sailors. He is remembered on December 6, the anniversary of the date he died.

The story of St. Nicholas first came to America in December 1773, and again in 1774, when a New York newspaper reported that groups of Dutch families had gathered to honor the anniversary of his death. He was called Sinter Klaas by these families, which was a form of Sint Nikolaas (Dutch for Saint Nicholas).

In 1804, John Pintard, a member of the New York Historical Society, distributed woodcuts of St. Nicholas at the society’s annual meeting. The background of the engraving contains familiar Christmas images such as stockings filled with toys hung over a fireplace. In 1809, Washington Irving helped to spread the story of Sinter Klaas when he referred to St. Nicholas as the patron saint of New York in his book, “The History of New York”. Around that time, gift-giving at Christmas, especially to children, was becoming popular.

In 1822, Clement Clarke Moore, an Episcopal minister, wrote “An Account of a Visit from St. Nicholas.”  His poem is mostly responsible for our modern image of Santa Claus as a “right jolly old elf” with a portly figure and the ability to ascend a chimney with a mere nod of his head. Although some of Moore’s imagery was borrowed from other sources, his poem helped popularize the now-familiar image of a Santa Claus who flew from house to house on Christmas Eve–in “a miniature sleigh” led by eight flying reindeer–leaving presents for deserving children.

“An Account of a Visit from St. Nicholas” created a new and immediately popular American icon. In 1881, political cartoonist Thomas Nast created the first likeness that matches our modern image of Santa Claus, based on Moore’s poem. His cartoon, which appeared in Harper’s Weekly, depicted Santa as a rotund, cheerful man with a full, white beard, holding a sack filled with toys for good girls and boys. Nast gave Santa his bright red suit trimmed with white fur, North Pole workshop, elves, and his wife, Mrs. Claus.

(I'm so lucky to live with the best Santa of them all.)

Wednesday, December 6, 2017

The Poinsettia Plant

On Sunday, I promised that I would share various symbols of Christmas throughout the month of December. I only chose today’s candidate because of these pictures.
When I was in Kenya in the fall of 2015, we found this beauty growing outside of a women’s shelter that we visited. They were growing ten or so feet tall. These plants are native to Mexico, but according to Wikipedia, they were brought to Egypt in the 1860s. I don’t know if that’s how these guys made their way to the Nairobi suburb where I found them or not.
 The one fact that turned up repeatedly was that they get their name from Joel Roberts Poinsett who was the first Ambassador from the USA to Mexico in 1825. He was an avid botanist so when he discovered this plant in 1828, he shipped several of them to his greenhouses in South Carolina. He started growing the plants back home and sending them out to friends and botanical gardens.

So what has the poinsettia got to do with Christmas?

They bloom naturally in Mexico during the winter months. And here in the northern United States any plant which blooms this time of year is a welcome splash of color. The red colored leaves symbolize the blood of Christ. White variations represent his purity. Also their star-shaped leaves might be considered a symbol of the Star of Bethlehem which led the Wise Men to Jesus.
There is even a Mexican legend about how Poinsettias and Christmas come together.

There was once a poor Mexican girl named Pepita who had no present to give to the baby Jesus at the Christmas Eve Services at her church. As Pepita sadly walked to the chapel, her cousin said, "I'm sure that even the smallest gift, given by someone who loves him, will make Jesus Happy."

 Pepita didn't know what she could give, so she picked a small handful of weeds from the roadside and made them into a small bouquet. She was embarrassed because she could only give this small present to Jesus. As she walked to the altar, she remembered what her cousin had said. She began to feel better, knelt down and put the bouquet at the bottom of the nativity scene. Suddenly, the bouquet of weeds burst into bright red flowers, and everyone who saw them were sure they had seen a miracle. From that day on, the bright red flowers were known as the 'Flores de Noche Buena', or 'Flowers of the Holy Night'.

Sunday, December 3, 2017

Christmas Bells

  Every Christmas season, I like to blog around a central theme, if I can come up with an idea. This year, I’m going to share the stories behind some of the symbols associated with Christmas.
 As I was decorating the house last weekend, I came across the one item which to me symbolized the entire Christmas season as I was growing up. Every year ever since I could remember, this bell has hung in the doorway leading into the bedrooms of my parents’ house. When we emptied Mom’s apartment last February, and I found it in its original box, I knew it was the only one of Mom’s Christmas decorations that I wanted to claim.
 Even though Jingle Bells may be the first song we think of when we think of bells at Christmas time, the poem by Henry Longfellow actually says it all. He wrote it on Christmas day in 1863 as his son was recovering from nearly fatal wounds he had received while fighting in the Civil War. (I did not know that until just now looking it up on-line.)

   I HEARD the bells on Christmas Day
    Their old, familiar carols play,
        And wild and sweet
        The words repeat
    Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

    And thought how, as the day had come,
    The belfries of all Christendom
        Had rolled along
        The unbroken song
    Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

    Till ringing, singing on its way,
    The world revolved from night to day,
        A voice, a chime,
        A chant sublime
    Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

    Then from each black, accursed mouth
    The cannon thundered in the South,
        And with the sound
        The carols drowned
    Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

    It was as if an earthquake rent
    The hearth-stones of a continent,
        And made forlorn
        The households born
    Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

    And in despair I bowed my head;
    "There is no peace on earth," I said;
        "For hate is strong,
        And mocks the song
    Of peace on earth, good-will to men!"

    Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:
    "God is not dead, nor doth He sleep;
        The Wrong shall fail,
        The Right prevail,
    With peace on earth, good-will to men."

Isn’t this the song we should carry in our heads year-round in these troubled times?

Friday, December 1, 2017

Flashback Friday in the Classroom

Greeting the month of December with some - what can I say – interesting? Scary? Nostalgic? Whatever you want to call them, here’s what class pictures used to look like.

1939, Hay Creek School. My mom is in the second row on the far left. Hay Creek was a tiny one-room school house, with a second life as the town hall for the Wilson township. Somewhere I have a picture of it in later years, before it was torn down for a new town hall, but couldn’t find them this morning. Also of note, when your grandparents say they walked to school, uphill, both ways, it was possibly true. My mom lived on one hill and the Hay Creek School was about a mile away up another hill. 
 1942, Tripoli High School, Mom’s Freshman year. That has to be her in the back row, fourth from the left with that lovely white bow in her hair. When I see some pictures of her, I can tell why she never liked getting her picture taken. 
 1945, Tripoli High School, Mom’s Senior year. She’s in the front row, second from the left. Her yearbook saying was, “She loves life, she lives life.” Never heard her say that, I think that just picked sayings for everyone. 
 1966, Tripoli Grade School. Just so you don’t think I’m picking just on my mom, here’s my kindergarten picture. Ok, who can find me? Also, let me know if you recognize anyone else. I only remember about eight or nine of the other kids. 

Wednesday, November 29, 2017

A Cherished Heirloom

 If you follow my other blog, writing what I can when I can, you have already seen some of these pictures, but here’s the rest of the story.

When I first moved into this house in 1990, there were only two bedrooms. My son and daughter shared the northeast bedroom until we remodeled nine years later. The tiny southeast bedroom was mine. Hard to believe that for those first three years, there was a queen-size waterbed in there. Even harder to believe that we painted it orange when we first moved in. Too bad there’s no pictures of that.

 After the remodel, it was Nick’s room til he graduated from high school and left for college. Shortly after that, I started transforming it in any number of ways. Poor kid, no wonder he never came home after that. 
 When he earned his Eagle Scout, though, I did give him his own wall. That’s about the only thing that hasn’t changed in this room in all that time. 

 One other feature that the room had at one time was bunkbeds. Can you imagine how much space that took up in the middle of the small room! I don’t know how I survived before digital cameras. 

 I’m hoping this is the last remodel I do here. The greatest joy in this last update is the quilt on the full-size bed.  
 It’s called a signature quilt. Each of the pink squares has the embroidered signature of each of the ladies in my mom’s homemakers group from the 1950s. My mom never got her quilt put together, I believe many years ago, she gave her squares to my oldest sister. This particular quilt was given to Mom in 2010 when one of the ladies passed away. Her son gave it to Mom as he hadn’t known any of the women and only had sons of his own to pass it down to.  I believe that there may be only one or two of these sweet ladies still alive. A few of them, I don’t remember at all. But I still cherish all of their signatures.