Xmas Heroes – Christmas Truce

Xmas Heroes – Christmas Truce

On June 28th of 1914, a Bosnian Serb nationalist assassinated the presumptive heir to the throne of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Due to a mad web of international treaties and cultural obligations, this began a horrendous conflict that lasted four years. The war ultimately cost the lives of 11 million combatants, 7 million civilian victims, 20 million wounded and countless families broken by the deaths and property destruction. Entire towns were wiped off the map. Ancient sites were demolished. Empires fell and countries ceased to exist.

The Christmas Truce in No Man's Land, 1914In the midst of all this, on Christmas Eve of 1914, peace broke out. Men who had been shooting at each other for months spent an unexpected night of friendship and camaraderie that began with a bit of Christmas spirit.

Trench warfare was a soul-sucking drudgery. Men on each side had dug a rabbit’s warren of trenches through which they could travel safely back and forth along the lines. Small makeshift barracks were dug among the lines as well as supply closets and ammunition depots. On top of the trenches, machine gun emplacements provided cover fire to keep the other men down in their tunnels. It was dreary and uncomfortable. After a summer of rapid exchanges back and forth across battle lines, the trenches created a sort of dreadful permanence to the battlefield that would persist for years to come.

On that particular night, it was time for the combatants to celebrate the season in their own ways. For the Germans, they chose to sing the song written less than a century before by Father Mohr and Franz Gruber. Stille Nacht rose over the parapets to reach the ears of their British adversaries. Before long, the Brits joined in with their own Silent Night.

http://christmasallthetime.com/xmas-heroes-franz-xaver-gruber/The song led to a conversation. The conversation led to men meeting in No Man’s Land, the wasted and bomb-scarred area between the trench lines. This was an area that was usually a guaranteed death sentence to any who entered it, but on Christmas Eve it became a gift exchange and even an impromptu football game. Unlike both World Wars, the Germans actually won.

Sadly, the truce was not observed everywhere along the lines. In many places, fighting continued. Afterwards, reactions were generally disapproving.

The French felt betrayed by the British who had participated. Being friendly with the army who had invaded their land and caused so much damage and death was considered to be a slap in the face.

Winston Churchill and Kaiser Wilhelm II-(1906)General staff was certainly concerned that this sort of fraternization could lead to open mutiny and collapse of order. Rather than viewing it as a grass-roots rejection of the validity of the war, it was seen as disciplinary matter. Threats of court martial and renewed propaganda to demonize the enemy changed the nature of warfare afterwards. The remainder of the war was a cold, dehumanizing slog to an ultimately pointless finish on the 11th of November in 1918. Millions dead and empires shattered. All of this could have been prevented in the summer of 1914 or staunched at Christmastime of 1914. Instead, they brutally stamped out the Christmas spirit and ordered the shooting to begin again.

Xmas Heroes – Francis Pharcellus Church

Xmas Heroes – Francis Pharcellus Church

A child asked a question that is of concern to so many children at one time or another. Virginia O’Hanlon asked her father, who referred her to their favorite newspaper. The family had often written to the editorial staff of the New York Sun to have matters clarified. Editor Frank Pharcellus Church took up the momentous task of addressing this most vexing of childhood dilemmas.

Frank was a graduate of Columbia College of Columbia University and a Civil War correspondent. In the post-war period, he saw a trend of losing hope and faith in the wake of great suffering. We commend him on his contribution to Christmas spirit and his kindness to Virginia in particular.

Here is the famous inquiry and the wonderful editorial response:

DEAR EDITOR: I am 8 years old.
Some of my little friends say there is no Santa Claus.
Papa says, ‘If you see it in THE SUN it’s so.’
Please tell me the truth; is there a Santa Claus?

VIRGINIA O’HANLON.
115 WEST NINETY-FIFTH STREET.

VIRGINIA, your little friends are wrong. They have been affected by the skepticism of a skeptical age. They do not believe except they see. They think that nothing can be which is not comprehensible by their little minds. All minds, Virginia, whether they be men’s or children’s, are little. In this great universe of ours man is a mere insect, an ant, in his intellect, as compared with the boundless world about him, as measured by the intelligence capable of grasping the whole of truth and knowledge.

Yes, VIRGINIA, there is a Santa Claus. He exists as certainly as love and generosity and devotion exist, and you know that they abound and give to your life its highest beauty and joy. Alas! how dreary would be the world if there were no Santa Claus. It would be as dreary as if there were no VIRGINIAS. There would be no childlike faith then, no poetry, no romance to make tolerable this existence. We should have no enjoyment, except in sense and sight. The eternal light with which childhood fills the world would be extinguished.

Not believe in Santa Claus! You might as well not believe in fairies! You might get your papa to hire men to watch in all the chimneys on Christmas Eve to catch Santa Claus, but even if they did not see Santa Claus coming down, what would that prove? Nobody sees Santa Claus, but that is no sign that there is no Santa Claus. The most real things in the world are those that neither children nor men can see. Did you ever see fairies dancing on the lawn? Of course not, but that’s no proof that they are not there. Nobody can conceive or imagine all the wonders there are unseen and unseeable in the world.

You may tear apart the baby’s rattle and see what makes the noise inside, but there is a veil covering the unseen world which not the strongest man, nor even the united strength of all the strongest men that ever lived, could tear apart. Only faith, fancy, poetry, love, romance, can push aside that curtain and view and picture the supernal beauty and glory beyond. Is it all real? Ah, VIRGINIA, in all this world there is nothing else real and abiding.

No Santa Claus! Thank God! he lives, and he lives forever. A thousand years from now, Virginia, nay, ten times ten thousand years from now, he will continue to make glad the heart of childhood.

Xmas Heroes – Charles Dickens

Xmas Heroes – Charles Dickens

Charles DickensIn 1843, Charles Dickens published a novella that has never been out of print at any time from then until today. The story has also been presented in virtually every other form of media. Dickens was already famous for his novels The Pickwick Papers and Oliver Twist when he released this charming tale of a stone-hearted miser’s redemption. In saving the old man’s soul from eternal punishment, Dickens also revived Christmas.

As mentioned in Historical Grinches – The Puritans, Christmas was considered to be an unruly nuisance and a mainly Catholic celebration. As such, it was basically outlawed and made socially unacceptable. In England as well as America, Christmas had gone out of style. With the telling of this tale, Dickens did a great deal to change that. He felt that creating a nostalgic sense of an English Christmas would restore some semblance of social harmony and well-being in the modern world.

As with so many of his novels, Dickens wanted to cast a spotlight on the plight of the poor. He had originally planned on sufficing with a polemic pamphlet entitled “An Appeal to the People of England on behalf of the Poor Man’s Child” but decided to embed the message in a story instead. Well done, Charles. So much the better to let the Ghost of Christmas Present harangue the miserable miser, Ebeneezer Scrooge, as part of his reclamation than to lecture his readers directly.

In truth, Dickens had already used a sample of this story line in The Pickwick Papers. He presented an idealized Christmas at Dingley Dell that is reminiscent of nephew Fred’s Christmas gathering and various other scenes that the Ghost of Christmas Present shows to Scrooge. Also, Mr Wardle tells a story about a sexton named Gabriel Grub who undergoes a Yuletide conversion like Scrooge’s.

Dickens found A Christmas Carol to be an excellent vehicle to drive the conscience of his contemporaries and all subsequent generations toward the awareness of the needy among us and the awareness that one’s own success is an obligation to be generous as Christ commanded rather than as license to assume an air of aloof superiority. As the Ghost of Christmas Present admonishes,

“Man,” said the Ghost, “if man you be in heart, not adamant, forbear that wicked cant until you have discovered What the surplus is, and Where it is. Will you decide what men shall live, what men shall die? It may be, that in the sight of Heaven, you are more worthless and less fit to live than millions like this poor man’s child. Oh God! to hear the Insect on the leaf pronouncing on the too much life among his hungry brothers in the dust!”

Charles Dickens was the vocal conscience of his age. He sympathized with the plight of the poor in an increasingly industrialized world. Ultimately, child labor was eliminated in our society although it still remains a problem in the developing world. The welfare state is still a problematic issue. It’s good not to have people starving in the streets, but with charity comes a host of related problems that we still haven’t entirely worked out. Dependence is ultimately servitude of one kind or another. How wonderful that Dickens’ insight still speaks to us so poignantly today. How sad that we still haven’t learned all of the lessons he sought to teach.

You can read the story for yourself at Project GutenbergA Christmas Carol (cover)

Xmas Heroes – Clement Clarke Moore

Xmas Heroes – Clement Clarke Moore

Clement Clarke MooreAfter a sleigh ride from Greenwich Village in 1822 and struck with the holiday spirit, the staid professor of classics and religious studies at the General Theological Seminary of the Protestant Episcopal Church was inspired to write a bit of entertainment entitled “An Account of a Visit from St. Nicholas” for his kids.

Clement Clarke Moore was a serious academic. He earned his Bachelor of Arts and Master’s Degrees from Columbia University in 1798 and penned the two-volume work entitled A Compendious Lexicon of the Hebrew Language in 1809. This scholarly work and his donation of a portion of his inherited estate secured his position as a professor at the newly created seminary in 1820. He held this position proudly until 1850. From 1840, he also served as a board member for the New York Institution for the Blind.

Night Before Christmas (1888 book cover)The poem he wrote for his kids was a personal affair to him. He was advised to share it, but he didn’t want to diminish his standing as a serious professor. In 1823, a family friend submitted the poem to be published anonymously at the Troy Sentinel 150 miles away in Troy, NY. The poem was reprinted annually and eventually included in The New-York Book of Poetry in 1837 where it was officially attributed to Moore. Moore finally relented to accept authorship when he also included it in his 1844 anthology, Poems. A Visit from St. Nicholas was printed in booklet form repeatedly over the years.

Moore was influenced by the Dutch settlers of New York in his writing of the poem. The Dutch Sinter Klaas was actually based more directly on the historical Bishop Nicholas of Myra and typically depicted as a tall, stately figure. Moore collected ideas from Washington Irving’s 1809 Knickerbocker History and an 1821 poem called “The Children’s Friend” as well as the stout Dutch sleigh driver who had delivered him home from his cousin’s house on Christmas Eve of 1822. The poem “The Children’s Friend” had vaguely mentioned Santa’s reindeer, but Moore specified eight and named each of them. The poem had so captured the creative imagination and transformed the character of Santa that it was frequently published in booklets and became the topic of short films once the movie camera was invented by Edison in 1889 in the form of the Strip Kinetograph. Edison directed “The Night Before Christmas” in 1905. Watch it below:

Xmas Heroes – Franz Xaver Gruber

Xmas Heroes – Franz Xaver Gruber

Franz Xaver Gruber (1787-1863)Franz Gruber was the son of linen weavers, Josef and Maria Gruber. He worked in their employ until he was 18, when he began training as a school teacher.

In 1807, he completed his training and became the teacher at the school in Arnsdorf, Austria. He was an effective teacher and his school was well regarded as being efficiently run. Along with the job of schoolteacher, he was assigned to be the church caretaker and organist.

In 1816, he became the organist at the new parish church of Oberndorf about two miles away. He was hoping to leverage this into a promotion to the teacher’s position in Oberndorf, but it never panned out.

Fr Joseph Hermann MohrIn 1817, Father Joseph Mohr was assigned to the St Nicholas church in Oberndorf as an assistant pastor. He had written the words to Silent Night in 1816 while serving as assistant pastor in Mariapharr. With Gruber serving as organist, the two became friends.

On Christmas Eve of 1818, the organ in the Oberndorf Church was down for repairs. Father Mohr walked to Franz Gruber’s home and asked him to put his poem to music for the evening’s service. Gruber had the tune done in a few hours. They performed the song for the first time that evening accompanied by Gruber on guitar.

Within a few years, Gruber had written arrangements for organ and chorus. These were carried forward through the Archdiocese of Salzburg and throughout Europe by touring folksingers. The version of the song that we are most familiar with in English was translated by Father John Freeman Young in 1859, an Episcopal priest serving at Trinity Church in New York City.

In 1829, Franz Gruber resigned his teaching and organist responsibilities in Arndorf and Oberndorf to move to a much bigger school in Berndorf about 30 miles south. This opened the door for him to become the choir director of the church in Hallein in 1835. He was able to devote the rest of his professional life to music. He passed on in 1863 at the age of 76, leaving a rich musical heritage. His sons founded the Song Society in 1847 and the Halleiner Singers Table in 1849 as a testament to his love for music and teaching that he had passed on to them.

Historical Grinches – Political Correctness

Historical Grinches – Political Correctness

Political CorrectnessWe’ve seen ruthless kings and emperors. We’ve seen wild-eyed revolutionaries. Now we’re looking at something altogether worse. Madness usually ends with the madman.

A bad idea spreads like a virus and kills like the slow, creeping chill that causes hypothermia and death from exposure to cold weather.

The bad idea in question is Political Correctness.

The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines this as:

Definition of Politically Correct

: conforming to a belief that language and practices which could offend political sensibilities (as in matters of sex or race) should be eliminated
political correctness noun

The friendly face of this dreadful behavior is that a well-meaning individual has observed some boorish behavior and is kindly offering correction of the behavior and point of view that inspired it. Certainly, it is a key part of family and society for more experienced people to correct the missteps of less experienced people. Parents don’t wish to inflict ill-behaved children on the community at large, so they correct the children’s misbehavior. This is a familiar pattern, so it explains why it has become such a handy tool to social engineers.

Political CorrectnessThe main problem of Political Correctness is that it continuously presses forward its own boundaries and never gives back ground that has been claimed. If I can tut-tut an inadvertent misstatement today, I can prohibit discussion of that topic tomorrow. It is an all-consuming sociological glob that presses forward day after day, year after year.

What does that have to do with Christmas?

Going back to our example of the well-meaning individual correcting boorish behavior, isn’t it rude to say Merry Christmas to a person who doesn’t celebrate Christmas? Some people might think so. How dare you just assume that people participate in Christmas!

Well, no. Wishing someone a Merry Christmas is to include them in your joy. It isn’t rude, it is kind. It’s rude to assume that just because somebody doesn’t participate in Christmas, that they wouldn’t appreciate a kind word.

Following the example of the well-meaning, politically correct person’s admonition, what if you wish somebody a Happy Hanukkah or Happy Kwanzaa or a Blessed Bodhi or whatever. That would be politically correct, right?

Well, no. If you wish somebody a Happy Pancha Ganapati but you are not actually a Hindu, then you are not being pleasantly cosmopolitan. You are actually guilty of Cultural Appropriation and you will be brow-beaten accordingly by someone who is more socially aware than you. That’s how political correctness works. There is always somebody more socially enlightened than you and they will always take any and all opportunities to hammer you for your repressive boorishness. How dare you even breathe! CO2 is a world-ending toxin. Why don’t you just die so that endangered species can live and the planet can thrive without all of us on it?

An example from the 1994 movie “The Santa Clause” takes place in the classroom with Tim Allen’s son introducing him as Santa Claus. The teacher, played by Mary Gross, appropriately corrects one boy for calling his classmate stupid. That’s rude and will get you a stocking full of coal. She then goes on to correct him for using the word ‘elves’.

Why? Obviously, it’s a funny stab at political correctness but if this were a real classroom with a real teacher, what possible benefit could possibly come from telling a child not to call elves elves? This is the unending overreach of political correctness. There is always another nit to pick. There is always another insensitive racist to shame.

But why stop with simply shaming people when you can legislate political correctness? What about prosecuting thought crimes? What about staffing your entire education system from kindergarten through graduate school with oh-so-enlightened paragons of political correctness? How does a civilization run when anything you say or do is likely to offend someone?

It doesn’t.

The very students who are driven to the paralysis of analysis by the unending trauma of negotiating a route through the minefield of all possible offense are left in sobbing heaps when the world doesn’t conform to their sad preconceptions. Safe places are stocked with play-doh and coloring books to soothe the psychological damage caused by a racist, misogynist, xenophobic, callous world that refuses to bend to the narrative they’ve been force-fed all their lives.

Santa, please stop hereIn society, trends swing from left to right and back again like a pendulum. Political correctness is a swing to the left that has been cutting an arc since the 1970’s. I believe we may have actually passed the top of the arc. We may actually be swinging back towards free speech and common sense after all this time.

It may actually safe to simply say Merry Christmas again. I certainly hope so!

Historical Grinches – Nazis

Historical Grinches – Nazis

Adolf HitlerYesterday, we spoke about how the German Empire funded Lenin’s return to Russia in order to get them out of WWI. As we mentioned, it did work. The Russian Empire left the fight and freed up forces to transfer to the Western Front. It was, however, too little too late. Once the Americans joined the fight, the Germans were too worn down. The German Empire fell to a revolution that resulted in the creation of the doomed Weimar Republic. This interim government experienced political extremism on the Left and Right, contentious relations with the victors of the Great War and disastrous hyperinflation. After fourteen years, Adolf Hitler became Chancellor and assumed emergency powers. As absolute dictator, Hitler and his Nazi Party began making serious moves to reshape German society and culture to fall in line with his ideology.

Julfest

Odin, the Wanderer (Georg von Rosen, 1886)Once the Nazis took power, they renamed Christmas (Weihnachten) to Julfest and began focusing it on pre-Christian Germanic mythology. Carols were rewritten to exclude references to Jesus and religion. The Christmas tree (Weihnachtsbaum or Christbaum) was renamed to the Yule Tree (Julbaum) and topped with a Swastika instead of a star. Santa became a reborn Odin and was depicted on posters looking not dissimilar from Gandalf the Grey on his white charger.

Kirchenkampf

Deutsche Christen Flagge By RsVe [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia CommonsAlong with trying to change Christmas, they wanted to change Christianity. Before Hitler became dictator, the Nazis were more conciliatory toward the church. After he consolidated power in 1933, he became considerably more hostile. Nazi ideology could not tolerate any favorable treatment of Jews in Christian dogma. Those who subscribed to the changes were members of the “German Christians”. The nazified church was led by Ludwig Muller. Those who retained traditional beliefs were members of the “Confessing Church” led by Martin Niemöller. While they did not form an active resistance to Nazi excesses in regard to Jews and other endangered minorities, they did stand fast against Hitler’s attempts to co-opt Christianity. The Stuttgart Declaration of Guilt, was issued on 19 October 1945 by the Council of the Evangelical Church in Germany. The church confessed guilt for its lack of substantial opposition to the Nazis and the Third Reich.

The substantial opposition came from the Allied Forces through bombing campaigns and invasion. The Nazis officially surrendered in Riems, France on 7 May 1945. Germany was split among the Allies. The Russians kept the Eastern portion of the country and established a communist satellite state. The Americans, British and French cooperated in Western Germany to restore normalcy. Church and Saint Nick were back at work in West Germany at last.

Historical Grinches – Soviets

Historical Grinches – Soviets

Vladimir LeninLike the French before them, the Russians were being brutally repressed by a long-standing monarchy and its willing partners in the clergy. Revolutionary fervor was sweeping the empire from the late Nineteenth Century into the early Twentieth. Unlike the French, the revolutionaries served external purposes. In WWI, the German Empire was facing war on two fronts. By providing funding to Vladimir Lenin to return to Russia from his exile in Switzerland, the Germans took a gamble that Lenin would succeed in starting a revolution that would take the Russian Empire out of the war. He did succeed. The Russians left the war. The monarchy was abolished and the monarchs were executed. The country lapsed into Civil War. The Bolsheviks, under Lenin, eventually succeeded in taking over the country. Like the French, the Soviets tried to redefine society along the lines of their guiding philosophy.

The New Soviet Man

New Soviet Man and WomanThe expectation of the leaders of the newly formed Soviet Union was that as a worker’s paradise, communism would give rise to civic-minded people who would be athletic and intellectual. The reality was that without any sort of motive for profit or personal achievement, the Soviet men and women were indifferent about their work and their country. They were deliberately isolated from foreign influences and prohibited from traveling abroad in order to try to create an artificial culture that never actually took hold.

Young Pioneers

Young Pioneers on the 50 Year StampHaving failed to create the New Soviet Man, the next logical step was to try to shape the Soviet citizen in a youth organization. Young Pioneers were somewhat like Boy Scouts, but they were politicized and ultimately intended to join the Komsomol (the youth adjunct to the Communist Party of the Soviet Union). Their motto “Always Prepared!” was a knock-off of the Boy Scouts’ motto, “Be Prepared“. The oath of the Young Pioneers was:

I (surname, given name), having now joined the ranks of the Vladimir Illich Lenin All-Union Pioneer Organization, in the presence of my comrades solemnly promise: to passionately love my motherland and to cherish it as I can, to live, study, and fight as the Great Lenin has instructed, as the Communist Party teaches me, and as to always carry out the laws of the Pioneers of the Soviet Union.

The Young Pioneers were also taught and expected to be staunchly atheist. This included the state disapproval of Russia’s version of Santa.

Ded Moroz

Ded Moroz in Veliky Ustyug By Kremlin.ru, CC BY 4.0

Ded Moroz in Veliky Ustyug By Kremlin.ru, CC BY 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=5583732

Christmas was decried as bourgeois and religious by the Soviet’s state atheism. Ded Moroz was actually derived from pre-Christian mythology, but because of his overall association with Santa or Saint Nicholas he was denounced as an ally of the priest and kulak. Fortunately, they rehabilitated Ded Moroz and Christmas with the designation of New Year’s as the official Winter holiday.

In a letter to the Soviet newspaper Pravda that was published on December 28, 1935, Pavel Postyshev (First Secretary of the Kiev Regional Committee of the Communist Party of Ukraine) wrote:

In the pre-revolutionary era the bourgeoisie and the capitalist officials always put up a tree for their children on New Year. Children of the working classes looked on with envy through the windows at the gleaming tree adorned with colored lights and the children of the rich playing around it.

Why do our schools, orphanages, nurseries, children’s clubs, and Young Pioneer Palaces, deprive children of the working class of the Soviet State of this wonderful enjoyment? Because some “left-leaning” exaggerators decried this pastime as a bourgeois children’s indulgence. It is time to put an end to this wrongful condemnation of the tree, which is a joyful diversion for the children. The Young Pioneer scout leaders are called upon to organize holiday celebrations for the children that feature New Year trees. In schools, orphanages, clubs, cinemas, and theaters – children’s New Year trees should be everywhere! There should not be a single village or community farm where the local board, along with members of the Komsomol, does not provide a New Year tree for their kids. City councils, chairmen of district executive committees, village councils, and education authorities must all work to bring the New Year tree to children of our great socialist motherland. Our children will be grateful to us for giving them back the New Year tree. I’m sure the Komsomolians will take a very active part in this enterprise and do away with the silly misconception that the New Year tree is a bourgeois excess. So, let’s organize a New Year celebration for kids and arrange a good Soviet New Year tree in all our cities and rural villages!

So, in the end, a true Soviet Man showed some Christmas (well, New Year’s) Spirit after all and the kids of the USSR got to have their own secular Santa, tree and presents.

Historical Grinches – Revolutionary France

Historical Grinches – Revolutionary France

The last decade of the Eighteenth Century saw a massive upheaval in France. La liberté guidant le peuple (Eugène Delacroix)The monarchy was abolished and the monarchs were decapitated. A republic was declared and extended periods of violent tumult shook the country. Along with the overthrow of the monarchy and the aristocracy, republican sentiment was turned against the clergy. The clergy had justified the right of the nobility to rule throughout medieval history. While redefining how government worked, some of the revolutionary leaders were also trying to redefine French culture according to Enlightenment ideals. In deposing the nobility and the clergy, Christianity (and therefore Christmas) was replaced by some pet theories.

French Republican Calendar

In an attempt to cast off all things of the past and move toward an Age of Reason, a decimal calendar was designed with decimal time. Twelve months of thirty days were given entirely new names: Vendémiaire (“grape harvest”), Brumaire (“mist”), Frimaire (“frost”), Nivôse (“snowy”), Pluviôse (“rainy”), Ventôse (“windy”), Germinal (“germination”), Floréal (“flower”), Prairial (“meadow”), Messidor (“harvest”), Thermidor or Fervidor (“summer heat”), Fructidor (“fruit”). Certainly, this caused some confusion abroad. One Brit provided an easier translation for his countrymen in Sporting Magazine’s January 1800 edition: Wheezy, Sneezy and Freezy; Slippy, Drippy and Nippy; Showery, Flowery and Bowery; Hoppy, Croppy and Poppy.

Each week had ten days. Each day had ten hours. Each hour had one hundred minutes. Each minute had 100 seconds. The remaining five days (or six in a leap year) were designated as “complementary days” which served as a collection of civic holidays. The calendar began on the Autumnal Equinox, so the Complementary Days which they called les sans-culottides fell in mid-September. The holidays were celebrations of certain concepts such as the “Celebration of Virtue (La Fête de la Vertu)” or the “Celebration of Labor (La Fête du Travail)”. For fairly obvious reasons, the calendar just never caught on and went out of use in 1805.

Cult of Reason

Fête de la Raison 1793To define a new belief system is no minor feat. Using Enlightenment ideals and philosophical concepts from Rousseau and others, they defined a civic religion. They sought the perfection of mankind through Truth and Liberty, discounting any concept of a supernatural being. Rather than prayers to God, they would seek perfection through the exercise of Reason.

On 20 Brumaire Year II (10 November 1793), they celebrated the Fête de la Raison nationwide in decommissioned churches and cathedrals that were retasked as Temples of Reason. In concern of lapsing into idolatry, such Fêtes featured a live Goddess of Reason attended by young girls in white tunics and tricolor sashes. It was increasingly popular among the masses, but was repudiated by Maximilien Robespierre who had a religion of his own to roll out.

Cult of the Supreme Being

Robespierre exécutant le bourreauAt the height of his Reign of Terror, Robespierre, finding the Fête de la Raison at Notre Dame in Paris to be a deplorable affair and finding the Cult of Reason to be too far gone on the road to dechristianization, had the leaders of that movement arrested and executed. This wasn’t terribly surprising. Robespierre had already had tens of thousands of people executed in France for being “enemies of the revolution”. Being rid of his competitors, Robespierre rolled out his new Revolutionary religion. He put forward that reason was only a means to an end. The end was a civic-minded public virtue of the type seen in Ancient Rome and the early Greek city-states. His reliance on a god figure to represent a higher moral code as “constant reminders of justice” that he believed to be essential to the Republic.

On 20 Prairial Year II (8 June 1794), Robespierre held the first Festival of the Supreme Being and decided that ongoing republican holidays would take place on the tenth day of each week. The festival was one of many excesses that led to the Thermidorian Reaction, which was a coup d’etat against Robespierre and the Jacobins in the revolutionary government. The Cult of the Supreme Being ended with Robespierre’s visit to the guillotine on July 28th 1794.

The French Revolution wasn’t the last overthrow of a monarchy that led to excesses in reshaping society at the cost of tens of thousands of lives. Stay tuned for our next historical grinches! Joyeux Noël!

Historical Grinches – The Puritans

Historical Grinches – The Puritans

In 1533, King Henry VIII of England sought divorce from his first wife, Catherine of Aragon. This set things in motion thPilgrimsat led to a massive religious schism. The king broke ties with the Catholic Church, seized all church property and was declared Supreme Head of the Church of England. To some, the Church of England did not take enough steps away from Catholicism. The Puritans were a sect of English Protestants who wanted to purify the church of all remaining Catholic elements.

After Henry’s death, England experienced more sectarian violence as Catholic Queen Mary I was supplanted by her half-sister, Protestant Queen Elizabeth I. After a 44 year reign, she was succeeded by her nephew, James I. King James was the son of Queen Mary I and is most famous for publishing a version of the Bible that had been translated into English.

The MayflowerDuring this time of tumult, a group known as the Pilgrim Fathers relocated to Holland in search of religious freedom. Fearing that they might lose their English culture in Holland, they arranged to settle in North America at the Plymouth Colony. From their earliest days, their Puritan outlook caused them to see Christmas as more of a pagan hold-over than as a celebration of the birth of Christ. Rather than purify it and make it a more religious observance, they simply dismissed it entirely. Their first Christmas was spent constructing their first building in the New World, totally bypassing any form of observance or celebration of the day. The New England Puritans’ view of Christmas largely held until well into the 19th Century, when it took on a more secular and commercial aspect in popular culture.

After James’ death, his son succeeded him as King Charles I. A realm that had suffered so much turmoil in the back and forth of politics and religion was now subject to a king who believed in the Divine Right of Kings and tried dragging England back into an absolute monarchy reminiscent of medieval times. This put him in strong conflict with the Parliament, which was mainly Puritan. Before long, his extreme views and heavy handed rule led to the English Civil War and the execution of Charles.Death of King Charles I

While the Puritan Parliament held power, they banned Christmas. Like the Pilgrims, they considered it to be boorish, wasteful, immoral and bearing an unseemly taint of Catholicism. This led to widespread rioting among Royalists and people who missed their yuletide revels.

In fairness, at the time, Christmas was less a religious observance and considerably more like a drunken office party of today or the Saturnalia of ancient Rome. The tradition of a Lord of Misrule or Abbot of Unreason was reported as follows:

[I]n the feaste of Christmas, there was in the kinges house, wheresoeuer hee was lodged, a Lord of Misrule, or Maister of merry disports, and the like had yee in the house of euery noble man, of honor, or good worshippe, were he spirituall or temporall. Amongst the which the Mayor of London, and eyther of the shiriffes had their seuerall Lordes of Misrule, euer contending without quarrell or offence, who should make the rarest pastimes to delight the Beholders. These Lordes beginning their rule on Alhollon Eue [Halloween], continued the same till the morrow after the Feast of the Purification, commonlie called Candlemas day: In all which space there were fine and subtle disguisinges, Maskes and Mummeries, with playing at Cardes for Counters, Nayles and pointes in euery house, more for pastimes then for gaine.
~John Stowe, Survey of London (1603)

Nowadays, we can afford to be a bit more lenient and let those who wish to celebrate Christmas with religious ceremony do so while others indulge in their drunken shenanigans or their pagan traditions.

The Puritans were certainly a product of their times. They were trying to redefine English culture and cast off what they considered to be undesirable remnants of the Middle Ages.

As we’ll see in our next couple of grinches, the Modern Age seems to be replete with groups trying to throw the Baby Jesus out with the bath water. Redefining society from scratch is a recurring theme and a recurring failure.

Thankfully, Christmas survived the Puritans. Wait until you see who comes next!