In 1872, Scribner’s Monthly published a Christmas poem by Christina Rossetti placing the Nativity in a snowy landscape familiar to most American readers. The poem was set to the music of Gustav Holst in the 1906 English Hymnal. The tune, named Cranham, reflected the quiet simplicity of the poem and the serene beauty of the Nativity.
In the bleak midwinter
Frosty wind made moan,
Earth stood hard as iron,
Water like a stone:
Snow had fallen, snow on snow
Snow on snow,
In the bleak mid-winter,
Our God, heaven cannot hold him
Nor earth sustain;
Heaven and earth shall flee away
When he comes to reign:
In the bleak mid-winter
A stable-place sufficed
The Lord God Almighty
Enough for him, whom cherubim
Worship night and day,
A breastful of milk,
And a mangerful of hay:
Enough for him, whom angels
Fall down before,
The ox and ass and camel
Angels and archangels
May have gathered there,
Cherubim and seraphim
Thronged the air –
But only his mother
In her maiden bliss
Worshipped the beloved
With a kiss.
What can I give him,
Poor as I am?
If I were a shepherd
I would bring a lamb;
If I were a wise man
I would do my part;
Yet what I can, I give him –
Give my heart.
The title of this song is from the Latin word for “rejoice”. It is thought to have been composed in the 16th Century.
Gaudete, gaudete! Christus est natus
Ex Maria virgine, gaudete!
Tempus adest gratiæ
Hoc quod optabamus,
Deus homo factus est
Mundus renovatus est
A Christo regnante.
Unde lux est orta
Ergo nostra concio
Psallat iam in lustro;
Salus Regi nostro.
Johann Sebastian Bach composed this oratorio for the Christmas season of 1734. It is presented in six parts pertaining to the Christmas story.
Part 1 is about the Birth of Christ. Part 2 is the angelic host addressing the shepherds. Part 3 is the adoration of the shepherds at the site of the Nativity in Bethlehem. Part 4 is the circumcision and naming of Jesus. Part 5 is the journey of the Wise Men. Part 6 is the adoration of the Wise Men at the site of the Nativity in Bethlehem.
What would Christmas be without parents? As much as Christmas has become a child-focused affair, it really depends on the parents to bring the magic to the holiday. Having been on both sides of the spectrum, I can say this is completely true.
My parents did such a wonderful job of making Christmastime special for my sister and me. My mother spent weeks ahead of the big day baking cookies. It was a great time for togetherness. She put on the Bing Crosby album and stacked up the Chipmunks behind it and we began making and baking the cookies that would go into Tupperware containers until family and friends came by. My father got out the electric racetrack and we raced our little cars for hours on end. We all sat together and watched Christmas specials and holiday movies on TV. We all got together and played board games and cards. Weather permitting, we went out and had snowball fights and built forts. It was such a wonderful experience and gave me a lifelong love for the holiday season.
On the flip side, as a parent I get no greater joy than burying my wife and kids in presents and watching holiday movies together. Creating a place where my kids can enjoy the magic of the holidays is an annual challenge and goal for me. If you’re anything like me, the thrill of finding a 24×7 Christmas music station is a harbinger of marvelous things to come. I’m no Clark Griswold, but I do like things to be a bit over the top for the holidays. I like having decorations in every corner of the house. I like having all the tastes and smells of the season available throughout the month of December and even the weeks before and after.
Honestly, I miss the days of counting down the days until Christmas and having a mountain of presents mysteriously appear beneath the tree. That was a real treat. It made the holidays genuinely magical for me. That being said, I never cease to be amazed at just how the magic continues to apply. As the parents, it is our job to make those presents mysteriously appear for Christmas morning. The amazing thing is that we actually put it together. Having slowly gathered and wrapped the presents for our munchkins, we tuck them away to await the big reveal. Stepping back from our late night Santa stand-in, we’re nearly just as thrilled and amazed as if we were the ones receiving the presents. It is a truly enchanting sight. The twinkling lights of the tree cast a special glow over the stack of presents we’ve assembled for the kids. It’s enough to give me a chill of delight just looking at it.
I’m so pleased to have shared this week of Christmas Heroes with you. Thank you for following our series. For the Twelve Days of Christmas this year, I have assembled a variety of obscure yuletide entertainments. I hope you will enjoy them as much as you have our Christmas Heroes and Historical Grinches.
We wish you a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!
The 1950’s were a great time to be a kid. In the wake of the Second World War, America was expressing a new sense of optimism and can-do attitude. Industry that had ramped up to facilitate the war effort was converting to a peacetime footing. Jobs that had been so scarce in the Great Depression that preceded the war were now plentiful and looking for returning veterans to fill them. This bounty led to new families in new houses starting a Baby Boom. As these kids began to mature, popular culture began to accommodate this new and highly valuable demographic.
TV shows like “Lassie”, “Leave it to Beaver” and “Howdy Doody” were created to celebrate the abundance of children in the country and to idealize family life and joyous childhood. Since Christmas had been increasingly focusing on childhood, it’s only natural that Christmas would be tremendously child-focused in the Boom era. Wonderful classic toys like the Daisy Model 1938 Red Ryder youth BB gun that Ralphie so desires in “A Christmas Story” and the Radio Flyer wagon became cultural legends.
With all the focus on children, Columbia Records signed a precocious singer from Oklahoma to sing a variety of novelty songs. Aged 10 years old, the very talented Ms Peevey debuted with the song “I Want A Hippopotamus For Christmas”. Naturally, it was a hit. Because it caught on and because Gayla was a local talent, the Oklahoma City Zoo started a fundraising campaign to get her a live hippo for Christmas in 1953. They had recently completed a fundraiser with children putting pennies in jars to buy the zoo an elephant, so they thought they might be able to do the same for a hippopotamus. They succeeded. Gayla was presented with a baby hippo named Matilda who she donated to the zoo. Matilda lived until 1998.
Gayla performed a variety of other comical holiday hits like this one.
Gayla’s performances represented the way that children were seen in the fifties. Kids were cute, optimistic and silly. It was a time to believe that all things were possible and that society at large was set up to make that happen.
In 1959, she changed labels and began recording under the name Jamie Horton. She moved on with her life after age 19 when she married her husband, Cliff. She graduated San Diego State University and became a teacher, advertising executive, wife, mom and proud grandmother.
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.
In 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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
In 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.
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.