On the Feast of Stephen

Good King Wenceslas looked out, on the Feast of Stephen, when the snow lay round about, deep, and crisp, and even. Brightly shone the moon that night, though the frost was cruel, when a poor man came in sight, gathering winter fuel.

St. Stephen’s Day is the feast or festival day when the Christian religion celebrates the life and martyrdom by stoning of Stephen, the so-called first martyr of Christianity (the Bible book of Acts Chapter 7 records the event). For Victorian Christmas traditions, St. Stephen’s day was a sort of “poor man’s Christmas” where the needs of lower-class people would receive gifts and food from their richer, higher born countrymen.

That’s sort of what’s going on in the carol Good King Wenceslas quoted above. The king is out and about and finds a poor man who needs firewood. He and his faithful pageboy give alms to the man in the spirit of generosity and charity. At the end of the song, the king reminds his page and us that those who give to others are blessed by the giving. The story–and the song–are based on a real medieval king from Central Europe who, apparently, was kind and generous.

As we have looked at in other stories, the Victorians did much to help create modern Christmas traditions, and that’s also the case here. The story and song became popular after an Englishman named John Neale penned them in 1853. But the St. Stephen’s theme runs a bit deeper still here.

You see, servants–the poor–had to work during most holidays. Christmastime for maids, butlers, charwomen, and cooks meant taking care of their employers and/or landowners first. That also meant, of course, that Christmas Day meant little to these working women and men (and children, too, often). The wealthy folks’ holiday was only another day at the proverbial office for them.

Some say it was Queen Victoria who, mindful of the devotion her armies of servants showed by foregoing their personal holiday celebrations to insure that hers and her family’s was wonderful, first decided to put together packets of small presents and left over food from the royal celebrations and some small bit of money and gift the servants with these things.

Now, there are several examples of this happening much before Victoria, but she seems to have popularized the practice on the day after Christmas. On the Feast of Stephen, the giving of boxed goods to the poorer people. And while the modern observance seems to have more to do with shopping and after-Christmas sales at the chain stores, that wasn’t the origin of the sentiment. No, it was meant to be much in the line of what Good King Wenceslas intended.

The Brits call it Boxing Day.

On Christmas Humbug

Our friend, Mr. Webster, defines humbug as false talk or behavior. Now, I’m among the first to point out the differences between the historicity of the so-called Christmas story and the traditional and usually historically suspect practices associated with the holiday. And, if you’re keeping score at home, I’m firmly on the side of the tradition over the history. However, in the spirit of fun (if not the holiday), let’s examine some Christmas humbug.

There were three Wise Men who visited the baby Jesus. Well, we don’t really know how many there were. The Bible doesn’t say. It does, however, say that there were three gifts: Gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Tradition simply extrapolated the number of wise men based on these three gifts. So, the reality is that there were anywhere from two to infinity number of wise men.

Mary rode into Bethlehem on a donkey. This one’s gotta be true, right? I mean all those Christmas cards of her and her betrothed, Joseph, in silhouette, riding into Bethlehem with the start behind them can’t have lied, right? Well…we don’t know that she rode at all. In fact…

Yeah, well, but for sure Jesus was born in Bethlehem. No way this one is humbug. Or, is there? Here’s the deal. We keep trying to look at the Bible as a history book. It’s not. I’m reminded of the Lincoln statue that depicts a freed slave at Lincoln’s knee with his chains broken in two. Did that event actually happen? No, but the symbol absolutely did. It’s sort of the same with the Jesus born in Bethlehem thing. That village was the village of Israel’s greatest (not most powerful but most symbolic) king–King David. So, if Jesus is a king greater than David, he had to be born there, right? So, Luke’s Gospel creates a Roman census that requires everyone to stop what they’re doing and return to their ancestral land. First of all, imagine the economic disaster such a decree would cause. People would have to travel for weeks or months in some cases. More importantly, we have no record of any such Roman census being ordered by Augustus during that time. We have records of how much a bushel of wheat cost about that time, so you’d think we’d have at least some evidence of an earth-changing event like a massive world-wide census. We don’t. Besides, he’s Jesus of Nazareth–not Jesus of Bethlehem.

Jesus was born in a stable surrounded by the animals (and probably a drummer boy). Insert game-show wrong answer buzzer here. The Greek word for “inn” is better translated as “guest room,” so that’s probably where Jesus was born. You think Joseph is traveling home and forced to stay in a Motel VI? No. It’s probably meant to be that small room and definitely not a stable. And if you follow the timeline of the birth stories in Matthew and Luke (Mark and John don’t have them), you’ll see that the little family stays in Bethlehem about 3 years before skedaddling for Egypt to escape the supposed massacre of all the male children of the village under the age of 3 by King Herod–another major event for which there is no historical evidence.

So, if all of these are humbug, what are we left with?

We’re left with giving to each other our time, support, forgiveness, and love, and we set aside a season for doing so once year. Even if we didn’t have the Jesus traditions, we would do well to set apart a season for giving to each other those things that are beyond price, and give them with grateful hearts.

The world would be a better place if we did.

Merry Christmas. Happy holidays.

On a Real Grinch

Ollie hated Christmas. Well, to be fair, Ollie hated any religious celebration outside of Sunday services. In fact, there was quite a lot that Ollie hated.

He worked hard to make sure laws were passed in his country to insure that not only Christmas, but also Easter and other “saint” days were not observed by the Christian church. And Ollie succeeded.

This was a guy who believed in the dictum, “No more fun of any kind.” Besides his war on Christmas, Ollie worked to outlaw such things as theaters (dens of iniquity, he said), bars (do we need to explain why?), and sports (if you have time for leisure, you have time for work). Even swearing could earn you a lashing in the public square.

It wasn’t enough that he believed Christmas should be ignored; he also initiated the day as a day of fasting in repentance for the previous years of what he perceived as gluttony on a feast day. We have to remember that most poor people in towns didn’t eat meat daily, and that meat meals were sometimes had only on “feast” days–like Christmas. To Ollie, this was an unneeded luxury for people. So, he said that fasts should be observed rather than feasts on December 25th.

You might wonder about Ollie’s justification for this concept, and I’m here to help you with that wondering. Ollie pointed out–rightfully–that the Bible doesn’t actually state when Jesus was born. There is no date stated in the Gospels. The date of December 25th is simply a tradition. Also, the Bible never mandated that the date be observed even if we did know what date Jesus was born. Besides, Ollie, said, Christmas is Catholic, and, if he was anything, he was vehemently anti-Catholic. He was anti-anything that didn’t agree with his incredibly narrow interpretation of God.

Now, to be fair, people still celebrated Christmas–they simply did it much more quietly and secretly. The holiday proved simply too popular to stamp out simply by dictate. And you will find people who said that Ollie had nothing to do with the ban on Christmas but, rather, he merely didn’t stop those who wanted such a ban.

Don’t listen to those people. Nothing happened without his approval while he held power.

And anyone who knew him knew that he was sour, dour, and almost never smiled. Ollie was the original Grinch who Stole Christmas. The only thing he wasn’t was green.

You know him, of course, as Oliver Cromwell.

On a Parasite

Why would you purposefully bring a parasite into your home?

Yet, many of us do so, every year. This is a parasite that infests trees where bird droppings have deposited the seeds of the parasites. The invasive species then saps water and nutrients from the tree it leeches from. Apparently, it gets its name from a combination of two Anglo-Saxon words for “dung” and “stick.”


To be fair, the Ancient Greeks and Romans used the parasite as medicine. They believed it could be used as a treatment for everything from epilepsy to possession to dealing with menstrual cramps. Yet, even they recognized that they were dealing with a parasite.

And, for some reason, many of us in the modern world have adopted this as a part of our lives, at least for a few weeks out of the year. Well, the ancient Celtic tribes did it first, it seems. They get the credit in some circles for being the ones who began the tradition to bring the parasite into their homes in the winter. The fact that it was thriving when the trees it was mooching off of had lost their leaves made the Celts believe that this thing had magical, special, life-giving properties that they came to admire and covet. The myth sprang up that it brought luck to those homes into which it was brought, and some believed that it had the power to ward off evil spirits.

While some Christians felt it was wrong to include a “pagan” Celtic ritual in their homes, it seems that, at least in northern and western Europe, the tradition continued into the Christian era. It was in the Georgian Era in England when a song about the parasite popularized and added to the mystique behind the practice of bringing it into homes during the winter. In fact, many songs refer to this parasite in a positive way–songs that you sing to this day. You see, the song from the 1780s said that, along with the other positive aspects (the magic, the life-affirming element, the luck, the anti-evil spirit thing) of bringing it into a home, there was one more thing that could insure luck to someone.

That was if you would kiss someone while standing under the parasite. And, for the past 250 years, we have followed this tradition of kissing at Christmas.

You know this parasite as mistletoe.

On a Miserable Miser

John Elwes was said to have been so cheap and miserly that he lamented the birds who took hay and straw from his animal stalls to build their nest, that there was nothing he could do to stop them. Another story about Elwes is from a relative who stayed in his large house for a time being awakened one night in bed by rain hitting him in the face from a hole in the ceiling that Elwes refused to spend money to fix. When asked about the hole the next morning, the host remarked that he often slept in that room and actually found the rain in the face quite refreshing.

Man, that’s cheap.

And it wasn’t that he was hurting financially.

In fact, Elwes had been the recipient of not one but rather two large inheritances. He also had lived a fairly interesting life. Part of his education had come from Geneva, Switzerland, where he had become one of Europe’s premier horsemen. It was also during his educational years that Elwes had been introduced to the famous philosopher, Voltaire.

But miserliness ran in the family, apparently. One of his inheritances came from an uncle who gave Elwes a run for his money when it came to being a skinflint. And the approximately £8,000,000 he received from his parents was handed down to him, in part, because his mother’s health suffered severely and she passed away when she refused to spend money on enough food to eat.

Elwes did manage to get elected to Parliament for twelve years, but he retired when he realized that it was costing him money to travel to London so much on parliamentary business. In later years, his reputation for being cheap was cemented by tales spun by his renters in his large real estate holdings who testified that he often forbade fires in his houses in the winters for fear that damage would be done to the rentals. Living on less than most people people spent in a year, upon his death at age 75, his estate was worth almost £75,000,000 in today’s money (approximately just over $90,000,000 in US funds).

At his poorly attended funeral, it was generally agreed that he did no one real harm other than himself for living so cheaply.

The stories of John Elwes were told for several generations. They heavily influenced a writer a couple of generations later. This writer was looking for inspiration for a character who was to be the epitome of miserliness, someone whose name would become synonymous with unbridled thrift. And so, Charles Dickens is said to have chosen John Elwes as his inspiration for his story, A Christmas Carol. Unlike Elwes, however, Dickens’s character learned to be not so stingy in the end.

You know that character as Ebenezer Scrooge.

On a Christmas Tree

Al and Vicky loved Christmas. The kids, the presents, the traditions. Back in the 1840s, when the couple’s family was starting, they embraced the German tradition of putting up a tree as part of the celebration of the holiday time. That seems innocuous enough, but the pair lived in Britain, and German traditions weren’t looked on kindly at that time. People around them started to talk. Some even began to question their loyalty to the country.

Why did the Germans have this tradition? History is murky on this point. You’ll hear many stories on as to why. One obvious reason is that the evergreen tree represented eternal life–a green tree in winter when all other trees had no green. Another theory points to German’s pre-Christian past and the erection of a tree to honor the pagan gods of early Germanic tribes. There are several other hypotheses. In the end, we have the tradition from Germany–and that includes the song, “Oh, Christmas Tree,” which, as you know is “O, Tannenbaum” in German.

Putting up a tree in Britain actually began under the reign of King George III. George and his wife were both German. They first put up a tree in the late 1790s for their family. As you can imagine, when a monarch adopts a tradition from a rival nation, the public would understandably react negatively. George was already under suspicion for being pro-German. One of the nicknames detractors called him was, after all, German George.

So, over 50 years later, this British couple decided to do the same thing King George had done before. They set up a tree on a table, and they put gifts on and under it. Candles lit the tree. The children loved the tree, and that was enough for Al and Vicky to feel good about their choice to put up the tree despite what people around them were saying.

What they didn’t know was that so many people, rather than seeing their embrace of the German practice as being anti-British and anti-patriotic, saw it instead as being charming and something that celebrated family and love. It was the Romantic Period in Britain, after all, and such middle-class sentiments had developed in the period between that time and the years of the Georgian Era.

In fact, what Al and Vicky did sparked a nation-wide embrace of putting up Christmas trees. Within a few years, almost every family was putting up a tree at Christmas. Eventually, the economy allowed evergreens from Scandinavian nations to be imported to Britain for mass consumption by an eager public.

It didn’t matter that Al himself was German. It didn’t matter that the couple were held to a much higher standard than most British couples were. It didn’t matter that the tradition had not been practiced widely in Britian.

All we remember about this situation is that Al and Vicky–Prince Albert and Queen Victoria–caused us all to have a tree this Christmas.

On a Store Promotion

Robert May worked for the Montgomery Ward company as an ad man who wrote promotional material for the chain. For those of you who don’t know, “Monkey Ward” was a chain of department stores somewhat akin to Target today. Anyway, the store brass asked May to produce a story they could pass out to customers, something that would be light and entertaining and that would give the clientele a positive feeling about the company. If May could somehow tie the story into one of the holiday seasons–so much the better.

So, May began to brainstorm ideas. Easter had an appeal, and he toyed with that for a bit, but May knew that if he wanted to really tap into holiday time, his story would have to something to do with Christmas. It was the late 1930s, and May and the rest of the United States were only then beginning to emerge from the economic bombshell that was the Great Depression. Sales were increasing nationwide, people were starting to work again, and promotional items like May was asked to create were becoming more and more popular.

Well, when Robert May submitted his first story idea, his boss hated it. “Can’t you think of something better?” the boss asked. May went home that day severely depressed. He liked his story, and, when he read it to his wife, she concurred. It was a child’s tale about an animal who had been an outcast. You see, in many ways, that was Robert May’s story as well.

Born to a Jewish family on Long Island, May had first-hand experience on what it was like to be different. He managed to survive high school and win a place at Dartmouth College. His major, perhaps surprisingly, was psychology. He grew particularly interested in the psychological theories of Alfred Adler, a man who had proposed that much of human motivation stemmed from the strong desire to overcome perceived inferiority.

May had achieved success working for various department stores after his graduation from Dartmouth. He worked for Rich’s in Atlanta, Gimbel’s and Macy’s in New York City, and, finally, he and his wife moved to Chicago where he worked for Montgomery Ward. However, in almost every place he had worked, May encountered some form of prejudice because of his background, even though he was not a particularly observant practitioner of Judaism.

Adding to May’s life situation was that, in 1939, his wife, Evelyn, was diagnosed with cancer. Life had not turned out the way he had hoped. He later said that he found himself in his mid-30s, heavily in debt due to the mounting hospital bills for Evelyn, and, instead of writing the Great American Novel, he was instead writing advertising for cheap clothing and now, a promotional pamphlet for the holidays.

Turns out that May’s boss was wrong. The story was a huge success. Almost three million copies were handed out to Ward customers, and the stores couldn’t keep the little booklet in stock. World War 2 paper rationing slowed the distribution of the story somewhat, but, after the war, the holiday tale became even more popular. May even got his brother-in-law, a singer/songwriter named Johnny Marks, to pen a version of the story for a song. A huge singing and motion picture star, Gene Autry, “The Singing Cowboy,” cut the record, and it, too, became a huge success. The story has taken on a life of its own.

Couldn’t have happened to a better guy than Robert May, everyone said. If anyone deserved the success after so much adversity in his life, it was he.

Yes, and we can reasonably say that Robert May’s creation, Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer, would heartily agree.

On a Generous Gift

It’s difficult in our modern times to grasp the idea of absolute economic desperation. Even in the worst economic times in most of the western world, jobs can be had and money can be made. That has not always been the case–in fact, what we experience now is the anomaly historically.

That said, we cannot relate to being so poor that we would completely debase ourselves in order to simply buy bread. Take the case of three young women who still lived at home with a father. He had not had work in many months. This little human drama played out hundreds of years ago, and, to be fair, it is the stuff of legend. However, the story is a sweet one, I feel, and it fits into the spirit of the holiday season. In any case, the girls spoke among themselves and decided that they must sacrifice themselves–sell themselves–so that the family could have food and firewood.

Now, this type of situation does indeed happen around the world today. And, yes, it does happen in the western world as well. But in the time context of our story here, this type of thing was much more common than we realize. People often lacked the resources to provide food for themselves. Weather, war, natural disasters, and poor implements all contributed to common periods of starvation around the world. Some historians have conjectured that farmers until recently would plant one seed and get two back in produce–one to eat and one to save to plant for the next year. Thus, much of the population lived on a knife’s edge.

The girls gathered their courage and presented their plan to their beleaguered father. His eyes filled with tears. His daughters were his treasure, his pride, and he told them that it had been his wish to have enough money to provide a proper dowry for them to find suitable husbands one day. If they went through with this plan, he warned through his tears, they would never find men who would make good husbands. He begged them to sleep on it. The girls looked one to the other. What difference would one more night make to people who had no food in the first place? To soothe their father, the girls reluctantly agreed.

The next morning, the girls were awakened by shouts from their father. They leapt out of bed and rushed to him. He shakingly held out a bag of gold coins. The girls were incredulous. Where did he get it? How did this happen? Were the coins real? Their questions all met with no answers from their father because he had none. He was as astounded as they. He said all he knew what that the bag was left under an open window in the main room of their house. The family hugged each other and danced in the room. There was not only enough gold there to provide them with enough food and fuel for the immediate future, but there was enough in the bag to provide a proper bride price for oldest girl to find a good man to marry. They hit their knees and thanked God for the miracle.

The next morning, after a wonderful night’s sleep, the father found another bag of gold under the window. Again, there was enough gold for a dowry. Again, the family celebrated and thanked God. The third night, the father stayed awake to see who their godly benefactor was. Sure enough, as soon as another bag of gold was tossed through the window, the grateful father ran outside. There, he found the bishop hurrying away.

“Father?” the man called after the bishop. The priest stopped and turned.

“Yes, my son?” he asked.

“I only wanted to thank you,” the father of the girls said.

“Don’t thank me; thank God,” St. Nicholas answered.