If you remember the Christmas carol Good King Wenceslas , you heard the name. Stephen was a deacon in the early Christian church who was accused of blasphemy and put on trial by Jewish authorities in Jerusalem. After a trial in which he denounced them, Stephen was stoned to death. One of the witnesses to the event was Saul of Tarsus, who later converted and is known today as the apostle Paul. Stephen is considered the first martyr for the faith, the reason his feast day immediately follows the celebration of Jesus birth. All the major Christian congregations–Anglican, Catholic, Lutheran, Oriental Orthodox, and Eastern Orthodox–all venerate him as a Saint and celebrate the feast day (Western churches on 26 December, 27 Dec Orthodox, and 8 Jan Oriental Orthodox). In some countries (mainly Western Europe) it is a public holiday.
In the United Kingdom, Australia, Canada, and New Zealand it is celebrated as Boxing Day, a secular holiday that falls on the same day as Feast of Stephen. Traditionally it is the day in which servants and tradespeople receive the “Christmas box” from their employers. While that tradition may still hold true, it is either a second Christmas day for some or an extra shopping day (though in some countries it apparently is a day when a lot of returns to retailers takes place). It is also a major sports day as well.
Christmas has finally arrived in Leavenworth. The morning started out cold with someone dispatched from the city to make an adjustment to the tree lighting. It had been pretty mild during the week with no snow until this afternoon. Kids have been tobogganing down the grass area in the park prior to that. Not much fun but at least the grass is stiff from the hard freeze. But with snow kids magically reappeared in numbers and happily tobogganing again in the park with real snow. Most retail places are closed and just a few eateries are open today. Still a wonderful place to visit on Christmas Day and with snow coming down magical. You can watch the livestream here.
Titanic News Channel wishes everyone a blessed and joyous Christmas season.
“….And it was always said of him, that he knew how to keep Christmas well, if any man alive possessed the knowledge. May that be truly said of us, and all of us! And so, as Tiny Tim observed, God Bless Us, Every One!” (Dickens, A Christmas Carol)
Today is the first day of winter and the Winter Solstice. It is the shortest day for the Northern Hemisphere. The Winter Solstice usually falls between December 20-23 and the sun is directly overhead the Tropic of Capricorn resulting in the North Pole being tilted the furthest away. The result is shorter days for sunlight for the Northern Hemisphere. And the further north you are (like Alaska or Scandinavian countries) means less sun during the day. The reverse happens in the Southern Hemisphere as the sun is closer to them and they celebrate the Summer Solstice. Those closer to the South Pole can have nearly 24 hours of sun during this time of year.
Many cultures observed the Winter Solstice as it marked an important time in the agricultural cycle. By this time all crops and livestock had been prepared for winter. Important foodstuffs were stored for the months when virtually nothing grew. Wine and beer, which had been fermenting during the year, was ready at this time. Cattle and pigs would often be killed at the start of winter so they would not have to be fed during this time. The early months of winter were tough in many places and often called the “famine months” since little food was to be found. Many cultures observed the Winter Solstice as a renewal or that the year was reborn. For out of the seeming withdrawal of the sun, it would come back just as strong and powerful as before. Thus the Winter Solstice was seen by many as the start of a new year such as the old Roman Feast of the Unconquered Sun (Sol Invictus) which happened around the 25th of December.
Today is the fourth Sunday of Advent and it is the last one of course before Christmas. Advent is a season of preparation for the birth of Jesus and not Christmas itself. While the secular world conflates the two (Advent and Christmas), the distinction is kept within the Christian church. Advent is a time of preparation for the birth so spiritual readings and vestments will reflect it. Unlike Lent which has strict observances that include fasts, Advent has no such strict requirement.
Yet it is a time for reflection as one awaits the approach of Christmas Day. In more olden times, there were fasts (it is still practiced in Eastern and Russian Orthodox where meat and dairy is prohibited for a specific period leading up to Christmas Day) but it is no longer a requirement in most Western churches. However there is a trend emerging that encourages the faithful to perhaps give up something during Advent or perform a service that benefits others (like volunteering to help feed homeless people). Music during this period also is designed to do this as well.
Come, let us rejoice in the Lord, let us acclaim God our salvation.
Let us come before him proclaiming our thanks, let us acclaim him with songs.(Psalm 95)
Saint Lucy is the patron saint of the blind and eye disorders and her feast day used to coincide with the Winter Solstice which is the day often celebrated as a festival of light in many places. Many stories and legends have become associated with her but research has failed to substantiate many of them. It is known she lived in Sicily early in the fourth century and was persecuted and executed for her faith. One story that is likely true is that she was denounced as a Christian by a suitor after she turned him down because of her faith. She faced torture and death for her beliefs. Because it is believed she was blinded during Roman torture, she is the patron saint of the blind.
Her feast day is celebrated in Scandinavian countries as a festival of light during the long winter night. A young girl in a white dress and red sash carries palms and wears a wreath of candles on head. Special rolls or cookies are made for the day and often handed out to the elderly. It is also celebrated in parts of Italy particularly in Sicily and in many places of the world today. There are many churches dedicated to her and the island of Santa Lucia in the Caribbean is named for her.
What Is Advent? Advent on the Christian calendar is a season of preparation for the birth of Jesus. It is a season of joy leading up to Christmas Day and also a time of preparation similar to Lent. Prayer, fasting and penance are part of the Advent season. The rules are not as strict as Lent but a time of self-preparation. The color purple is associated with penance. Each Advent Sunday is meant to ready oneself for rejoicing at the birth of Jesus that is to come. The Third Sunday of Advent is the anticipatory celebration and the color rose is used to represent joy.
The Advent wreath
Many homes and churches will have an Advent wreath to symbolize the season, and to mark each Sunday as it happens. The practice began by German Lutherans in the 18th century as a means of teaching Advent to children. The practice began to spread to Catholics and other Christian denominations as well. Advent wreaths are circular to show that God’s love is infinite and is made with evergreen leaves. It used to be a family event to gather the leaves and make the wreath. The practice has resurfaced in recent years as many families now do this again. Advent wreaths made of artificial evergreens are available in a wide series of designs. Handmade ones can be made to last many years.
The Sussex Carol is a very popular Christmas carol in Britain. Its lyrics first were written by a 17th century Irish bishop. It was later discovered by Cecil Sharp and Ralph Vaughan who heard it being sung by Harriet Verrall. Williams used the tune Verrall sang and published the lyrics. While some of the lyrics have been altered by different arrangers or composers, the tune has stayed the same. Enjoy!
Today is the feast of St. Nicholas, the basis for what has become known as Santa Claus. He was born in the third century to a wealthy family in the village of Patara (now located on the southern coast of Turkey). At the time the area was mostly Greek. While he was young, his parents died during an epidemic. Raised as a Christian, he believed in obeying Jesus in giving his inheritance to those in need. He dedicated his life to serving God and was made Bishop of Myra was still quite young. He earned a reputation for being generous to those in need, his love for children, and concern for sailors and ships.
During the rule of the Roman Emperor Diocletian, Christians were ruthlessly persecuted and Nicholas suffered for his faith by being exiled and imprisoned. Despite all of the hardship he endured, he never wavered in his faith. He was released and attended the Council of Nicaea in 325 AD. He died on 6 December 343 AD in Myra and was buried. The anniversary of his death would become a celebration and still celebrated to this day (it is 19 December on the Julian calendar used by Eastern Orthodox churches).
His generous deeds and miracles attributed to him spread during the Middle Ages. Many sailors claimed him as a patron and told of him when they traveled. Churches dedicated to Nicholas appeared in many seaport cities. His name spread both east and west making him a very popular saint with many churches named after him in Austria, Belgium, England, Italy, Russia and Switzerland to name a few. His tomb became popular to visit but concerns over wars in the area cutting off access worried many. In 1087 sailors from Bari were able to retrieve his relics and bring them back. A church was built over his crypt so that pilgrims could visit. The shrine to St. Nicholas in Bari became a major pilgrimage center during medieval Europe. People still visit the shrine today at the Basilica di San Nicola in Bari.
The Roman Catholic Church, Eastern Orthodox, Greek Orthodox, Anglican and Lutheran churches all have his feast day on their calendars. His generosity and compassion are seen as a model of Christian life. There is some confusion generated about how saint feasts days are celebrated in the Catholic church. Since there quite a number of saints with feasts, it was decided that some saint feast days would be optional for a diocese to celebrate. Saint Nicholas became one of them. He was not stripped of his sainthood. In a diocese where he is popular, has churches or schools named after him, or perhaps the bishop believes he is model to be held up for veneration, his feast day will be celebrated. His feast day is celebrated throughout Europe and in Russia and children receive gifts on the day. Saint Nicholas’ feast day is usually the start of the Christmas season in Europe and elsewhere.
Saint Nicholas and Santa Claus
Saint Nicholas did not fare well during the Protestant Reformation. Saints, even revered ones, were removed to focus on Jesus. Some went so far as to nearly ban any public display of traditional religious customs related to saints or even Christmas (it was not a holiday for that reason in areas that groups like the Puritans dominated). Martin Luther wanted to shift the focus of Christmas to Jesus. The problem was that you cannot have a baby delivering gifts to children as Saint Nicholas did. He came up with the Christkind, a children’s gift giver. This angel, depicted as young girl, brings the gifts when the children are not present. In Nuremberg, the Christkind is selected every two years by vote and between the ages of 16-19. The Christkind opens the Christmas market. She also has her picture taken with kids, listens to what they want, visits kids in hospitals and the elderly as well amongst many other duties. The Christkind was also adopted by many German Catholics as well and spread into Latin America as well. In some cases, both the Christkind and Saint Nicholas deliver presents together.
Despite attempts to diminish Saint Nicholas using the Christkind, he remained popular except in England where many Christmas folk traditions were altered (especially under the rule of the Puritans and Oliver Cromwell). Puritans in America (and some others as well) forbade celebrating Christmas. German immigrants brought celebrating Christmas with them along with Saint Nicholas as well. It was believed the Dutch had brought Saint Nicholas to America, but recent scholarship indicates that was not likely (it is not mentioned in letters or records from the Dutch who lived in New Amsterdam at the time). It appears a series of fictional stories about Saint Nicholas (described as a jolly man with a clay piper) being celebrated by the early Dutch may have been the source.
The 19th century was one of change in America regarding Christmas-and elsewhere as well. Since it was not a sacred or public holiday in many places, it was not the time of carols and goodwill we think about today. Instead, it was a was a rowdy holiday where many got wildly drunk, gambled, and got riotous in some cases threatening people. In England, the Father Christmas figure was about adult merriment and feasting and had nothing to do with children. The actual celebration of Christmas seemed to be fading until books were published depicting Christmas as a time for family, children and faith were published in the 19th century. Washington Irving’s The Sketchbook of Geoffrey Crayon (1819) depicted the celebration of Christmas in England as a warm holiday where peasants were invited into the home to celebrate the holiday. And stories about a magical gift giver called Sante Claus began to appear. Books such as The Children’s Friend (1821)had a character delivering gifts to children on Christmas Eve. Flying a sleigh and living up north, this Sante Claus would form the basis of what is known today as Santa Claus.
The famous Clement Clark Moore poem A Visit from St. Nicholas would further cement the image of this Sante Claus. Books depicting Christmas began to appear and of course the most famous being A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens in 1843. This came at a time in Britain when they were re-examining Christmas. This book and others would further help to makeChristmas as a time for families, children, and caring about the less fortunate as well. Thomas Nast, the famous political cartoonist, illustrated him as a rotund figure with a beard, fur clothing, and with a clay pipe in 1863. He also changed the name to Santa Claus. His image, with some embellishments and refinements, has remained more or less intact to our time. Christmas was becoming widely celebrated and by 1860 had already been adopted as a state holiday in fourteen states. In 1870, President Grant proclaimed Christmas Day as a federal holiday in the District of Columbia. Congress would pass legislation that made Christmas, New Years, Independence Day and Thanksgiving as federal holidays (remember back then nearly all federal workers were in the District of Columbia). States would also make it a holiday as well.
By the start of the 1930’s, the American Santa had come full form thanks to various illustrators such as Norman Rockwell. Coca-Cola would use Santa in its advertising further establishing his identity in the commercial world. The jolly man with the red suit would be seen in magazines, billboards, shop counters, and greeting cards. A benign source of happiness and seemingly endorsing all kinds of commercial products, he became as American as apple pie (to coin a phrase). His image would spread out to the world competing with local versions (Father Christmas, Pere Noel, Babbo Natale, Sinter Klass, Julenesse etc.) Saint Nicholas still retains his place in Europe despite this.
Many people, seeing Santa as a commercial and pagan creation, are now reclaiming the saint for use in the holiday. Saint Nicholas brings a spiritual emphasis to the holiday, which Santa does not. Some have tried to ban Santa Claus because of his supposed connection to Saint Nicholas, except there is none. One is a revered saint and bishop, the other a complete concoction of writers, illustrators, and marketing departments. There is nothing Christian about Santa Claus. Movies like The Santa Clause, while entertaining, put him into a world of fantasy beings like Mother Nature, Cupid, and the Tooth Fairy. By returning focus to Saint Nicholas, we get closer to what the celebration is about.