Batavia pastor shares how celebrating Christmas has evolved

Batavia pastor shares how celebrating Christmas has evolved

  • Charles Dickens' "A Christmas Carol" is credited with helping popularize Christmas as a family holiday tradition. Shown are Larry Yando, left, and Ron E. Rains as Ebenezer Scrooge and Bob Cratchit in Goodman Theatre's 40th annual production of "A Christmas Carol."

    Charles Dickens' "A Christmas Carol" is credited with helping popularize Christmas as a family holiday tradition. Shown are Larry Yando, left, and Ron E. Rains as Ebenezer Scrooge and Bob Cratchit in Goodman Theatre's 40th annual production of "A Christmas Carol." Courtesy of Liz Lauren

 
 
Posted12/22/2019 7:30 AM

It's hard to imagine these days, but for hundreds of years Christmas was either a nonfactor on the holiday calendar or, once it was declared a religious holiday, most people weren't quite sure how to go about celebrating it.

The result was a cross between wild parties and feasting, or simply ignoring it and handling it like any other workday.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 
The Rev. William Beckmann of Immanuel Lutheran Church in Batavia shared Christmas lore and history at his annual presentation to the Tri-Cities Exchange Club.
The Rev. William Beckmann of Immanuel Lutheran Church in Batavia shared Christmas lore and history at his annual presentation to the Tri-Cities Exchange Club. - COURTESY OF IMMANUEL LUTHERAN CHURCH

It took three well-known writers to help create the vision and spirit that was needed to establish Christmas as a family holiday tradition, said the Rev. William Beckmann of Immanuel Lutheran Church in Batavia.

For the 30th straight year, Beckmann delivered his Christmas lore presentation last week to the Tri-Cities Exchange Club.

No easy task:

It wasn't easy to establish Christmas as a family holiday. In fact, Christmas Day was the topic of heated debate and, in some cases like during the times of the Puritans, some simply would not celebrate it.

When Oliver Cromwell served as the political leader of England, Scotland and Ireland in the 1650s, he "proved to be the original Grinch," Beckmann said. "He believed that Christmas was decadent and un-Christian, and he determined to rid England of all revelry."

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At the same time, Puritans that left England for the new colonies brought their dislike of Christmas celebrations with them.

Capt. John Smith became the first person to drink eggnog at the Jamestown holiday party and reported back to England that the settlement enjoyed the holiday, Beckmann noted.

"The American Revolution brought an end to traditions of British origin, and Christmas would be out of favor until it was finally declared a national holiday in the U.S. on June 26, 1870," he added.

Bring on the writers:

If not for Washington Irving, Charles Dickens and Clement Clarke Moore, we may still not have a grasp on what Christmas traditions should really look like.

"Those three writers entered the picture to sort of straighten things out, and they gave us many of the traditions and customs we observe today," Beckmann said. "They each contributed to changing Christmas from an unruly carnival season into the American family holiday tradition."

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

Irving, who might be better known for his "Rip Van Winkle" story or the ghost tales of Sleepy Hollow, actually made a significant contribution to the American view of Christmas.

"In his 1812 revisions to 'A History of New York,' he inserted a dream sequence featuring St. Nicholas soaring over treetops in a flying wagon," Beckmann said. "It was a dream that others eventually dressed up as Santa Claus."

Bring on Scrooge:

Charles Dickens borrowed some of Irving's ideas, while moving the holiday festivities from the wealthier class to more of a focus on family and children.

He also took the idea of presenting "A Christmas Carol" with ghosts visiting Scrooge, mainly because ghost stories were very popular in December of 1843, when Dickens' book was published.

"'A Christmas Carol' has never gone out of print and dozens of editions have been published over the years," Beckmann said, noting that it was ironic because Dickens feared the original book would not sell.

The character of Jacob Marley didn't just pop into Dickens' mind while writing his great Christmas story.

"Dickens went to a St. Patrick's Day party that year where he met a Dr. Miles Marley," Beckmann said. "Marley remarked about his unusual surname, and Dickens told him, 'Your name will be a household word before the year is out.'"

It was for children:

Clement Clarke Moore was a poet who essentially established a different "look" for St. Nicholas.

Because he had nine children, it's possible he wrote "A Visit from St. Nicholas" simply to entertain those kids on Christmas Eve in 1822, Beckmann said.

That poem eventually became "The Night Before Christmas," and Moore's vision had a "jolly and plump Santa, wreathed in pipe smoke, driving eight reindeer over the roofs of the sleeping town," he added.

The "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" TV special debuted in 1964, but the character was created by Montgomery Ward copywriter Robert May in 1939.
The "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" TV special debuted in 1964, but the character was created by Montgomery Ward copywriter Robert May in 1939. - Courtesy of Classic Media
And then there's Rudolph:

One other Christmas story has been with us for 80 years. Montgomery Ward copywriter Robert May created "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" after his bossed asked him to create a Ward's coloring book for kids.

The "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" TV special debuted in 1964, but the character was created by Montgomery Ward copywriter Robert May in 1939.
The "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" TV special debuted in 1964, but the character was created by Montgomery Ward copywriter Robert May in 1939. - Courtesy of Classic Media

"The story was an instant success and the store gave away 2.4 million copies the first year in 1939," Beckmann said.

Rudolph took a hiatus during the paper shortage of the World War II years, but came back in 1946. The store handed out 3.6 million copies that year.

President's wise words:

President Calvin Coolidge in the late 1920s delivered a message to the American people as a reminder of how they should view Christmas.

"Christmas is neither a time nor a season, but a state of mind. To cherish peace and goodwill, to be plenteous in Christ-like mercy, is to have the real spirit of Christmas."

We're back in 2020:

"Talk of the Town" will take off next week for some holiday revelry and return after the New Year.

That's when we'll take a quick glance at many of the things we talked about in this space during 2019.

Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukkah and Happy New Year to all of my friends and readers!

dheun@sbcglobal.net

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