“Christmas is coming, the geese are getting fat! Please to put a penny in the old man's hat.” Traditional English carol
Most of us have read “A Christmas Carol” by Charles Dickens, or seen at least one of the movies. Dickens’ portrayal of Christmas is what many people think of when they think about an “old-fashioned” Christmas.
We sometimes tend to forget that Christians around the world celebrate Christmas in many ways. We also forget that for many years, Christmas itself was forbidden by Christian leaders such as the Puritans, who thought Christmas celebrations were pagan. Any kind of festivities and gatherings for the holiday were forbidden, in England and the American colonies.
In England, Christmas celebrations were restored in 1660 after years of being outlawed. Christmas became a time of honoring the birth of Jesus as well as a time of joy and merriment for everyone.
Under Queen Victoria, several traditions were established that we now think of as fundamental to Christmas. For example, Prince Albert brought the idea of the Christmas tree with him from Germany. Ordinary people could find a tree, bring it home and decorate it, bringing a little holiday magic to their families.
The concept of Father Christmas as a bringer of gifts also developed, and parents began buying gifts to put under the tree and give to their children. A turkey for Christmas dinner became standard, and sending Christmas cards became popular as postage costs decreased. These traditions spread and were adapted by various cultures, so now people around the world happily share in the celebration.
The idea of singing special songs at Christmas began as early as 129 with a song called “Angel’s Hymn.” In 1410, the first carol written in the language of the people, instead of in Latin, was composed. Christmas Eve became the favorite time to sing these carols, either in groups around the village or in a special church service.
In 1818, an Austrian priest named Joseph Mohr faced a Christmas Eve emergency. The church organ had been damaged, so there would be no music for the Christmas Eve service. Mohr found a poem he had written two years before about Jesus’ birth. He took the poem to the local schoolmaster and organist, Franz Gruber.
Gruber wrote a simple melody for the poem that could be played on a guitar. On Christmas Eve 1818, in Oberndorf, Austria, the carol we know as “Silent Night” was played and sung for the first time. It has since become one of the most beloved Christmas carols of all time.
Nearly 100 years later, the world was as far from peace as we can imagine. World War I had begun on July 28, 1914. Soldiers from warring countries had become stuck in France in a quagmire of trenches. They’d been shooting at each other for five months, gaining no ground, with over 1 million lives lost. And it was Christmas Eve.
As the British soldiers sat in their trenches, wet, cold and discouraged, one of them noticed a light. He looked over the edge and saw, on the German side, the last thing he expected – a Christmas tree. As he and his fellow soldiers stared in disbelief, they heard singing. The words were in German, but they recognized the tune. It was “Silent Night.”
In response, the British soldiers started singing in English. As dawn broke on Christmas Day, soldiers from both sides of No Man’s Land came out of the trenches and walked towards each other. They shook hands, talked, and began exchanging small gifts.
Unbelievably, men who had been trying to kill each other were now laughing together, sharing pictures of home, and exhibiting the kind of peace that had seemed impossible a few hours before. Their shared love of Christmas had brought about a miracle that all the weapons in the world couldn’t accomplish. Sadly, the cease-fire didn’t last, but it showed what is possible under the worst circumstances.
As we think about Christmas and how we celebrate it around the world today, I hope each of us realizes a little more how interconnected we all are. “Peace on Earth, goodwill to men” shouldn’t be a hopeless fantasy.
We have it within our power to bring peace on Earth. We can exhibit goodwill to every person. We just have to reach out to our brothers and sisters and do what we know is right, loving our neighbors as we love ourselves. Try it! And God bless us, every one!
Jeanette Strong, whose column appears every other week, is a Nevada Press Association award-winning columnist. She may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.