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A look back at Christmas from yesteryear

First Posted: 10:06 pm - December 23rd, 2015

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The following was written by P. Means Davis, who was editor of The News & Herald — when this ran on Dec. 25, 1879. We hope you enjoy it:

Christmas has come again. It always comes around about this time of the year, and brings with it the same scenes, the same occupations, the same merry-makings for the day, and the same headaches to the old folks and the same other sorts of aches to the little people the next morning. Who would be without Christmas, a time when everybody can get young and shoot fire crackers and blow tin horns and eat turkeys and other good things, and forget cares and troubles for one day in the year at least? Let us all turn out to-day to do honor to Santa Claus, and to enjoy the good things he has brought to us.

The celebration of Christmas, the birth-day of our Lord, is of ancient origin. The institution of the festival is ascribed to Telesphorus, who flourished in the reign of Antoninus Pius in the second century, but the first traces of it are found in the reign of Commodus, a few years later. Diocletian, in the third century, is said to have set fire to a church in Nicomedia in which a multitude of Christians had assembled to celebrate the festival and to have prevented any of the unfortunate victims from escaping the flames. Neither Diocletian, however, nor any other persecutor, nor even the Puritans, under Cromwell, succeeded in abolishing this semi-devotional feast, and Christmas will be observed as long as there are young people on the earth, and old people to give them the wherewithal to make merry.

Among the early churches there is said to have been no uniformity in the period of observing the nativity. Some held the festival in May, some in April and others in January. It is argued that the birth of the Savior could not have occurred on the 25th of December, because that is the height of the rainy season in Judea, and shepherds could hardly have been watching their flocks by night, and the wise men might not, probably, have seen the new star rising over Bethlehem. Gradually, however, the 25th of December was selected, chiefly for the following reason, it is said. The Winter solstice was regarded by the heathen nations as that point of the year at which begins the renewed life and activity of Nature, and its coming was celebrated with great rejoicing, especially among the Celts and the Germans in the North. At this season, the Germans held their great Yule Feast, in commemoration of the return of the fiery sun wheel, and they believed that during the twelve nights reaching from 25th December to the 6th January, they could trace personal movements and interferences on earth, of Odin, Berchta and their other great deities. When Christianity penetrated these wilds it found great difficulty in preserving the worship of the tree religion incontaminated with by old heathen customs. Learned scholars hold that when the festival of Christmas was adopted, its date was made that of the Yule feast. To eradicate these pagan customs, the church strove earnestly, and originated its “manger songs,” its Christmas carols and Christmas dramas, which subsequently degenerated into farces and fools’ festivals. Hence also arose the custom of Christ trees or Christmas trees, adorned with lights and filled with gifts. During the seventh and eighth centuries, particularly, several other festivals, partly old and partly new, were added to the original day, and a whole week or more given up to feasting and joy. In course of time, Christmas has become a universal festival, and although some churches reject it in its political aspect as a human invention, and as “savoring a papestical will worships,” still as a social holiday it is everywhere observed. In the North it is yielding in honor to New Year’s Day, but the Southern people, white and colored, still cling to the old traditions, and call for their “Christmas gifts.”

After this profound dissertation on the origin of the day, we wish our readers a merry Christmas, with the hope they may enjoy many returns of the joyous Yule tide.

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