A Socialist Silent Night

Home / Christmas / A Socialist Silent Night

In the early 20th century German parties of the left opposed Christmas. The Communist Party liked to use the holiday to attack capitalism by vandalizing stores and interrupting church services. The Social Democrat Party was less violent but criticized middle class attitudes to Christmas, reminding their followers that it was the workers who provided all the goods: the real Weihnachtsmann was the “working proletariat’. A 1900 collection entitled The Worker’s Christmas in Song published “Arbeiter-Stille-Nacht” – “The Worker’s Silent Night”, by Boleslaw Strzelewicz (1857-1938). 


Silent night, sorrowful night,
All around splendid light.
In the hovels just torment and need,
Cold and waste, no light and no bread.
The poor are sleeping on straw.
The poor are sleeping in straw.

Silent night, sorrowful night,
The hungry babe cries out his plight,
Did you bring us home some bread?
Sighing the father shakes his head,
“I’m still unemployed.”
“I’m still unemployed.”

Silent night, sorrowful night,
Working folk, arise and fight!
Pledge to struggle in all holiness
Until humanity’s Christmas exists
Until peace is here.
Until peace is here.


Home / Christmas / Aguinaldo

Aguinaldo is a  word with a number of Christmas associations: in Cuba it is a vine with blue flowers that blooms in the winter; in the Philippines and Puerto Rico it is an early morning mass in Advent; in much of Spanish America it is a name for Christmas presents; in Honduras, Costa Rica and Ecuador the term refers to the annual Christmas bonus given by employers; and in Spain and the Spanish Caribbean it is a song sung by visiting carolers.

Here is an example of a Spanish aguinaldo:

Todo los años venimos,
A cantar por este tiempo
Las coplas del aguinaldo
De Divine Nacimiento.

 A esta casa liegamos
Casa rice y principal.
Cantaremos y principal,
Tomaremos si nos dan.

De la sacrista sale
El cura bien revestido
A darle felices pascuas
Al Nino recien nacido.

Every year we come
To sing at this time
The verses of the aguinaldo
Of the divine birth.

 We come to this house,
A rich and illustrious house,
We will sing and we will drink,
If you give us something.

From the sacristy comes
The priest, finely attired,
To give Christmas greetings
To the new-born babe.

An Atheist Christmas Sermon

Home / Christmas / An Atheist Christmas Sermon

Robert Ingersoll (1833-99) was the most famous atheist of his generation, outraging American Christians with his attacks on their religion. In December, 1891 the Evening Telegraph printed the following “sermon”, sparking rebuttals and counter-rebuttals in the press.

The good part of Christmas is not always Christian — it is generally Pagan; that is to say, human, natural.

Christianity did not come with tidings of great joy, but with a message of eternal grief. It came with the threat of everlasting torture on its lips. It meant war on earth and perdition hereafter.

It taught some good things — the beauty of love and kindness in man. But as a torch-bearer, as a bringer of joy, it has been a failure. It has given infinite consequences to the acts of finite beings, crushing the soul with a responsibility too great for mortals to bear. It has filled the future with fear and flame, and made God the keeper of an eternal penitentiary, destined to be the home of nearly all the sons of men. Not satisfied with that, it has deprived God of the pardoning power.

And yet it may have done some good by borrowing from the Pagan world the old festival called Christmas.

Long before Christ was born the Sun-God triumphed over the powers of Darkness. About the time that we call Christmas the days begin perceptibly to lengthen. Our barbarian ancestors were worshipers of the sun, and they celebrated his victory over the hosts of night. Such a festival was natural and beautiful. The most natural of all religions is the worship of the sun. Christianity adopted this festival. It borrowed from the Pagans the best it has.

I believe in Christmas and in every day that has been set apart for joy. We in America have too much work and not enough play. We are too much like the English.

I think it was Heinrich Heine who said that he thought a blaspheming Frenchman was a more pleasing object to God than a praying Englishman. We take our joys too sadly. I am in favor of all the good free days — the more the better.

Christmas is a good day to forgive and forget — a good day to throw away prejudices and hatreds — a good day to fill your heart and your house, and the hearts and houses of others, with sunshine.

Robert G. Ingersoll.

Syncretic Christmas

Home / Christmas / Syncretic Christmas

No part of Europe suffered as much from the fall of the Roman Empire to the barbarian invasions as did Britain. After the last legion pulled out in 410, the island was left to its own resources which proved insufficient to repel the waves of Picts, Saxons, Irish, Angles and Jutes that assailed the Romano-Britons. Civilization gradually died; literacy almost vanished; the barter system replaced coinage; and Christianity retreated into the Welsh hills and the remoter regions; Germanic petty kingdoms were established on the ruins.

The task of reintroducing Christianity fell to Irish monks who evangelized the north and to a mission sent out from Rome in the 590s. Aethelbert, a barbarian king in Kent, had married a Frankish princess who had won permission to include Christian priests in her retinue. Pope Gregory the Great took the opportunity to send monks from his own monastery to the Kentish capital at Canterbury and the expedition was to be led by the abbot Augustine. On the way to his post Augustine apparently heard stories of the bloodthirsty people to whom he was being sent and wanted to turn back. His spine was stiffened by exhortations from Gregory so the monk continued to Britain, arriving in 597.

Augustine’s mission was made easier by a change in Church attitudes to pagan customs. Hitherto, the Church had resolutely resisted the pressures of local culture on the Christian message. Early believers had spent centuries refusing to take part in Roman civic religion, the sacrifices, holiday celebrations, and the bloody arena sports, and suffered for it. But by the start of the 7th century, the papacy was willing to become more accommodating in order to meet the challenge of evangelizing the Germanic barbarians. Pope Gregory sent the following message to Augustine:

By no means destroy the temples of the gods but rather the idols within those temples. Let him, after he has purified them with holy water, place altars and relics of the saints in them. For, if those temples are well built, they should be converted from the worship of demons to the service of the true God. Thus, seeing that their places of worship are not destroyed, the people will banish error from their hearts and come to places familiar and dear to them in acknowledgement and worship of the true God. Further, since it has been their custom to slaughter oxen in sacrifice, they should receive some solemnity in exchange. Let them therefore, on the day of the dedication of their churches, or on the feast of the martyrs whose relics are preserved in them, build themselves huts around their one-time temples and celebrate the occasion with religious feasting. They will sacrifice and eat the animals not any more as an offering to the devil, but for the glory of God to whom, as the giver of all things, they will give thanks for having been satiated. Thus, if they are not deprived of all exterior joys, they will more easily taste the interior ones. For surely it is impossible to efface all at once everything from their strong minds, just as, when one wishes to reach the top of a mountain, he must climb by stages and step by step, not by leaps and bounds.

This policy helped ensure Christmas celebrations over the ages would be syncretic, varied with many local flavours. Moreover, Christmas Day was the date in 597 when Augustine was able to baptize Aethelbert and thousands of his Saxon followers.

Naming Christmas

Home / Christmas / Naming Christmas

The word Christmas is derived from the Anglo-Saxon “Christes Maessan”, an eleventh-century term meaning Christ’s Mass. Though there is a similar Dutch word for Christmas — “Kersmis” – most languages have derived their name for the holiday from different roots. The orginal Latin term was Festum Nativitatis Domini Nostri Jesu Christi — the Feast of the Nativity of Our Lord Jesus Christ — which was shortened to Dies Natali Domini, the Birthday of the Lord. From this Latin phrase comes the name for Christmas in a number of European languages: Il Natale (Italian), La Navidad, (Spanish), Natal (Portuguese), Nadal (Provençal), Nollaig (Irish), Nadolig (Welsh). The French Noël may be derived from this source or from “nowel”, meaning “news”. In eastern Europe the name for the season also refers to a birthday: Karacsony in Hungarian; Boze Narodzenie (God’s Birth) in Polish; Greek, Russian and Ukrainian terms for Christmas also refer to the birth of Jesus.

“Holy Night” is the meaning of the German Weihnacht as well as the Czech Veselé Vánoce and the Slovak Veselé Vianoce. The Lithuanian Kaledos is likely derived from the Latin “Kalends”, referring to the Roman New Year festivities. Yule, the ancient northern winter festival, lent its name to Christmas in the Scandinavian lands: Jul (Danish, Swedish and Norwegian), Jól (Icelandic), Joula (Finnish) and even Estonian — Jõule. Ziemassvetki is the Latvian winter festival whose name has become synonymous with Christmas there.

Pickwick Christmas

Home / Christmas / Pickwick Christmas

Before Charles Dickens wrote Christmas Carol, he dealt with the holiday in The Pickwick Papers, a first published in serial form in 1836-37 with the December 1836 issue containing a description of a Christmas spent by Samuel Pickwick and his friends at the home of Mr. Wardle at Dingley Dell. The description of the dance, the parlor games and the story-telling are reminiscent of a traditional rural holiday and lack the notion of Christmas as a time for charity that dominates Dickens’ 1843 A Christmas Carol.

Now, the screaming had subsided, and faces were in a glow, and curls in a tangle, and Mr Pickwick, after kissing the old lady as before mentioned, was standing under the mistletoe, looking with a very pleased countenance on all that was passing around when the young lady with the black eyes, after a little whisper with the other young ladies, made a sudden dart forward, and putting her arm round Mr Pickwick’s neck, saluted him affectionately on the left cheek; and before Mr Pickwick distinctly knew what was the matter, he was surrounded by the whole body, and kissed by every one of them.

It was a pleasant thing to see Mr Pickwick in the centre of group, now pulled this way, and then that, and first kissed on the chin, and then on the nose, and then on the spectacles: and to hear the peals of laughter which were raised on every side; but it was a still more pleasant thing to see Mr Pickwick, blinded shortly afterwards with a silk handkerchief; falling up against the wall, and scrambling into corners, and going through all the mysteries of blind-man’s buff, with the utmost relish for the game, until at last he caught one of the poor relations, and then had to evade if blind-man himself; which he did with a nimbleness and agility that elicited the admiration and applause of all beholders. The poor relations caught the people who they thought would like it, and when the game flagged, got caught themselves. When they were all tired of blind-man’s buff, there was a great game at snap­dragon, and when fingers enough were burned with that, and all the raisins were gone, they sat down by the huge fire of blazing logs to a substantial supper, and a mighty bowl of wassail, something smaller than an ordinary wash-house copper, in which the hot apples were hissing and bubbling with a rich look, and a jolly sound, that were perfectly irresistible.

‘This,’ said Mr Pickwick, looking round him, ‘this is, indeed, comfort.’

‘Our invariable custom,’ replied Mr Wardle. ‘Everybody sits down with us on Christmas eve, as you see them now — servants and all; and here we wait, until the clock strikes twelve, to usher Christmas in, and beguile the time with forfeits and old stories. Trundle, my boy, rake up the fire.’

“Annie and Willie’s Prayer”, 1877

Home / Christmas / “Annie and Willie’s Prayer”, 1877

Many 19th-century American religious denominations initially resisted the celebration of Christmas and the appearance of Santa Claus on Christmas Eve but, over time, most came to embrace the holiday.  Some preachers found in Santa Claus the expression of Christian values of grace and generosity. Some literary works , such as the  Indiana poet James Whitcomb Riley’s “Santa Claus”, elevated Santa to a near-divine status, one to whom prayers might be addressed and in whom solace might be sought.

“Most tangible of all the gods that be,/ Santa Claus – our own since Infancy!/ As first we scampered to thee – now, as then,/ Take us as children to thy heart again.”

This sort of confusion between Santa Claus and God found expression in “Annie and Willie’s Prayer”, a poem by Sophia P. Snow which was printed on the back of an advertisement for a dry goods store in the 1870s. On Christmas Eve two motherless (of course) children go to bed crying because their father has denied the existence of Santa Claus. But they persist in their belief: “Now we know there is, and it can’t be denied,/ For he came every year before mamma died.” Perhaps, they reason, their mother’s prayers had caused God to send Santa, so the two of them pray to Jesus to send gifts and the magical gift-bringer. Father, who that very day had suffered a reverse on his stock portfolio which had made him grumpy, overhears the children’s prayers and repents, going out and buying a plethora of presents. “I am happier tonight than I have been for a year. / I’ve enjoyed more pleasure than ever before./ What care I if bank stock falls ten per cent, more? / Hereafter I’ll make it a rule, I believe,/ To have Santa Claus visit us each Christmas eve.” The poetess concludes: “Blind father! who caused your stern heart to relent? / And the hasty word spoken so soon to repent? ‘Twas the Being who bade you steal up-stairs, / And made you his agent to answer their prayers.”


Santa Claus and DNA

Home / Christmas / Santa Claus and DNA

Police test DNA on Rhode Island girl’s cookie, carrots for evidence of Santa Claus

On Christmas morning, Scarlett Doumato took a break from playing with her new toys, marched into the kitchen, returned with plastic bags and started collecting evidence — the half-eaten Oreo and a pair of munched-on carrots she’d left for Santa and his reindeer the night before.

Scarlett, a 10-year-old from Cumberland, R.I., could see teeth marks in both. But neither she nor her parents could prove that the person who ate the cookie was Santa or that the reindeer were the ones that chomped on the baby carrots. Scarlett decided to call for backup.

A few days later, the fourth-grader sent the evidence she’d collected to local police with a letter explaining her investigative methodology and what she was trying to find out: “Dear Cumberland Police department, I took a sample of a cookie and carrots that I left for Santa and the raindeer on christmas eve and was wondering if you could take a sample of DNA and see if Santa is real?”

“I thought that would give the best answers because it carries off his DNA,” she told The Washington Post.

Scarlett’s inquiry has since sparked a multiagency investigation that’s ongoing as detectives and forensic analysts try to determine whether St. Nick visited while she and her older brother were nestled all snug in their beds.

“Scarlett has never been one to take anyone’s word for anything. She just doesn’t,” her mother, Alyson Doumato, told The Post. “She’s going to go through her own process and make her own conclusions about pretty much everything. That’s just her personality.”

This past Christmas was not Scarlett’s first attempt to prove Santa Claus’s existence, Doumato said. A couple of years ago, she set up the camera on her dad’s phone to capture Santa’s comings and goings. While Santa did make an appearance, Scarlett suspected the footage had been doctored and remained unconvinced. “It looked photoshopped, so I got suspicious,” she said.

Scarlett decided to try again last month. Although her parents prodded her to deliver her evidence to police in person, she told her mom she was too shy. Instead, she went to the post office and mailed it.

Cumberland Police Chief Matthew Benson received the package a few days into the new year when he returned from vacation. Noticing a child’s handwriting on the outside of the package, he suspected it was a thank-you card, something he and his officers receive on occasion. Instead, he found Scarlett’s letter and two Ziploc bags. He quickly briefed his command staff on their new case.

“You could see them kind of light up with their excitement,” he said. “It was amazing.”

His detectives photographed Scarlett’s evidence and documented each item on an “Evidence Examination Request and Receipt” form before sending it to the state health department’s forensic laboratory. In his report, Benson noted that the suspect, Santa Claus, went by several aliases: Kriss Kringle, Saint Nicholas and Saint Nick.

On Jan. 18, the chief wrote Scarlett a reply, informing her that he’d “launched an investigation into the pursuit of Santa Claus’ true identity,” and, to that end, he’d sent her DNA evidence to the state’s forensic lab for analysis.

Awaiting those results, Benson told Scarlett that police had a lead in the case: A suspect had been seen lurking in her neighborhood on Christmas Eve. Witnesses described him as “a larger man with a white beard and red jacket.” Officers talked with the suspect’s legal advisers to arrange a trip to police headquarters, where he would be interviewed and fingerprinted in the coming weeks.

“He is currently out of state somewhere up north and needs some time to coordinate his travel plans back to Cumberland,” Benson wrote in his letter to Scarlett. “Apparently, he leads a very large team of workers who build toys and also maintains a small farm with about 9 animals that need constant care and attention as they are constantly playing games.”

On Monday, the forensic lab released the results of its analysis. Tests on the DNA from the Oreo got no matches in a national DNA database but analysts didn’t strike out entirely.

“Interestingly there was a partial match to a 1947 case centered around 34th street in New York City,” according to the lab’s report. And on the carrots, they found DNA “matching closely” with Rangifer tarandus — reindeer.

“While our laboratory was able to apply the most current and technologically advanced methods to solving this case, we aren’t able to definitively confirm or refute the presence of Santa at your home. We all agree that something magical may be at play.”

Benson said that his detectives’ investigation is ongoing and that he plans to invite Scarlett to the station to share their findings when it’s done.

Scarlett said that, before her investigation, she suspected her mom and dad were responsible for munching on the treats she left for Santa and company. But with the new test results, her working theory is that Santa’s real and popped in on Christmas to drop off gifts and get a snack.

Still, she was “slightly irritated” by the lab results, her mom said. She’d hoped they would be conclusive, giving her a definitive yes or no answer to the question of Santa’s existence.

Without it, Scarlett’s already crafting the next steps in her investigation. This year, she plans to collect DNA samples from her mom and dad ahead of the holiday season. She’ll compare those to a sample collected from the glass of milk she leaves for him on Christmas Eve. For good measure, she’s going to set up a camera at a different angle than the one she used years ago in the hopes that she catches him red-handed.

It’s a Wonderful Life

Home / Christmas / It’s a Wonderful Life

“Merry Christmas, you beautiful old savings and loan! Merry Christmas, you beautiful beat-up old house!” So shouts George Bailey (Jimmy Stewart) who has just been saved from suicide by an apprentice angel who convinces him of the value that his life has had by showing what the town of Bedford Falls would have looked like without his influence.

This enormously popular Christmas-time movie was not a success when it was first released in 1946 and when its copyright expired in 1974 no one bothered to renew it, allowing television stations to broadcast it without charge. This allowed new generations to discover this finely-crafted Frank Capra film which also featured Donna Reed as Mary Bailey, Lionel Barrymore as nasty Mr. Potter and Ward Bond and Frank Faylen as the original Bert and Ernie. (Republic Entertainment assumed control of the copyright in 1993 and broadcast fees are once again in effect.)

There is another Christmas connection to It’s A Wonderful Life. Philip Van Doren Stern, the author of “The Greatest Gift”, the short story on which the movie was based, could not interest any publisher in his work so he printed up the story as a Christmas card and sent it to 200 friends. Among the recipients was a Hollywood agent who convinced RKO studio that it would make a great movie. And it did.

 Remakes were, of course, in order, some successful, some not. Among the successes was “Merry Christmas, George Bailey”. In a 1997 post-modern twist, PBS, American public television, staged a TV production of a live radio play based on a movie that was based on a short story that was published as a Christmas card. Merry Christmas, George Bailey, starring Bill Pullman, Penelope Ann Miller, Nathan Lane, Sally Field and Martin Landau, was a reading of a 1947 Lux Radio script of the Frank Capra film It’s a Wonderful Life. (It was customary in the 1940s to stage radio plays as a means of promoting current movies.) Republic Entertainment, which assumed the copyright of the film in 1993, allowed the production to go ahead as a benefit for a pediatric AIDS foundation. The producer of the show was Jimmy Hawkins, who as a child had played Tommy, one of the Bailey kids, in the original It’s a Wonderful Life.

Prince Albert and Christmas

Home / Christmas / Prince Albert and Christmas

 Francis Albert Augustus Charles Emmanuel (1819-61), prince of the Protestant German state Saxe-Coburg-Gotha, was the chosen husband of the young Victoria, newly-crowned Queen of England. After their marriage in 1840 Albert was Victoria’s chief adviser and firm supporter. Though never popular with the English people while he was alive, his importing of German attitudes to Christmas did much to lend royal sanction to the holiday in Victorian England. The middle class was quick to adopt novelties such as the Christmas tree and to celebrate the season as they imagined the royal family did. The London News in 1848 ran an illustration of the royal tree with the following description:

The tree employed for this festive purpose is a young fir about eight feet high, and has six tiers of branches. On each tier, or branch, are arranged a dozen wax tapers. Pendent from the branches are elegant trays, baskets, bonbonières, and other receptacles for sweetmeats, of the most varied and expensive kind; and of all forms, colours, and degrees of beauty. Fancy cakes, gilt gingerbread and eggs filled with sweetmeats, are also suspended by variously­coloured ribbons from the branches. The tree, which stands upon a table covered with white damask, is supported at the root by piles of sweets of a larger kind, and by toys and dolls of all descriptions, suited to the youthful fancy, and to the several ages of the interesting scions of Royalty for whose gratification they are displayed. The name of each recipient is affixed to the doll, bonbon, or other present intended for it, so that no difference of opinion in the choice of dainties may arise to disturb the equanimity of the illustrious juveniles. On the summit of the tree stands the small figure of an angel, with outstretched wings, holding in each hand a wreath.

The magazine noted that Prince Albert and Victoria each had a personal tree which was decorated and hung with presents from the other spouse. In a letter he sent to his father Prince Albert described the effect of the tree on his own family: “This is the dear Christmas Eve, on which I have so often listened with impatience for your step, which was to usher us into the present-room. Today I have to children of my own to give presents to, who, they know not why, are full of happy wonder at the German Christmas-tree and its radiant candles.”