Church Fathers on Holiday Observance

Home / Christmas / Church Fathers on Holiday Observance

By the year 400 Christianity had become the legal religion of the Roman empire and pagan observances had been banned. But Church leaders were worried that Christian celebration of Christmas might be tainted by lingering pagan affection for old holidays such as the Kalends of January or Saturnalia. Here is an expert of a sermon from Asterius of Amasea on the proper way to spend time and money in late December:

Give to the crippled beggar, and not to the dissolute musician. Give to the widow instead of the harlot; instead of to the woman of the street, to her who is piously secluded. Lavish your gifts upon the holy virgins singing psalms unto God, and hold the shameless psaltery in abhorrence, which by its music catches the licentious before it is seen. Satisfy the orphan, pay the poor man’s debt, and you shall have a glory that is eternal. You empty a multitude of purses for shameful pastime, and ribald laughter, not knowing how many poor men’s tears you are giving, from whom your wealth has been gathered; how many have been imprisoned, how many beaten, how many have come near death by the halter, to furnish what dancers to-day receive.

These warnings continued through the centuries. In North Africa in 404 Saint Augustine preached a three-hour sermon against the revels of the New Year and their connections to paganism. He pleaded with his listeners: “When [the pagans] give gifts; do you give alms. They are called away by songs of license; you, by the discourses of the Scriptures. They run to the theatre; you, to the church. They become intoxicated; do you fast.”23 The bishop of Ravenna, Petrus Chrysologus, complained in the 440s that the leading citizens of that imperial capital paraded during the Kalends through the city’s hippodrome, dressed as Roman planetary gods.

Warnings about Christmas

Home / Christmas / Warnings about Christmas

In the 300s,  while Christmas was growing in stature, its setting during the traditional pagan festive season would cause trouble that lasted for centuries. Because the Nativity was celebrated during a time traditionally marked by popular festivities such as feasting, gift-giving and decorating homes with greenery those activities would inevitably effect Christians and their new holiday. Gregory Nazianzen, the archbishop of Constantinople, sounded a warning note in a sermon of 380. He praised what he called “the feast of the Theophany” when God appeared to humans in the form of a baby in order for us to “journey toward God.” This was worthy of celebration – but in a godly way, not like a pagan festival. He begged his listeners to avoid imitating their worldly neighbours.

Let us not put wreaths on our front doors, or assemble troupes of dancers, or decorate the streets. Let us not feast the eyes, or mesmerize the sense of hearing, or make effeminate the sense of smell, or prostitute the sense of taste, or gratify the sense of touch. These are ready paths to evil, and entrances of sin … Let us not assess the bouquets of wines, the concoctions of chefs, the great cost of perfumes. Let earth and sea not bring us as gifts the valued dung, for this is how I know to evaluate luxury. Let us not strive to conquer each other in dissoluteness. For to me all that is superfluous and beyond need is dissoluteness, particularly when others are hungry and in want, who are of the same clay and composition as ourselves. But let us leave these things to the Greeks and to Greek pomp and festivals.

“The Merry Boys of Christmas”

Home / Christmas / “The Merry Boys of Christmas”

The success of the Puritans in the English Revolution led to the abolition of Christmas, in both its religious form and its guise as an excuse for merriment. This spirit of perpetual Lent was echoed by Thomas Fuller; in a Childermas sermon, he advised his listeners not to be carried away in jollity but to mourn while they are in mirth. A tract of 1656 complained: “Bad joy strips God of all. No evil carries the heart so totally from God as evil joy….A man is very heartily, very totally wicked, every faculty, every sinnew stretch themselves to sin, when sinful in joys.”

To the Christmas-lover this mirthless spirit was the least comprehensible argument of his opponents and the one that stirred most resentment in the hearts of ordinary Englishmen. When Christmas was restored in 1660 with the return of the Stuart dynasty under Charles II, the right to be merry and the comfort of long custom were most celebrated. “Can the Black-moore change his skin, or the Sunne alter his continued course? Yet sooner can these things be done then my mind changed, for to keep old Christmas once again,” asserted Mrs. Custome in Women Will Have Their Will. (Far less delight was shown at the return of church services or the right to Christmas charity than at the restoration of good cheer.) A ballad “The Merry Boys of Christmas” crowed:

Then here’s a Health to Charles our King,
Throughout the world admired;
Let us his great applauses sing
That we so much desired,
And wisht among us for to reign
When Oliver [Cromwell] rul’d here:
But since he’s home returned again,
Come fill some Christmas Beer!
These holidays we’ll briskly drink,
all mirth we will devise,
No treason we will speak or think,
then bring us brave minc’d Pies:
Roast Beef and brave Plum Porridge,
our Loyal hearts to cheer:
Then prithee make no more ado,
but bring us Christmas Beer!

The Wonders of Santa Claus

Home / Christmas / The Wonders of Santa Claus

Harper’s magazine on December 26, 1857 published a poem entitled “The Wonders of Santa Claus” which was influential in shaping the 19th century’s view of Santa.

 Here he is a rotund old man, clad in red with white fur trim and long black boots; here are the busy elves in a workshop setting; and, for the first time, an Arctic setting, a castle of ice where he and his helpers can labour undisturbed. He is neither bishop, nor proletarian; betokening his elevated status of polar castellan and employer, his pipe is a long one. Among the wonders of his establishment is its ability to disappear into the frosty mist when a stranger happens by; though it is reported that one clever boy drew close enough to see this moral admonition on the gate: “Nobody can ever enter here/ Who lies a-bed too late.” The poet then advises: “Let all who expect a good stocking full,/ Not spend much time in play;/ Keep book and work all the while in mind/ And be up by the peep of day.” 

The Arctic hideaway was later revealed to be under Iceland’s Mount Hecla, a volcano which provided Santa with central heating and hot running water – cold water came from a stream of “melted-snow water, contrived with a patented congelator, which thawed when you wanted cold water and froze when you didn’t.”




The Santa Claus Bank Robbery

Home / Christmas / The Santa Claus Bank Robbery

On December 23, 1927 Santa Claus robbed the First National Bank in Cisco, Texas. Dressed as St. Nick, Marshall Ratliff and three undisguised companions looted the bank and took hostages but were greeted by police and heavily-armed townspeople when they emerged from the building. In the shoot-out that followed, two officers and a bandit were mortally wounded and six civilians were hit by bullets. The remaining robbers made off in the getaway car with two children as hostages but discovered that they had neglected to fill up the vehicle with gasoline. The bullet-ridden car and the hostages were soon abandoned as the bandits tried to make their way to safety on foot. A massive manhunt, the largest in the history of West Texas, with searchers on horseback, in cars, and in planes finally cornered the desperadoes in a field; all three were shot but two managed to escape for a time into the woods. The Santa Claus-clad Ratliff was captured, alive despite six bullet wounds. The two wounded crooks were forced to leave behind the stolen money and were both rounded up within a week.

Put on trial, all were found guilty. The killer of the Cisco sheriff was sentenced to death, the second received  99-year sentence, while Ratliff tried to plead insanity but he two received a death sentence. The erstwhile Santa, unfortunately, killed again in a failed escape attempt; he was eventually taken from his jail cell by an angry mob and lynched. A piece of the rope used in the impromptu hanging is on display in the Callahan County Courthouse in Baird, Texas.

In 1962 another thief dressed as Santa held up a bank in Montreal with equally dismal results. Two policemen were killed as they responded to the call. The killer, 34-year-old Georges Marcotte was arrested and found guilty of two counts of murder. He became one of the last criminals to get a death sentence in Canada but his sentence was commuted to a life term He was granted parole in 1981. Justice works differently in Texas and in Quebec.


Home / Christmas / SPUGs

The year was 1912 and the rampant commercialism of Christmas in America had begun to irritate the working women of New York City.

Americans had been exchanging holiday gifts for centuries, after the ritual became legal in 1680 following a ban by the Pilgrims, who considered it a crass anathema. By the 19th century Christmas gifts were a firmly entrenched tradition. But by 1911, when a few dozen women in New York City formed what would later be called The Society for the Prevention of Useless Giving, it had reached an early fever pitch.

The yearly emphasis on materialism annoyed the so-called Spugs, but there was also a practical complaint: the era’s custom of employees giving gifts to bosses and higher-ups in exchange for work favors. Frequently, these gifts didn’t run cheap, costing in some cases up to two weeks’ worth of wages, a tradition propelled in part by peer pressure that had grown only bigger with each passing year.

And so, with the help of two of New York richest women, the Spugs decided to strike back.

 “Are you a giver of Christmas gifts?” The New York Times reported on November 12, 1912. “If you are, do you give them in the true spirit of generosity or in the hope that you may get presents or favors in return? If that is the way you have been offering holiday remembrances, and if you wish to rebel against this hypocrisy, then you are eligible for membership in the Spug Club.”

The society was founded by Eleanor Robson Belmont, an actress whose husband’s family is the namesake of the Belmont Stakes, and Anne Morgan, the daughter of J.P. Morgan, one of the richest men who ever lived. The group began in 1911, with a few dozen female members, but exploded over the next year, growing to over 6,000, the New York Times reported then.

This growth was in part an expression of collective frustration, but it was effectively powered by the charisma of Belmont, who, in the 1900s, was one of the most famous stage actresses in America. She retired in 1910 after her marriage to August Belmont II, going on to become one of the “genuine grande dames” of Manhattan society, the Times said in her obituary. And while she would later become known as an early savior of the Metropolitan Opera, one of her first big philanthropic projects was helping out the Spugs.

What happened at the Spug meetings? Ice cream was served, for one thing, while women also took in what was then a novel form of entertainment: moving pictures. The rallies were also, at their root, about female solidarity, even if class divisions lingered, giving the occasions an air of maternalistic charity.

“Don’t call them ‘working girls,’” the philanthropist Gertrude Robinson Smith said at a meeting of over 1,000 Spugs in December 1912. “They are self-respecting, self-supporting women.” The Times went on to describe the meeting this way:

“At first it was difficult to single out the working girls. They were all as well dressed as their patronesses. In fact, all sister Spugs, patrons, and patroned looked alike to the reportorial eye. For the benefit of those who still think that the term Spugs is the name for some strange new bug, it must be explained that the letters stand for the Society for the Prevention of Useless Giving.”

The meetings continued, and by the following year, the Spug boom was in full force.

The organization initially was just for women, though men were later allowed in, mostly because of Theodore Roosevelt, who, in December 1912, became the first “man Spug,” prompting hundreds of others to join to movement to tamp down on Christmas gifts.”

Yet just two years later, the Spugs had scattered. War had erupted in Europe, and the attentions of Spug founders Belmont and Morgan—as well as the rest of the world—had shifted elsewhere. The Spug fad was over, though their point had been made, a message that wouldn’t seem out of date today.

Christmas Crackers

Home / Christmas / Christmas Crackers

Not the seasonal biscuit (we’ll learn about Animal Crackers on trees some other time), but rather a Christmas novelty popular in Britain and countries of the Commonwealth. A Christmas cracker takes the form of a small cardboard tube covered in decorative wrap and containing a strip of chemically-impregnated paper which, when pulled, creates a miniature explosive snap. When opened the cracker reveals a paper hat, a motto or joke and a small prize.

The cracker was invented in 1847 by a London confectioner named Tom Smith. The idea began with the “bon bon”, a French candy in a twist of paper. To this Smith added a small motto and then conceived the idea of a noise when throwing a log on a crackling fire. After much experiment Smith came up with the right chemical formula and the cracker was born. He soon discarded the candy and began to call his invention “cosaques”, after the crack of the Cossack whip.

Since the 1840s the Christmas cracker has contained mottos humorous, romantic, artistic and puzzling with prizes ranging from inexpensive plastic toys to decorated boxes to real musical instruments to expensive jewelry with special lines prepared annually for the Royal Family. It is now an indispensable part of Christmas dinner in millions of houses around the world, includingSweden when associated with “Knut’s parties”, are held at the end of the Christmas season.

A Christmas Lullaby

Home / Christmas / A Christmas Lullaby
A cheerful little Christmas ditty from Irishmen Shane MacGowan and the Popes.
It seems I could freeze-out, it seems like I’ll freeze.
Stumbling, I fell down and prayed on my knees.
The ice wagon’s coming to pick up the stiffs.
Had a chat with an ol’ one, he was gone in a jiff.
And Santa and his reindeer jumped over the moon,2
so, hush, little child, Santa’s coming here soon.
That’s the Christmas lullaby.
I hope you grow up angry, just like your dear old dad.
I hope you grow up brave and strong, not like me – all weak and sad.
You said “Daddy, daddy, you’re stinking of booze.”
I kissed him and said “Kid, I was born to lose;
but you have the future, and a big world to save,
and I hope you’ll remember all the love that I gave.”
That’s the Christmas lullaby.
Here’s to all the little kids who haven’t got no clothes.
Here’s to all the little kids who haven’t got no homes.
It’s Christmas time in Palestine, it’s Christmas in Beirut.
They’re scrapping ’round for rice, not for tutti-fruits.
And the Christmas lights, they blew up, now the lecky’s all gone dead,3
I look like a coal miner, and I’ve a pain inside my head.
That’s the Christmas lullaby.

Ballad of Harry Moore

Home / Christmas / Ballad of Harry Moore

Continuing our look at radical Christmas music, this is a poem by Langston Hughes commemorating the 1951 murder of Harry Moore and his wife, both workers for civil rights in Florida. The couple, both associated with the NAACP, had already lost their teaching jobs because of their activism. Their assassination was likely carried out by the Ku Klux Klan but no one was ever arrested for the crime. The poem was later set to music.

Florida means land of flowers.
It was on Christmas night
In the state named for the flowers
Men came bearing dynamite.

Men came stealing through the orange groves
Bearing hate instead of love,
While the Star of Bethlehem
Was in the sky above.

Oh, memories of a Christmas evening
When Wise Men traveled from afar
Seeking out a lowly manger
Guided by a Holy Star!

Oh, memories of a Christmas evenin
When to Bethlehem there came
“Peace on earth, good will to men”–
Jesus was His name.

But they must’ve forgotten Jesus
Down in Florida that night
Stealing through the orange groves
Bearing hate and dynamite.

It was a little cottage,
A family, name of Moore.
In the windows wreaths of holly,
And a pine wreath on the door.

Christmas, 1951,
The family prayers were said
When father, mother, daughter,
And grandmother went to bed.

The father’s name was Harry Moore.
The N.A.A.C.P.
Told him to carry out its work
That Negroes might be free.

So it was that Harry Moore
(So deeply did he care)
Sought the right for men to live
With their heads up everywhere.

Because of that, white killers,
Who like Negroes “in their place,”
Came stealing through the orange groves
On that night of dark disgrace.

It could not be in Jesus’ name,
Beneath the bedroom floor,
On Christmas night the killers
Hid the bomb for Harry Moore.

It could not be in Jesus’ name
The killers took his life,
Blew his home to pieces
And killed his faithful wife.

It could not be for the sake of love
They did this awful thing–
For when the bomb exploded
No hearts were heard to sing.

And certainly no angels cried,
“Peace on earth, good will to men”–
But around the world an echo hurled
A question: When?…When?….When?

When will men for sake of peace
And for democracy
Learn no bombs a man can make
Keep men from being free?

It seems that I hear Harry Moore.
From the earth his voice cries,
No bomb can kill the dreams I hold–
For freedom never dies!

I will not stop! I will not stop–
For freedom never dies!
I will not stop! I will not stop!
Freedom never dies!

So should you see our Harry Moore
Walking on a Christmas night,
Don’t run and hide, you killers,
He has no dynamite.

In his heart is only love
For all the human race,
And all he wants is for every man
To have his rightful place.

And this he says, our Harry Moore,
As from the grave he cries:
No bomb can kill the dreams I hold
For freedom never dies!

Freedom never dies, I say!
Freedom never dies!

Christmas in Washington

Home / Christmas / Christmas in Washington

For the next few days I will be posting Christmas song lyrics, but not of the usual seasonal variety. Featured will be the words of radical leftists using the holiday to advance one of their causes. We start with Steve Earle’s “Christmas in Washington” from his album El Corazon, issued in 1997 after the reelection of Bill Clinton.

It’s Christmas time in Washington
The Democrats rehearsed
Getting into gear for four more years
Things not getting worse
The Republicans drink whiskey neat
And thanked their lucky stars
They said, “He cannot seek another term
They’ll be no more FDRs”
And I sat home in Tennessee
Just staring at the screen
With an uneasy feeling in my chest
I’m wondering what it means

So come back, Woody Guthrie
Now, come back to us now
Tear your eyes from paradise
And rise again somehow
If you run into Jesus
Maybe he can help you out
Come back, Woody Guthrie
To us now

[Verse 2]
I followed in your footsteps once
Back in my traveling days
Somewhere I failed to find your trail
Now I’m stumbling through the haze
But there’s killers on the highway now
And a man can’t get around
So I sold my soul for wheels that roll
Now I’m stuck here in this town

Come back, Woody Guthrie
Come back to us now
Tear your eyes from paradise
And rise again somehow
If you run into Jesus
Maybe he can help us out
Come back, Woody Guthrie
To us now

[Verse 3]
There’s foxes in the henhouse
Cows out in the corn
The unions have been busted
Their proud red banners torn
To listen to the radio
You’d think that all was well
But you and me and Cisco know
It’s going straight to hell

So come back, Emma Goldman
Rise up, old Joe Hill
The barricades are going up
They cannot break our will
Come back to us, Malcolm X
And Martin Luther King
We’re marching into Selma
As the bells of freedom ring

So come back, Woody Guthrie
Come back to us now
Tear your eyes from paradise
And rise again somehow