About Corazon

Thursday, December 30, 2010

The Story Behind the Star-Spangled Banner (Except Not Really)

With snow piling up in Colorado it looks like I have some extra time to devote to blogging this weekend. To start things off, I wanted to address a video that has become quite popular over the past few months. In fact, three different people have sent it to me via email this past week. The video is of a man named Dudley Rutherford. Rutherford is the Pastor of the Shepherd of the Hills Church in California. In the video, Rutherford gives a stirring and patriotic account of what he calls the story behind the National Anthem. The video has gained so much attention that even Glenn Beck, pseudo historian extraordiaire, is planning on having Mr. Rutherford on to discuss the "real" history of our nation's anthem. Take a look:



Now, before I point out where he went terribly wrong with his history let me first state for the record that I admire Mr. Rutherford's love of country. One of the things I appreciate most about the Christian right is their reverence for this nation and their appreciation for those who went before us. In my opinion, this is something that the secularists on the left (and yes, I realize that not every secularist fits this mold) either detests or can't seem to understand. With that said, I do want to address Mr. Rutherford's woefully inaccurate account in the video above. I do so with the intent to simply correct the history. In no way am I suggesting that Mr. Rutherford is a diabolical liar bent on twisting history for his own personal gain.

1.) About 39 seconds in, Rutherford stated that "the colonies were engaged in vicious conflict with the mother country, Britain." Rutherford continuously refers to "the colonies" throughout the video, which reveals very poor chronology on his part. The American Revolution lasted from 1775 to 1783, and the U.S. Constitution was adopted in 1787, which means that "the colonies" had become a thing of the past. By the time Francis Scott Key met with the British at the Battle of Baltimore the United States had been a sovereign nation for over 30 years. They were not "colonies". Rutherford messes up his chronology by assuming that the Battle of Baltimore took place during the American Revolution, and he is incorrect.

2.) Key did not sail out to the British to free a bunch of prisoners. In fact, he sailed out in order to free only ONE prisoner, Dr. William Beanes. As for Rutherford's claim that Key tried to liberate a bunch of men who were being kept in chains in a cargo hold, this is completely not true. In reality, Key was considered a "guest" on board a British command frigate, where he dined with other British "gentleman." From the Library of Congress website:
When the British invaded Washington in 1814, Ross and Cockburn with their staff officers made their headquarters in Upper Marlboro, Md., at the residence of a planter, Dr. William Beanes, whom they subsequently seized as a prisoner. Upon hearing of his friend's capture, Key resolved to release him, and was aided by President Madison, who ordered that a vessel that had been used as a cartel should be placed at his service, and that John S. Skinner, agent for the exchange of prisoners, should accompany him. Gen. Ross finally consented to Dr. Beanes's release, but said that the party must be detained during the attack on Baltimore.

Key and Skinner were transferred to the frigate "Surprise," commanded by the admiral's son, Sir Thomas Cockburn, and soon afterward returned under guard of British sailors to their own vessel, whence they witnessed the engagement.
Again, no account of hundreds of men, in chains, in a dark cargo hold being comforted by Francis Scott Key.

3.) Rutherford continuously refers to the fort as "Fort Henry." It was actually called Fort McHenry.

4.) Rutherford is right when he states that Key, Beanes, and John Skinner (who accompanied Key) were not allowed to return to shore, due to the impending attack by the British. This point, however, is about the only point Rutherford gets right. He then completely derails and really screws up the true history. Rutherford claims that Admiral Alexander Cochrane, who was in command of the British naval forces, informed Key that he was going to reduce Fort McHenry to rubble. This isn't true. The British had no intention of destroying the fort but instead wanted to capture it.

5.) Rutherford states that Admiral Cochrane informed Francis Scott Key that "the entire British war fleet...with hundreds of ships" were going to attack the "Fort Henry." This is completely untrue. The British only had 19 ships at Baltimore, nothing more. In addition, only 8 or 9 of those ships actually fired on the fort, since the other ships didn't have the guns that could reach the shore. Also, it is important to note that Cochrane had sent a landing party of British soldiers to attempt to gain intelligence. Cochrane then ordered his ships to pull back and only attack the redoubts of the fort. He clearly didn't want to destroy the fort or inadvertently kill his own men who he had sent ashore.

6.) There were no women or children in the fort. Another bogus claim. I think Rutherford states this because there was one woman killed in the bombardment. She was trying to bring her husband and other men dinner when a bomb took her out.

7.) Rutherford is 100% wrong when he states than men from the fort held the flag up "until they died" and that "the patriot's bodies" were piled around the flag pole. Not true. Only 3-5 soldiers were killed in the fort, nothing more.

8.) Rutherford also makes the claim that Key quoted George Washington who allegedly said the following:
The thing that sets the American Christian from every other person on earth is the fact that he would rather die on his feet, than live on his knees!"
Washington never said this. As is often the case with Washington, there are many quotes that have been fabricated by overzealous idiots who want to portray our first Commander-in-Chief as something he was not. Sadly, this is one of many such quotes that is more the stuff of fiction than reality.

In conclusion, my intention is not to make fun of Mr. Rutherford or to start calling him a pathological liar. Instead, I simply believe that patriotism based on mythical history really isn't patriotism, and sadly, too many people gobble this stuff up as gospel. After all, it came from a pastor! And too many times, people (especially on the right) will accept the words of pastors, political pundits, etc. as gospel before doing their own homework. They make the arrogant assumption that because these pastors/politicians/pundits share their views they must somehow either be infallible from error or know better than those evil, Marxist, progressive historians, who are bent on corrupting our children.

Whatever.

I'd suggest that Mr. Rutherford (along with those like him [Glenn Beck] who pretend to be historians), along with those who blindly accept his version of "history" remember the REAL words of George Washington:

"Always remember to guard against the impostures of pretended patriotism."

***Update: In the post I mistakenly stated that Mr. Rutherford was going to be on Glenn Beck's show. That is not true. Rutherford informed me that he has never been in contact with Mr. Beck and has no plans to be on his program. My apologies for the error.

Saturday, December 25, 2010

Christmas, 2010

Here are a few highlights of our family's Christmas Eve/Christmas Day activities. From our family to yours, we hope you had a wonderful Christmas season and that 2011 is even better than 2010. God bless!


And here are a few videos:

Decorating cookies on Christmas Eve:



Mom and Dad's Christmas Eve prep:



Christmas Day, Part I:



Christmas Day, Part II:

What a wonderful Christmas it was! A special thanks to all those who did so much to make my family's holiday so enjoyable. Christmas has always been bitter/sweet for me; bitter because I hate to see it go (which is one of the reasons I count it down every year. I have a new countdown on the right column of my blog, by the way), and sweet because of how wonderful it is. Here is hoping that the next 364 days pass by quickly.

Merry Christmas to all, and to all a good night!

Don't Forget Trenton Today!

Merry Christmas everyone! As you enjoy the festivities, keep in mind that today also carries a special American tribute that should not go forgotten.

234 years ago on this date George Washington and the Continental Army made their daring advance on Trenton to attack the Hessian soldiers encamped at the city. The move was risky to say the least. Trenton was defended by 1,500 Hessian mercenaries, who were expecting to pass through a relatively calm winter encampment at the city. Washington, however, saw an opportunity to gain a moral victory (moral because winning Trenton was not a major tactical victory) for his army. After all, this was the same army that had been thoroughly routed by the British at New York, where they were forced to flee on a number of occasions. As a result, the Continental Army was in extreme disarray and Washington himself was being questioned by the delegates to the Continental Congress in Philadelphia. In fact, some even suggested that the General should be replaced for his poor performance at New York.

It was under these tough circumstances that Thomas Paine wrote the words to his epic pamphlet, The Crisis, which was written just two days before the planned attack on Trenton:
THESE are the times that try men's souls. The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of their country; but he that stands by it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman. Tyranny, like hell, is not easily conquered; yet we have this consolation with us, that the harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph. What we obtain too cheap, we esteem too lightly: it is dearness only that gives every thing its value. Heaven knows how to put a proper price upon its goods; and it would be strange indeed if so celestial an article as FREEDOM should not be highly rated. Britain, with an army to enforce her tyranny, has declared that she has a right (not only to TAX) but "to BIND us in ALL CASES WHATSOEVER" and if being bound in that manner, is not slavery, then is there not such a thing as slavery upon earth. Even the expression is impious; for so unlimited a power can belong only to God.
With such dire circumstances all around them, Washington decided to roll the dice. An attack on Trenton would secure a for the Continental Army a legitimate moral victory, one which would help to inspire the allegiance of more colonials to the cause of independence. Despite the benefits, Washington was not unaware of the tremendous risk he was taking. In a very real sense this was an all-or-nothing gamble (It is therefore no surprise that Washington would pen a note on his desk that read, "Victory or Death").

To make a long story short, Washington and the Continental Army won an astonishing victory at Trenton, capturing over 1/3 of the entire Hessian garrison. Since the Hessians expected a quiet winter encampment, they chose to enjoy the holidays by staying up late and drinking away their Christmas Eve. As a result, the army was caught asleep, hung over, and disorganized upon Washington's arrival. Here is a clip from the movie The Crossing, which captures the feel of that Christmas morning:



The Army then goes on to rout the Hessians at Trenton. In the process, only 2 continental soldiers lost their lives. In addition, only five were wounded (including James Monroe, who eventually became our 5th president).

So, Merry Continental Army Kicks Hessian Butt Day/Christmas!!!

Sunday, December 19, 2010

12 Days of Christmas, Part V: The Real Nativity Story

For today's installment on the history of Christmas we take a look at the historical validity/invalidity of one of the most treasured symbols of the Christmas season: the Nativity. As we all know from our Sunday School lessons, Mary and Joseph made their way to Bethlehem, which was completely overcrowded due to Caesar Augustus' decree that "all the world should be taxed." Upon their arrival, Joseph was unable to find shelter for his wife and soon-to-be infant son. As a result, Mary gave birth to Jesus in a stable. Soon thereafter, three wise men came from the east bearing gifts, as did a number of shepherds and other onlookers.

Seems straight forward enough, right?

Not quite. Oh, how often popular culture loves to distort historical fact!

And while popular culture is often more appealing to our emotional side, I maintain that historical integrity, no matter how different it is from our preconceived notions, is and always will be superior. So, with this in mind, let's dissect the Nativity story shall we!

To begin our quest for a better understanding of the Nativity we must first understand the historical records available to us, along with their context and significance. As can be expected, the majority of the material surrounding the birth of Jesus comes from the Bible, but you might be surprised to know that it only comes from the books of Matthew and Luke. Mark and John, for whatever reason, are completely silent on the birth of Christ. In addition, it is also important for us to recognize that the records surrounding the birth of Jesus in Matthew and Luke are actually quite contradictory. The only general consensus we can glean from the two is that Mary gave birth to an infant son in Bethlehem, and that his birth was hailed as a miracle by those who witnessed it. We will discuss these differences between Mark and John further in a moment.

In addition, it is important for us to understand when and why the documents surrounding the birth of Jesus were written. For example, the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, which contain the biblical stories of Jesus' birth, were actually written many years after the actual birth of Christ. Matthew for example, was written somewhere between the years 70-100 A.D., while Luke's date (which is debated by scholars) is most likely between 37-70 A.D. This is important to consider because we must keep in the back of our minds that these records were written many years after the fact, and relied heavily upon heresay and second hand accounts. In addition, virtually all of the early writings by the earliest Christians (including the stuff not added to the Bible) centered specifically on Christs teachings, death and resurrection. Little to no emphasis was placed on his birth. Simply put, it wasn't a priority for the earliest Christian writers.

The Birthday of Jesus
Now, with the actual documents in hand, we must attempt to reckon the traditional Nativity story with historical fact. The first point to consider: the year of Christ's birth. As tradition and the early church tells us, Jesus was born in the year 1 A.D. This date, however, is a complete and total historical impossibility. For example, the gospels tell us that Jesus was born in the days of Herod. History proves that Herod died in the year 4 B.C., which would make any birth of Jesus after that date a historical farce. In addition, Luke makes mention of Cyrenius, who was "governor of Syria" according to Luke (see Luke 2:2). Cyrenius was actually not the governor per se, but had been sent to Palestine by order of Augustus to oversee the Roman census of 8-7 B.C. Thus, Luke would have naturally seen Cyrenius as the head honcho of sorts, since he was essentially acting as the governor at that time.

Another additional detail that helps us know the date of Jesus' birth is the Roman Census. In Luke, it states that a decree went up that "all the world should be taxed." This is actually not 100% accurate. It was a decree for a census, not a tax. Roman taxes were never collected in this fashion. All of the historical data indicates that this was a census. And when was that census? Augustus issued two different census counts (in 8 and 4 B.C.) As mentioned above, the most likely census that Joseph and Mary attended would have been 4 B.C.

And one final piece to the puzzle. The "star" in the heavens, which guided the Magi (wise men) to the location of Christ's birth. Modern astrology has revealed that during the same time as the Roman census of 4 B. C., both Jupiter, Saturn and Mars crossed in front of one another on three different occasions, which would have created a cosmic site to behold for ancient man. However, there is another likely scenario. From April to June of 6 B.C., both Jupiter, Saturn and Venus crossed paths, creating a spectacular cosmic "new star," or so it would seemed to ancient man. In addition, this "new star" would have appeared directly over the land of the Jews if you were viewing it from the perspective of the Persian east. And from where did the wise men (Magi) come? This all would have had huge significance to the eastern magi, since they were literally obsessed with the stars. It therefore comes as no surprise that Herod would inquire of them regarding the "star's" significance (Matthew 2:7). Oh, and on a side note, the idea of THREE wise men is pure legend. Nobody has a clue how many of them there actually were.

And let us not forget that there were "Shepherds in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night" (Luke 2:8). Why is this significant? It indicates that Jesus' birth probably took place in the spring or early summer, since this was the time that shepherds would tend to their flocks all night long.

So when was Jesus actually born? Based on the evidence, the "best guess" would be between April and June of 4 B.C.

"There was no room in the inn"

Ok, so the question of when Jesus was born can be better answered by appealing to the historical record. What about the where? Here is where the biblical accounts of Matthew and Luke seem to disagree. In Matthew there is no mention that Mary and Joseph traveled to Bethlehem, but rather it sort of insinuates that they already resided in the city. Luke, however, clearly states that Joseph and Mary, "went up from Galilee, out of Nazareth" and into Bethlehem as part of the census (Luke 2:4). This seems a bit bizarre, since a Roman census would expect to include the actual location where a citizen chose to reside. Why would Joseph and Mary go to Bethlehem for a census? In addition, why would Joseph haul his VERY pregnant wife all the way to Bethlehem, especially when the last months of pregnancy a Jewish woman is expected to sequester herself with only the company of fellow women? And where do we get this idea that the birth of Jesus was somehow rushed? Almost like a quasi-emergency?

In addition to these questions, we also must eliminate a very large and thoroughly accepted myth surrounding the Nativity scene. In Luke 2:7 it states:
"And she brought forth her first-born son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger; because there was no room for them in the inn."
This verse is very telling from a historical perspective, but is also unfortunately very loaded with modern preconceptions. For a modern reader, this verse seems clear enough. Mary gave birth to Jesus, swaddled him to keep him warm, placed him in a trough of some sort, since all of the inn's were full that night.

Now let's try a reading from the ANCIENT world's perspective.

Mary (who's Aramaic name would have been pronounced Mariam or Maryam) is a young girl of 14-17 years of age. She's scared for her life because an estimated 30% of women in the ancient world die from child labor. As a result, she is surrounded by the women she trusts most in her life (possibly a mother, aunt, etc.) Childbirth is exclusively a woman's role in the ancient world, so Joseph is possibly waiting outside. Upon delivering the baby, Mary and the other women quickly wrap Jesus tightly in long strips of cloth to not only protect the baby but also as part of Jewish birth ritual. Mariam (Mary) possibly places Jesus in a hay-filled trough of sorts, but most likely simply holds the infant close. The manger, which comes from the Greek word Phatne is not mentioned because in all likelihood Mary, Jesus and everyone else is already IN the manger. Phatne is actually translated to mean stable or animal stall In the ancient world, peasant families usually lived in two level homes. The animals lived below in the dirt, mud, etc., while the people lived above in an INN. So, Jesus was born in the phatne (i.e. stable area below) because there was no room for Mary to give birth in the INN above.

This historical revision of the nativity makes much more sense, especially when we consider the reality that Bethlehem, in the time of Jesus, was a small town and would not have had INN's. Our modern reading is skewed in this regard. Joseph did not go looking for an INN. We seem to be under a delusion that the ancient world had a Holiday Inn or something like it in every city. They did not. This also makes sense when we consider that the wise men (Magi) came not immediately after the birth of Jesus, but possibly months or even years after the occasion took place. Naturally, they went to the home of Joseph and Mary, not some hotel or cave.

And while the popular culture's view of the Nativity story is more exciting, it is important to remember that even if history debunks the "myths" surrounding Christ's birth the most important of all factors remains: Jesus Christ was in fact born on the earth. Even if it wasn't in a cave off on the side of the road in Bethlehem, since all the hotels were full, the birth of Jesus was a miracle. Planets crossed paths at the exact moment, a young teenage peasant girl survived the rigors of childbirth, and a Savior entered the world. It can't get much better than that.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

12 Days of Christmas, Part IV: Christmas in Colonial America

In part IV of my series on Christmas I have chosen to look at how early colonial Americans chose to celebrate the holidays, and how their celebrations differed from our modern take. Contrary to what most of us might think, Christmas has not been a predominant American holiday throughout our history. In fact, it has been anything but that.

This bright and joyful holiday that we celebrate every December, which is no doubt the most popular holiday in modern day America, was seen in a very different light by the earliest Americans. Instead of lavishly decorating the town and cheerfully celebrating the holiday spirit, those of America's early years took a very indifferent stance on the celebration Christmas. As historian Nicole Harms put it:
Christmas in colonial America did not resemble the brightly lit festivities we celebrate today. In fact, many colonial religions banned celebrations of the holiday, claiming that it was tied to pagan traditions. The New England Puritans passed a law in Massachusetts that punished anyone who observed the holiday with a five-shilling fine. The Quakers treated Christmas Day as any other day of the year. The Presbyterians did not have formal Christmas Day services until they noticed that their members were heading to the English church to observe the Christmas services. This sparked the Presbyterian Church to start services of their own.
Nicole Harms is 100% right. The Puritans, whom we celebrate for their quest to establish a new religious community, utterly loathed the celebration of Christmas. Since their religious doctrine was predominantly based on strict adherence to the Bible, and since there is no mention of Christmas being celebrated in the Bible, the Puritans saw the holiday as a blasphemous heresy. Even the overwhelming majority of Puritan diaries reveal that December 25th was nothing more than an average day of work and worship in their corner of the New World. Not only could one be fined for celebrating Christmas, but in addition they could find themselves locked up in the stocks for up to four hours!

As more Europeans began migrating to British America, many of their Christmas customs naturally made the journey as well. However, as these customs clashed with overwhelming religious opposition, the celebration of Christmas evolved into a more secular winter festival that was reminiscent of its original pagan roots. As a result, Christmas was detached from any major religious significance. The overwhelming majority of colonial preachers -- particularly in the Puritan lands of Massachusetts -- made little to no effort to preach the "pagan" or "papal" doctrine surrounding Christmas. For those various Protestants, the Reformation had taken care of those "vile," "hideous" traditions of the papacy, and Christmas was certainly seen as one of them.

A good example of this American religious detachment from Christmas can be found in the first year of the American Revolution. As George Washington and his men limped away from their horrific defeat in New York at the end of 1776, the Continental Army was literally teetering on the brink of destruction. It wasn't until General Washington suggested a Christmas Day attack of the Hessian camps in Trenton that the "rebels" were able to gain a measure of success in the war's first year. And why did Washington choose Christmas for his attack? Because he knew that the Hessians, would be completely drunk and hung over from their Christmas celebration; a celebration that was completely secular in nature. After all, Washington wasn't counting on the Hessians being caught up in prayer. Instead he was sure they would be drunk off their mind from their holiday ale.

In addition to Washington's wartime experience, it is also worth noting that Christmas was ignored in the halls of government. In the early years of the republic, members of Congress assembled on December 25th as if it were any other day. In fact, the earliest notes of the congress gave little or not mention to the Christmas holiday. This tradition would continue for the first 65 years of the nation's existence.

And such was the case for most colonial celebrations in America. Amongst the earliest settlers to the New World were the Jamestown explorers of 1607. And what did their first Christmas in the New World entail? Well, pretty much nothing but getting as drunk as possible. John Smith mentioned how the popular holiday drink that we call eggnog (we've discussed the history of eggnog in an earlier post) was the primary source for "jolliness" during their Christmas season. The Jamestown drink, known as "grog," was a slang for any beverage containing run. Later, the word was eventually changed to "nog," and has been present at every Christmas festival since.

In conclusion, there can be little argument that many of the festivities that we use to commemorate Christmas are deeply rooted in pagan tradition. In today's society this is hardly noticed, but in Colonial America it was a well known fact, which turned many Christians off to the holiday. It wasn't until the late part of the 19th century that Christmas took on its central role as the premiere American religious holiday. For literally centuries, Christmas was a quasi-holiday, often ignored by the masses. Christian churches were less zealous to see it celebrated than they are today. If our ancestors could only see us now!!!

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

12 Days of Christmas, Part III: Gingerbread and the Holidays

When it comes to celebrating the holidays, gingerbread is to Christmas what the American flag is to the 4th of July. In all of its variety, gingerbread has delighted generations of Christmas-loving Americans, who dream of little candy homes and colorful little stick figures.

Even our colonial ancestors got a piece of the gingerbread action! Gingerbread, which has traditionally been one of the most popular Christmas treats, was used to decorate both the homes and trees of early American colonists. The very first printed cookbooks, which were printed in the late 1400s, even carried a number of recipes for making gingerbread, which was thought to be an extremely healthy snack. In Germany, gingerbread took the name lebkuchen which means life bread because of its perceived health benefits.

In colonial America, the making of gingerbread was based on the traditional methods of Europe, primarily England, where bakers traditionally carved an assortment of shapes and designs out of their popular treat. Gingerbread men, which were traditionally cut into the shapes of various saints, were used to decorate one's home in commemoration of the respective saint's achievements. For the impoverished masses in both England and America, gingerbread men/houses were far too expensive to be enjoyed. As a result, bakers cut small strips of gingerbread or used the leftovers from their gingerbread men/houses to make "snaps." These "snaps" were often dunked in alcohol, much to the delight of the poor customer.

Yes, gingerbread truly enjoys a history that not only dates back to our colonial ancestors, but all the way back to our European roots, which, like a number of traditions, has taken on a unique American twist. With a heritage like this, gingerbread is sure to enjoy a starring role in the American celebration of Christmas.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

12 Days of Christmas, Part II: Yo-Ho-Ho and a Bottle of...Eggnog?

A Brief History on America's
Favorite Christmas Beverage


The Christmas season has had a long association with an assortment of delicious holiday treats. Everything from candy canes to gingerbread men, fruitcake to fruit baskets have delighted the palates of generations of Americans. One of the most popular items during the Christmas season is eggnog. In fact, over the course of the next couple of weeks, Americans will consume 2 billion gallons of eggnog at various parties, gatherings, etc. Yes, many a family will gather around their Christmas tree this season to enjoy a tall, cool glass of rich eggnog.

But just how "Christmassy" and American is eggnog?

Eggnog did not take long to make its first appearance in America. At Jamestown, John Smith mentioned how popular the drink was for the settlers during the Christmas season. Though not celebrated in the same fashion as today, Christmas still provided the Jamestown settlers with an excuse to drink "grog." Grog was colonial slang for any beverage containing rum (brings a new meaning to the expression of feeling "groggy" in the morning). Eventually, the word was changed to "nog." In addition, eggnog probably descended from the English drink "posset" or "sack posset," which was a hot drink made with sweetened milk and ale and was often mixed with eggs.

In a recent article on colonial Christmas, historian Jeff Westover explained the role eggnog played in colonial Christmas traditions:
Eggnog was one of the most common holiday traditions of Colonial America. Before there were Christmas trees, before there was Santa Claus, and long before there was ever a national holiday called Christmas there was the annual tradition of eggnog.

Eggnog definitely has ties to old England and the time-honored tradition of wassail. Though different from wassail, which used fruits as a base, eggnog's consistent ingredient has always been eggs. But aside from the eggs and milk or cream, eggnog of the 18th century could contain any manner of wine, beer, ale or other spirits. Spices, most notably nutmeg, were also constants.

George Washington's recipe called for one quart of cream, one quart of milk, a dozen eggs, one pint of brandy, a half pint of rye, a quarter pint of rum and a quarter pint of sherry. He was famous, especially after the Revolutionary War, for holding festive Christmas gatherings featuring his unique brand of eggnog.
So as you are celebrating Christmas with your family and you serve yourself a tall glass of delicious eggnog, remember that you are in good company. Americans since the beginning were doing the same.

Monday, December 13, 2010

12 Days of Christmas, Part I: Merry Saturnalia

The holiday season is finally in full swing! Yes, 'tis the season for mistletoe, holly wreaths and decorated homes. In the words of songwriters Eddie Pola and George Wyle this really is, "the most wonderful time of the year."

As you may have been able to tell from my blog's countdown on the right-hand side, Christmas is BY FAR my favorite holiday of the year. It is in this spirit that I have decided to devote the next twelve days on my blog to different Christmas themes, all of which will center of the historical origins/significance of different Christmas traditions.

To start things off, I thought it might be fun to look at how different ancient and pagan influences have "infiltrated" their way into the modern Christmas experience. Though it may be hard for some to stomach, the facts are clear on this matter. A great deal of what we do during Christmas is not Christian at all.

To understand the TRUE history behind the holiday we call Christmas, we must travel to a time when the world was dominated by pagan doctrine and Roman might. Long before Mary and Joseph made their trek to Bethlehem to be counted in the imperial census, Roman society (along with other European groups) embraced a few interesting (and familiar) holiday traditions that may come as a surprise to the devout Christian of our modern era. So, let us pretend for a moment that we have ventured back in time to late antiquity and witness how these various European societies celebrated their winter holidays.

Our first stop in our voyage back in time will take us to one of the greatest civilizations known to man: Rome. The date is December 17th and the streets are full of celebration and jubilation. It is Saturnalia: a holiday dedicated to the pagan god Saturn, who has been loosen from his bonds during the festivities so that he can enjoy the fruits of the offerings given to him. As the god of the harvest/agriculture, Saturn is praised by the masses from having provided a bountiful harvest.

To celebrate the occasion, Roman citizens gave up their traditional toga and adorned themselves with more festive clothing. Traditionally, the clothing was green and decorated with leaves, flowers and berries. Men and women regularly took holly berries and branches and turned them into wreathes, which they placed on their heads, believing that they had the power to ward off evil spirits. It was also common in homes throughout the Roman empire to have their halls "decked" with holly in order to keep them safe from the wrath of the gods.

In addition, Saturnalia was also marked by the temporary freeing of slaves, who would often (in pure fun) switch places with their masters. Public demonstrations of sex, gambling, drunkenness were commonplace, while many other laws, which were normally punishable, were temporarily allowed (in some cases even rape). Simply put, Saturnalia became the ancient world's version of Mardi Gras.

Along with the revelry and laissez-faire Roman policies governing these holidays, many Roman citizens also took to adorning evergreen trees as part of the festival of Saturnalia. It was common for wealthy Roman families to decorate a tree with candles, silver and gold lace and to have it nailed to the floor of their home. This "Saturnalia Tree" became a symbol of Rome's collective petition to the gods for a bountiful new year. The Jews (and early Christians), refused to embrace such pagan beliefs and even preached against them. As the Bible itself states in Jeremiah 10:2-4:
2.) Thus saith the LORD, Learn not the way of the heathen, and be not dismayed at the signs of heaven; for the heathen are dismayed at them.

3. For the customs of the people are vain: for one cutteth a tree out of the forest, the work of the hands of the workman, with the axe.

4.) They deck it with silver and with gold; they fasten it with nails and with hammers, that it move not.
And while the common person was busy celebrating Saturnalia, the elites of Roman society also celebrated the birth of Mithras: the god of the unconquerable sun, whose birth fell on December 25th. For many, this was the holiest day of the year and celebrating his birth was done in the hopes that Mithra would return in full power (summer) to bless their harvest, etc.

Now that we've had our "Saturnalia fix," let us move up north a bit and enter the Norse/Celtic/Germanic regions, where the winter holidays were celebrated with just as much festivity as their Roman neighbors. For many who dwelt in the Rhineland, the celebration of Yule (or Yule-tide) took place in late December and lasted for usually twelve days (hence the Twelve days of Christmas). During the celebration of Yule, people gathered in their homes to burn the Yule Log in the hearth of their home (a tradition that eventually spread all the way to the British isles). The Yule Log was occasionally even carved into a penis shape due to the fact that some (albeit smaller) Celtic communities believed the Yule Log had the ability to impregnate.

Even our "blessed" Mistletoe has its roots in the ancient world. In both Celtic and Druidic rituals, mistletoe (which blooms in winter) was believed to be a powerful sexual stimulant. Ancient legends maintained that the juices found in the mistletoe berries were, in fact, the semen of the gods. As a result, it was believed that if a man held the mistletoe over a woman's head she would be unable to resist his sexual advances (a far cry from a simple kiss). In essence, mistletoe became the ancient world's date rape drug. Exciting!

Along with the funny looking Yule logs and sexual plants, many Germanic communities also believed that the god Odin (Lugas in Celtic England), who patrolled the skies during those cold winter nights, would decide who should prosper and suffer, live and die in the following year (a.k.a. "going to find out who's naughty or nice"). Later, of course, Odin would be woven in with other figures to give us Santa Claus, but that's a topic for another day.

So maybe you are wondering how the birth of Christ got entangled in this pagan mess. The answer is pretty basic. Once Rome became a Christian nation, the newly established Christian church found itself in competition with the entrenched pagan traditions of Roman, German and other Nordic, communities. Instead of abolishing festivals like Saturnalia, the church simply decided to embrace the holiday, but added its own elements. For example, the evergreen trees that were taken into homes were adorned with apples in an effort to symbolize the Garden of Eden (later these became ornaments). Stories of pagan gods were replaced with tales of elves, gift-giving, etc., all which eventually evolved to give us many of our current holiday symbols.

And Since none of the gospels mention specifically when Jesus was actually born, early Christian church leaders simply adopted his birth to fit an already existing holiday. Pope Gregory the Great and other early and influential popes, established the earliest foundations for converting Saturnalia into CRISTES MAESSE (which eventually evolved in the English version to CHRIST-MASS and then Christmas), called for the removal of older pagan gods to be replaced with the Christian ones. It was believed that Christ's birth would eventually replace the festival of Saturnalia and abolish its traditions. The early church was at least half right in this respect. While the implementation of Christmas eventually led to the demise of Saturnalia, the pagan traditions and celebrations remained intact, and many still permeate our celebration of Christmas to this day. In fact, if we were to see some of the earliest Christmas celebrations of the Medieval world, we would be surprised to see how similar it was to a carnival or to Halloween. Most Christians of the Middle Ages continued the ancient celebrations of Saturnalia and Yule by indulging in public drinking, lascivious sex and dressing up like demons. For over two millennia the Christmas/Saturnalia Mardi Gras never let up!

In conclusion, while many of the TRADITIONS of Christmas remain rooted in ancient pagan beliefs, there is no doubt that the SPIRIT of Christmas is something quite different. My intention for writing this was NOT to discredit the celebrating of Christmas. Quite the contrary. I believe that understanding the TRUTH of the Christmas season can actually aid in our celebration of Jesus' birth. After all, it's never been about trees, gifts, flowers etc.

At least it shouldn't be.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Jaxson on the Treadmill and Other Random Family Stuff

Today Jaxson asked if he could give our treadmill a try, and since things were slow around the house we decided to let him have at it. Surprisingly, Jaxson spent most of the evening running and playing with it. He probably ran a total of two miles in the process. Anyway, it was so funny that I did some video of it. Take a look:

Putting up the Christmas Tree

Here are some of the highlights of our family's setting up of the Christmas tree extravaganza:

Last year our family celebrated Hanukkah (just a fun way to teach our kids about different traditions). Anyway, the tradition has stuck.
My family knows the INCREDIBLE significance of this decoration.


And here is part I of the festivities:


Part II:


The final product:

Any Turkey Can Tango

My apologies for my lengthy absence from this blog. I've just been busy. But even if I failed to post much that doesn't mean I didn't have some stuff in the cupboard.

A few weeks ago, Jaxson's Kindergarten class held their Thanksgiving program. Here are a few highlights:



And here's a GREAT video of Jaxson's class singing, "Any Turkey Can Tango":

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Did Jesus Celebrate Hanukkah?

Today (or more accurately put, tonight) marks the beginning of the Jewish festival of Chanukah (Hanukkah). Tonight Jews from around the world will gather to light candles, eat Latkes, and spin the dreidel all in remembrance of the Maccabean revolt in the second century BCE. And though Hanukkah is clearly overshadowed every year by the celebration of Christmas, I have always maintained that Christians should at least consider celebrating Hanukkah, maybe not in the same fashion as Jews, but certainly as a way to better understand the unique story that is the Festival of Lights (last year my family celebrated Hanukkah and had blast with it!). In fact, I am guessing that most Christians would be surprised to discover that Jesus himself probably celebrated Hanukkah. As a devout Jew, it would only be logical for Jesus (who participated in other Jewish holidays) to have also lit the menorah come wintertime.

When attempting to answer this question it is important that we first attempt to uncover when Hanukkah was officially proclaimed a Jewish holiday. In 167 B.C., Emperor Antiochus (we spoke of him in more detail in an earlier post) established an altar to Zeus within the walls of the Jewish temple. The consequences were dramatic to say the least. Led by Mattathias (a Jewish priest) and his five sons, the more orthodox portion of the Jewish community violently revolted against this "heathen" mockery of their holy temple. To make a long story short, by 165 B.C. the revolt had proved a complete success as the last remnants of Seleucid domination were eradicated. It was Judas Maccabee, son of Mattathias, who established Hanukkah as a national holiday. Since that day, Hanukkah has been celebrated by the Jews worldwide.

Now, the mere fact that Hanukkah had been established prior to Christ's birth does not therefore mean that Jesus himself celebrated the holiday. To prove such a claim we would have to find actual evidence of his involvement with the "Festival of Lights." Well, it just so happens that such evidence does exist; in the Christian bible of all places. In John chapter 10 Jesus gives his famous "Good Shepherd" discourse in which he speaks eloquently about his sheep and how they know and follow him. The chapter is one of the more regularly cited chapters in all of the Bible. But there are a couple of verses that don't receive a lot of attention. After Jesus concludes his "Good Shepherd" discourse we read:
19 There was a division therefore again among the Jews for these sayings.

20 And many of them said, He hath a devil, and is mad; why hear ye him?

21 Others said, These are not the words of him that hath a devil. Can a devil open the eyes of the blind?

22 And it was at Jerusalem the feast of the dedication, and it was winter.

23 And Jesus walked in the temple in Solomon's porch.
So what is the "feast of the dedication?" It can only be one of two things: either an actual dedication of the Jewish temple (which it was not, since the only temple dedication that happened near Jesus' lifetime was during the reign of Nehemiah, which occurred in the spring), or it refers to the "Feast of the Maccabees," or the "Feast of the Lights": a.k.a. HANUKKAH! If you recall, Hanukkah is known as the "Festival of Lights" and literally translates to "dedication." In addition, verse 22 points out the fact that Jesus attended this feast during the winter. The Jewish month of Kislev (Hanukkah is always held on the 25th of Kislev) takes place in the winter. Also, we read how Jesus was at the temple on "Solomon's porch," which was a place where Jews often congregated to discuss matters of faith. In addition, it was also the place where many congregated to light the candles of the menorah.

And while it may come as a surprise to many Christians that Hanukkah is alluded to in the New Testament (while Christmas is not. In fact, Christmas didn't come into existence until at least 354 A.D.), the fact remains that Jesus himself most likely participated in the "Festival of Lights."

So here is my question: if we can make a strong case for Jesus celebrating Hanukkah, why don't Christians today do the same? I'm not trying to cause theological strife here, rather I am simply asking the question. If I were to answer this question for myself I would speculate that the reason is quite simple: the early Christians, who established Christmas in an effort to counter the wide appeal of pagan holidays like Saturnalia, had no need to combat Jewish holidays. After all, Medieval Europe was overwhelmingly pagan. Any attempt to convert these pagans to Christianity would require a theological war of sorts against the doctrines of paganism. And since Judaism was not a large religion in the region, Hanukkah wasn't a threat. After all, no pagan celebrated the "Festival of Lights," so there was no need to combat it.

Either way, the fact remains: Jesus probably celebrated Hanukkah.