The Garden Gate: Christmas season steeped in longtime tradition

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By Ellen Probert Williamson

Christmas is so much a time of traditions, customs, historic associations and reminiscing that it’s interesting to know how some of them began.

The second bishop of Rome, Telesphorus, declared in the second century A.D. that public church services should be held to celebrate the Nativity of the Lord.

And in 320 A.D., Pope Julius I, agreeing with other religious leaders, specified that Dec. 25 should be recognized as the official date of the birth of Jesus Christ.

Singing Christmas carols was a new idea in the church services of the 13th century.

It is believed that Martin Luther, the famous Protestant reformer, was so taken with the beauty of the night sky that he brought a fir tree into the house and decorated it with candles “to bring the stars of the night sky” into the house.

But in 1643, the British Parliament officially abolished the celebration of Christmas.

And Oliver Cromwell banned all Christmas carols in England between 1649-60.

He thought Christmas should be an occasion of solemnity and the only notice of it should be a prayer service with a sermon.

People began decorating their houses and churches with holly in the early 17th century.

The sharply pointed leaves of holly seemed to symbolize the thorns in Christ’s crown-of-thorns, and the red berries were reminders of the drops of His blood.

In 1836, Alabama became the first state to declare Christmas a legal holiday.

In 1856, President Franklin Pierce decorated the first White House Christmas tree.

And 10 years earlier, the first commercial Christmas card was introduced.

It featured a drawing of family members happily toasting each other with glasses of wine, a shockingly decadent picture that was immediately condemned by the Temperance Society.

Austria issued the first postage stamp to commemorate Christmas in 1937.

Eight years later, a phonograph album containing Bing Crosby’s “White Christmas” was released.

It became the best-selling single ever, with sales of more than 50 million copies worldwide.

Holly, the flower for December in the Occidental flower calendar,

is the symbol for foresight, optimism and defense.

It has long been used with ivy and other evergreens to bright and decorate homes and public buildings at this festive season.

The greatest festival of ancient times was the Saturnalia, or Feast of the Winter Solstice.

Originally celebrated on just one day, in time it was extended to a seven-day period.

Schools were closed, slaves were permitted to ridicule their masters (the court jesters of medieval days were a survival of this), friends exchanged presents, and trees were decorated

to encourage them to bear more fruit next


And people gave each other evergreen branches to bring good luck into the coming year.

While artificial trees comply with fire restrictions and look convincing for the most part, sales of real trees have been increasing.

A popular wintertime expedition is to go to a tree farm and cut down your own.

Somehow, the sight of a family bringing home a live tree lashed to the roof of a car conjures up visions of a Currier and Ives lithograph of a Victorian family bringing home a Christmas tree on a sled from a snowy woods.

December has always been a dark, low, despairing month with no sunlight, long nights and short days, and usually cold, stormy weather.

For a long time people weren’t sure the sun would make it back again without help from human encouragement.

Bonfires and torches were used to counteract the darkness and cold.

Throughout the Northern hemisphere, the Feast of Lights, the feast of the undying sun, has been celebrated by many cultures.

It is no coincidence that Hanukkah, the Jewish tradition of the feast of lights, is celebrated at this time.

This was the season when the Druids cut mistletoe with golden sickles and distributed the branches as symbols of future hope and peace.

So many plants and flowers lend color and festivity to the holiday scene, and the scents, sounds and color of Christmas everywhere delight us with their history and drama.

How wonderful is this magic season, with its history, traditions and outpouring of joyous communications to one and all.

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Ellen Probert Williamson lives in Kingston. Her column appears regularly in the Roane County News.