‘Twas the Night Before Christmas…

December 24

‘Twas the night before Christmas
And all through the store
Not a register was empty
Nor an inch of the floor

For the men of the nation
Had converged on this spot
To buy all the presents
They should’ve already bought.

Today my co-workers complimented me on my resistance to all the goodies lying around the office. It wasn’t resistance; it’s just that at this point my body weight is 90% chocolate, and the remaining ten is sugar.

My boss let us out early today (4:30) which gave me an hour and a half to do all my Christmas shopping.

Single women, if you want to find a man, go to any mall in America after 5pm on Christmas Eve. The stores are chock full of them. Take your pick. You will know one of these shoppers is a male because he has the same expression as a parachuter who has just been dropped in Uzbekistan with a map of Disneyland and a purse.

Believe it or not, there was a time when Christmas Eve was not associated with frantic mobs scavenging through Toys R Us for the last Diaper-Me Elmo, or whatever the current craze is.

That time was 1866. The following year, Macy’s department store remained open Christmas Eve until midnight for last minute shoppers, thus setting in motion the downward spiral that has consumed our society.

You’ll notice with a lot of Saints’ Days, that the “Eves” before are still more important than the Days themselves. The same goes for many Jewish, Muslim and Hindu holidays. In many calendars, the day once began at sunset, a time much easier for farmers to deduce than 11:59 pm.

Some “Eves” were celebrated reverently with a mass at church. But many an Eve developed a reputation for merry-making. For example, Saint Nick’s Eve when townspeople would dress a boy up as a clergyman–a “Boy-Bishop” he was called–who would imitate a priest, much to the delight of onlookers. Sometimes mobs would sing bawdy songs while careening drunkenly through the streets in a haphazard procession, often harassing the social elite in the process.

Boy Bishop
Boy Bishop

This led to King Henry VIII’s infamous “party-pooper” decree:

Whereas heretofore divers and many superstitions and chyldysh observances have be used, and yet to this day are observed and and kept…as upon Saint Nicholas, Saint Catherine, Saint Clement, the Holy Innocents, and such like, children be strangelie decked and apparayled to counterfeit priests, bishoppes, and women, as so be ledde with songes and daunces from house to house, blessing the people and gatherying of money; and boyes do singe masse and preache in the pulpitt…

The Kynges Maiestie therefore, myndinge nothinge so moche as to advance the true glory of God without vaine superstition, wylleth and commandeth that from henceforth all such superstitious observations be left and clerely extinguished throwout his realmes and dominions, for asmuch as the same doth resemble rather the unlawfull superstition of gentilitie, than the pure and sincere religion of Christe.”

Of course, the King’s piety didn’t stop him from beheading his wives (or improve his spellyng). After the King’s death, his Roman-Catholic daughter Queen Mary rescinded the ban in 1554.

During Christmastime the ancient spirit of Saturnalia came out to play under the guise of Christianity, leading one 16th century Anglican bishop to pronounce, “Men dishonour Christ more in the twelve days of Christmas, than in all the twelve months besides.”

Oliver Cromwell banned the celebration of Christmas altogether between 1649 and 1660. And the Puritans in Massachusetts followed suit in 1659.

Rituals like those described above evolved into what we call “wassailing”. Members of the impoverished gentry would sing outside the residences of the social elite, asking, sometimes rather persuasively, for money, or at least booze—a cross between trick-or-treating and Christmas caroling, and the forerunner of both. (It was also a time for servants to impose upon their masters for tips, much like today’s Christmas bonuses.)

But according to Stephen Nissenbaum, author of The Battle for Christmas, it was a group of early 19th century aristocrats–disturbed by the uncouth December rituals of the gentry–who implemented many of the family-friendly traditions now associated with Christmas in North America. Jock Elliot in Inventing Christmas calls 1823 to 1848 the “Big Bang” of Christmas traditions. Chief among these: Saint Nicholas’s annual reindeer-powered sleigh jaunt on Christmas Eve, immortalized in Clement Clarke Moore’s “A Visit From Saint Nicholas” in 1822 and in Washington Irving’s short Christmas stories.

Santa Claus by Thomas Nast

Nissembaum theorizes that Santa Claus served as a “Judgment Day” primer for children. Be good and get presents. Be bad and get coal. A more tangible way for parents to introduce their kids to Christian doctrine before jumping straight into Eternal Damnation. [The unintended flipside being that children, after learning “the truth” about Santa, may grow to apply the same lesson to the Judge Himself.]

Nearly 200 years later, through the miracle of modern technology we can track Santa’s journey in real time as he darts across six continents at 100 times the speed of a bullet train, according to the North American Air Defense Command, aka NORAD.

NORAD’s been tracking Santa’s Christmas Eve trips since 1955. According to legend, that was the year…

…a Sears store, at the time known as Sears Roebuck and Company, placed Christmas advertising that included a phone number where children could reach Santa Claus. The only problem was that the phone number was printed incorrectly.

wisegeek.com Why Does NORAD track Santa

Yes, the kids reached NORAD. Bombarded with calls, Air Defense personnel checked the radar and informed the children of Santa’s whereabouts.

As for me, I’m off to the land where the sugar-plums dance. So Merry Christmas to all and to all a good night!

Lucia Day

December 13

You know you’ve been in Sweden too long when seeing a young woman with lit candles stuck to her head no longer disturbs you. — You Know You’ve Been In Sweden Too Long When…

In Sweden and in Swedish communities in North America, thousands of girls will don the traditional white dress and red sash to take part in Lucia Day. Atop the heads of many girls will burn candles in a special crown worn for the holiday–although in Sweden most candles used these days are the battery-powered kind, due to–as the Swedes have discovered–the highly flammable nature of girls’ hair.

The crown of candles shines a light of hope during the darkest nights of the year, which in Sweden can be about 23 hours long.

(c) 2007 Fredrik Magnusson

Saint Lucia was a young Christian who lived in Syracuse, Italy during the time of Diocletian–the infamous persecutor of early Christians–in the late 3rd century. When her mother became ill, Lucia prayed for her. Upon her mother’s recovery Lucia took a vow of chastity and gave her dowry to the poor, thus earning the rancor of a particularly vindictive suitor.

Some stories say the angry suitor outed her as a Christian in court, which then ordered her execution. Other stories say the suitor tried to kill her himself. Either way, they tried to kill her by fire, but she would not burn. Her eyes were poked out (some say she poked out her own eyes and gave them to the suitor) but new eyes grew back in their place. Men and oxen tried to drag her from the town, but she could not be budged.

Finally, on December 13, 304 A.D., the angry suitor stabbed Lucia with a sword in the neck and killed her. She was 20 years old.

Another legend tells of St. Lucia helping the ancient Christians in the catacombs, where torches were needed to navigate the dark tunnels. To keep her hands free to bring more food and drink, Lucia attached candles to a wreath she wore on her head.

Saint Lucy (Those ain't flowers)

So how did this Catholic saint from Italy become the heroine of a Protestant country in Scandinavia?

It may have to do with the date. Back when Sweden was Catholic and used the Julian calendar, Lucia’s feast day, December 13, was the longest night of the year. In pagan times the winter solstice was considered an ominous night to be out, when trolls and supernatural spirits wandered the earth. Lucia, whose name means light, became a symbol of the victory of light over darkness. Today, Swedish towns hold pageants to pick the “Lucia Bride”. Rituals similar to Luciatagen have taken place in Sweden in one form or another for over a thousand years, but it wasn’t until the 1927 Lucia procession in Stockholm, organized by a local newspaper, that the tradition as we know it spread throughout Sweden and Swedish-speaking Finland.

Lussekatter, or saffron buns, are a staple of the holiday. Made with one of the world’s most expensive spices, saffron dough is filled with cinnamon, sugar, raisins and chopped nuts. The oldest (or youngest) girl in the family serves these goodies.

A more recent Lucia Day tradition is to wake up unsuspecting Nobel Prize winners sleeping at the Grand Hotel in Stockholm. The Nobel Prize is awarded three days earlier on December 10.

Story of Saint Lucy of Syracuse

“You Know You’ve Been in the U.S. When…” and “You Know You’ve Been in Sweden Too Long When…”

Linnea in Lund

Feast of the Virgin of Guadalupe

December 12

“…one may no longer consider himself a Christian, but you cannot truly be considered a Mexican unless you believe in the Virgin of Guadalupe.”

— Carlos Fuentes

It’s been said that Mexico came into being not in 1821–the year Spain recognized its independence–but nearly 300 years earlier, in 1531, when a recently widowed peasant-farmer named Juan Diego Cuauhtlatoatzin, beheld the most spectacular vision in Mexican history.


On December 9, he was out walking near the ruins of Tepeyac Hill, where Aztecs once worshipped the mother goddess Tonatzin, when a young incarnation of the Virgin Mary appeared before him encompassed in a halo of light. She spoke to Juan Diego in his native tongue of Nahuatl, and asked him to deliver a message to the Mexican bishop: to build a church on the ground where she stood.

Upon hearing Juan Diego’s story, the bishop had his doubts. So the next time Juan Diego saw the Virgin, he confessed to her his failure to convince the bishop. She told him to pick some flowers at the top of the hill–even though it was December and no flowers should have been blooming. There he found Castilian roses, native to the bishop’s hometown in Spain. The Virgin arranged them in his tilma (apron), but when Juan Diego opened his tilma to the bishop, it held not flowers but the lifelike image of the Virgin of Guadalupe upon it.

Word spread of the miraculous vision and the image on the cloth. What the event suggested to the descendants of the Aztecs, many of whom had been made to feel unworthy by the strange pushers of this new faith due to the color of their skin, was that the Virgin revealed herself not to a Spanish bishop, but to a common, dark-skinned peasant. And Guadalupe herself was not the pale icon that had been forced upon the people by Europeans, but a mestizo, a mixture of races that would come to represent Mexico.

Old Basilica of the Virgin of Guadalupe, Mexico City

During the Mexican War of Independence in the 1810’s, the Lady of Guadalupe became the symbol of the new-born nation and the country’s patron saint.

In 2002, Pope John Paul II canonized Juan Diego as well. His feast day is December 9, the anniversary of the day he first saw Our Lady of Guadalupe. The Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe is December 12, the last day she appeared to him.

Today Mexico is still overwhelmingly Catholic, but as Gustavo Arellano points out:

You don’t have to be Mexican or even Catholic to celebrate Guadalupe. Heck, you don’t even have to believe in God. All you need is a belief in the equality of people that’s in the core of Guadalupe’s message and you will surely feel her redeeming love.

On December 12, Mexicans and Mexican-Americans gather in churches and communities throughout North America and celebrate the symbol of the people of Mexico and patron saint of the Americas.

Immaculate Conception

December 8

Today, December 8, the Roman Catholic Church celebrates the Feast of the Immaculate Conception.

I know what you expectant mothers are thinking. The Immaculate Conception is December 8. Jesus was born on December 25. A 17-day pregnancy? How do I get in on that!?!

Well, you can’t. Contrary to popular belief, in the Roman Catholic Church the Immaculate Conception refers not to the conception of Jesus, but to that of Mother Mary.

The Feast of the Immaculate Conception falls exactly nine months before the Nativity of the Virgin Mary on September 8th. The Annunciation meanwhile is observed on March 25, nine months before Christmas.

So immaculate or not, gestation takes 9 months.

The Feast of the Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary has been celebrated at least since the seventh century. But it wasn’t until 1854 that Pope Pius IX officially defined Immaculate Conception:

“The Blessed Virgin Mary, in the first instant of her conception, by a singular grace and privilege of Almighty God, and in view of the foreseen merits of Jesus Christ, the savior of the human race, was preserved free from all stain of original sin.”

This doesn’t mean that Mary’s was a virgin birth, like Jesus’. The word Immaculate comes from the Latin in (not) and maculatus (stained). Mary’s conception, according to Roman Catholic dogma, was a normal one, but she was blessed by God and sanctified from the very moment of her own conception.

Although it’s not explicitly mentioned in the Bible, the Roman Catholic Church cites Mary’s description—being “full of grace”—as evidence for her Immaculate Conception, a blessed state that shielded Jesus from exposure to Original Sin. Protestants disagree on this, and in fact, Mary’s conception has been a major point of contention between the two.

The Feast of the Immaculate Conception is celebrated throughout the Catholic world. In Spain, Portugal, and parts of Latin America December 8 is celebrated as Mother’s Day. In Panama today, Mother’s Day is one of the most important holidays of the year. Writes one mother:

“I just came back from mother’s day celebration in Bocatorito a little village close to us…For the first time in my life I felt the core essence of what this day is all about. A day when you feel loved and special, but not with expensive gifts and going for dinner in fancy restaurants. Here, surrounded by humble people I understood and felt the joy of being celebrated as a mother.”

The Truth about Santa – St Nick’s Eve

December 5

About this time of year parents deliberately wait in long lines in overcrowded shopping malls so their kids can sit on the lap of a fat red stranger.

Some cultures might call this odd. We call it Christmas.

Though the Christmas season begins commercially on Black Friday, and religiously on Advent, tonight kicks off the season for children in Europe, including the Netherlands, Germany, Belgium, the Czech Republic, and Austria.

Saint Nicholas, 1838 - by Robert Weir

It’s St. Nicholas’ Eve, and though the date and the figure go by many names, the themes remain the same: kids and candy.

The jolly bearded guy known as Santa Claus in the United States is actually is an amalgamation of numerous folk figures.

The United States imported “Santa Claus” mainly from the Dutch Sinterklaas. Long before that, the Dutch learned of the saint, Saint Nicholas, from Spanish sailors, who believed Saint Nicholas had the power to save sailors by stemming storms at sea. Even today Sinterklaas arrives in Holland on or around November 17 each year, not on a sleigh from the North Pole, but on a ship from Spain.

No one would be more surprised at the role Santa plays in modern society than Saint Nicholas himself, who was actually a bishop in the ancient town of Myra, Turkey (then Asia Minor) around 300 AD.

Saint Nick, old skool

Saint Nicholas was imprisoned for 5 years for refusing to recognize the Roman Emperor Diocletian as a god. He was released after the Christian Emperor Constantine took the throne and removed Christianity from the Roman “terrorist watchlist.”

Today Saint Nicholas is remembered less for his role in destroying pagan temples than for his acts of kindness toward children. Like secretly giving poor families of young girls money for a dowry, so they could marry rather than become prostitutes.

Legends of Saint Nicholas’s devotion to the poor spread throughout the centuries. As his posthumous fame grew, children would leave their boots outside on St. Nicholas Eve in the hopes that St. Nick would fill them with goodies.

In Protestant Germany, Martin Luther replaced the Catholic gift-giving Saint Nicholas with the Christkindl, or “Christ Child.” Over time Christkindl’s name morphed to Krist Kindel. You may know him however as Kris Kringle.

In North America Santa Claus travels by reindeer-guided sleigh, while in Europe the gift-giver is accompanied by figures such as Zwarte Piet (Black Piet) or Krampus (The Claw), the latter being a goat-headed demonish entity who whips bad children with a switch. The Bad Cop to Santa’s Good Cop.

Whether you call him Santa, Kris Kindl, or Father Christmas, you better watch out, you better not cry, you better not pout, I’m telling you why: Christmas is still 20 days out and believe me, you don’t want to end up on Krampus’s naughty list!


There Really is a Santa Claus – William Federer

Sankt Nikolaus und der Weihnachtsmann

Saint Nicholas Customs Around the World


St. Nicholas Day in Germany

Saint Barbara’s Day

December 4

Kids, if you thought your folks are hard on you, be glad you didn’t have Saint Barbara’s dad.

Barbara’s claim to fame was being kept in isolation in a tower by her father Dioscorus, a prominent pagan in Asia Minor, around 300 AD.

Saint Barbara

Dioscorus grew upset at his daughter’s refusal of several marriage proposals by eligible suitor-princes. Before leaving on a business trip, Dioscorus ordered his workers to construct a bathhouse for Barbara. The bathhouse had two windows. But in her father’s absence, Barbara asked the workmen to put in a third window. When Dioscorus returned he was infuriated by the deviation from his plan. Barbara confessed she did it in honor of the Holy Trinity, and that she was a Christian, having been secretly tutored by a priest.

As any concerned father would do, Dioscorus took her to the Roman prefect, Marcian, who ordered Barbara to be tortured until she renounced her faith. Young Barbara withstood heinous tortures, but did not renounce Christ. When Marcian ordered her execution, Dioscorus offered to do it himself. Barbara was beheaded by her own father around 303 AD. Dioscorus was then struck by a bolt of lightning and died.

Because of the method of her father’s demise, Barbara became the patron saint of those threatened by thunderstorms and fire. And later became the patron saint of miners and artillerymen.

Rome had the last laugh on Barbara though. In 1969, after over a thousand years, the Catholic Church officially removed her Feast Day–like Saint Brigid–for lack of any evidence that she ever existed.

Barbara’s legend is still strong in Germany and northern Europe, where Barbara is celebrated on December 4, the assumed date of her martyrdom. It’s customary to place a twig from a cherry branch (Barbarazweig) in water on this day, to bloom by Christmas. While imprisoned Barbara had found a cherry branch in her cell and moistened it with her drinking water. Before her death, it bloomed, and brought her joy.


The U.S. Field Artillery has two military orders in her name, the Ancient Order of Saint Barbara and the Honorable Order of Saint Barbara.

St. Barbara’s Day in Germany

Happy New Year! The Advent-ure Begins

St. Andrew

The fourth Sunday before Christmas marks the beginning of the liturgical calendar in much of the Western Church. Advent Sunday corresponds to the Sunday nearest Saint Andrew’s Day (November 30).

Advent comes from the Latin Adventus,meaning ‘arrival’. During Advent Christians prepare for both the anniversary the birth of Christ, as celebrated on December 25, and the anticipation of the Second Coming.

The first records of what we now call Advent date from 5th and 6th century France.

Advent originally lasted six weeks (43 days), from St. Martin’s Day (November 11) to Christmas, during which adherents would fast three times a week. For many Germans and Austrians, St. Martin’s Day still kicks off the Christmas season.

Beginning in the 9th century the length of Advent was reduced to four weeks instead of six. Over the centuries the fasting element of this “second Lent” was replaced by abstinence, which was then replaced by little calendars with chocolates in them.

Some of the most visible symbols of the holiday are the Advent wreaths and the royal purple and royal blue banners and vestments in Catholic and Protestant churches.

Advent Wreath

The circular wreath was an ancient Germanic and Celtic symbol, representing the ever-turning “wheel of the year”. Today the wreath–with no beginning and no end–symbolizes the eternity of God and the immortality of the soul, as do the evergreens from which the wreath is made. Laurel leaves represent Christ’s persecution; cedar represents the healing power of Christ; and pine and holly represent immortality. Pine cones are sometimes used to signify new life and resurrection.

During each Sunday of Advent families and churches light one of the four wreath candles. In that respect the wreath is the original Advent Calendar.

In the Catholic tradition three candles are purple. The fourth, a rose candle, is lit on Gaudete Sunday.

The History of Advent

The History of the Advent Wreath

All Souls Day

November 2

…For it’s the turn of the year and All Souls’ night,
When the dead can hear and the dead have sight…

Edith Wharton, All Souls

All Souls Day - Aladar Korosfoi-Kriesch

Whereas All Saints Day recognizes the departed whose souls have found refuge in Heaven, All Souls Day remembers those restless spirits still lingering in Purgatory.

All Souls Day originated not in Rome but France.

Around 820 Amalarius of Metz (northwest of Strasbourg) wrote “After the offices of the saints, I have inserted an office for the dead. For many pass over from this present age who are not immediately united with the saints.” (ie. “don’t go directly to heaven.”)

In the early 11th century, St. Odilo, fifth abbot of the Cluny monastery, officiated the feast of All Souls on November 2. Over the century, the tradition was adopted by dioceses across Western Europe.

On All Souls Day, families visit the graves of their loved ones and light candles in their memory.

Fear not the shudder that seems to pass:
It is only the tread of the their feet on the grass…
…For the year’s on the turn and it’s All Souls’ night,
When the dead can yearn and the dead can smite…

…Let them see us and hear us, and say: “Ah, thus
In the prime of the year it went with us!”

All Souls Day is celebrated on November 2, unless the 2nd falls on a Sunday, in which case it’s observed on Monday, November 3 as was the case in 2008.