“Oh Holy Night! The stars are brightly shining. It is the night of our dear Savior’s birth.” These are the words to one of the more treasured Christmas carols that we hear at this time of year. But what do the words mean?
History records that there came into the Mideast, some two thousand years ago, a child that a carpenter named Joseph and his wife Mary welcomed to the planet. They were staying in a manger, somewhere near their ancestral town of Bethlehem, in the area of present day Israel, during one of the great census treks of the era.
There is no real record of the time of year that the child was born. Later generations became focused on the pagan celebration of the Vernal Equinox, in late December, as a day of festivities and celebrations associated with the child’s birth. Though possibly not accurate, it is a date as good as any. Perhaps this is where the idea of a snowy Christmas began, with the whole notion of reindeer and sleighs from northern Europe.
No one really knows the circumstances of the birth of this young lad, Jesus, other than Joseph and Mary. They were never the talkative types. Some time, within the next year or so, three wise men came to pay homage to this birth foretold in scripture, carrying gifts of Gold, Frankincense and Myrrh, all precious commodities at the time.
One wonders what a poor carpenter like Joseph would have done with such treasures. More than likely the local church or village officials scarfed up that horde for “safe keeping.” There is no historical record of snow in the desert at that time. Nor were there any reindeers or fat rolly-polly men, in red sweat suits, stomping around and hollering “ho ho ho.” That accumulation of pagentry came in later centuries, when one civilization after another piled their cultural lore on top of the existing celebration, like items tacked onto a collage on a bulletin board. Christmas trees were added by the 18th century German tribes whose ancestors had worshipped deities in the trees, often knocking upon them for good luck. The whole glittering and decorated tree arose from those origins. Gift giving probably filtered in around the same time, perhaps confused with various saintly figures honoring St. Valentine, his day and the tradition of bearing personal gifts to loved ones. The term “Santa Claus” is an anglicized version of the Dutch term Santi Niklaus, a Bishop like figure, in red Cardinal’s garb, who brought gifts to their children on December 5th.
It really took the power of New York’s Madison Avenue advertising industry to develop the whole package that included massive shopping sprees at huge retail chains in the 20th century. Poems like “The night before Christmas” and NY Sun editorials like “Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus” kept the ball rolling in the public’s mind. Films like “Miracle on 34th street,” “It’s a wonderful life” and “White Christmas” implanted the whole notion of a snowy Santa Claus with twelve reindeers dropping presents from the sky like the ancient myths of gods delivering gifts from the heavens.
Collectively, we all bought into the attractive package and fostered it upon generations coming of age. “Black Friday” with its shopping orgy and a hundred other traditions are all still developing. But as all of this developed, I wonder if we haven’t forgotten the main focus of the holy day.
A baby named Jesus was born to a poor carpenter in the Middle East some 2,000 years ago. This little rascal grew up to be a man, perhaps one of the most influential philosophers in all of our recorded history. He preached love, mercy and forgiveness. He advocated feeding the poor and caring for the sick and the old, concepts not yet known in his time. His philosophy of peace, justice and mercy, with a concern for the less fortunate, was revolutionary for its time and indeed toppled the existing world order in years to come. Great religions like Islam, Catholicism, and all of the various Protestant sects sprang from the teachings of this humble son of a carpenter. The world was made forever better by his coming. And it is that presence, that sense of love and mercy that we celebrate amidst all of the glittering hooey every December 25th.
So with all due deference to the small ones among us, I still enjoy hearing the lilting, almost haunting melody “Oh Holy night, the stars are brightly shining. It is the night of our dear savior’s birth.” And in that vane, we wish each of you a holy and blessed Christmas, in remembrance of Jesus, the Nazarene and all of the goodness that he brought to us. And of all the Christmas fable’s, one got it right. Dicken’s, in his wonderful tale “A Christmas Carol” had Tiny Tim whisper “God Bless us every one.”
Joe & Mary Martin