Category Archives: history
Article copyright by Bob Rogers.
All over the world, people are putting up Christmas trees for the holiday. But what does this have to do with the birth of Jesus? Is it just a pagan practice, or can we find Christ in the Christmas tree?
Where did the tradition of the Christmas tree come from?
There are many different stories, since ancient peoples have made use of trees and even worshiped them. One of my favorite stories is of St. Boniface, the missionary to the Germans in the 8th century. Boniface told them about Jesus Christ, but they worshiped a great oak tree. So Boniface boldly went to the oak with an ax and began to chop it down. They were ready to kill him, when a great wind came and blew the tree down. After that, the Germans converted to Christianity in large numbers.
Some legends tell that St. Boniface later decorated a fir tree to represent Jesus instead of their pagan gods. It is uncertain whether this is true.
During the Middle Ages, there was a popular medieval play in western Germany about Adam and Eve and a “paradise tree,” which was a fir tree hung with apples, that represented the Garden of Eden. Germans set up paradise trees in their homes on December 24, the feast day of Adam and Eve. They hung wafers on it, representing the bread of Christ in the Lord’s Supper, and then later they hang cookies, and often put candles, symbols of Christ as the light.
Meanwhile, in the 15th and 16th century in Latvia, Estonia and northern Germany, there was a tradition of bringing an evergreen tree to the town square on Christmas Eve, dancing around it, and letting it burn. Eventually people in Germany began to light a tree on Christmas Eve with candles. Lutheran tradition says that the Protestant reformer Martin Luther helped popularize the lighting of an evergreen tree at Christmas all over Germany.
Article copyright by Bob Rogers.
Perhaps the three most popular Christmas carols in English are “Joy to the World,” “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” and “Silent Night.” The first two were sung in the American colonies even before the United States was a nation, but the third one came from Austria.
“Joy to the World” was written by Isaac Watts in 1719. It is based on Psalm 98, and its tune comes from one of the songs in Handel’s Messiah. Originally this song was intended to refer to Jesus’ Second Coming, but it has come to be associated mostly with His first coming at Christmas.
“Hark the Herald Angels Sing” was written by the great Methodist founder Charles Wesley in 1739, and the words were revised by the great evangelist of the Great Awakening, George Whitefield. A hundred years later, the classical composer Felix Mendelssohn composed the tune that is popular today when people sing “Hark the Herald Angels Sing.”
“Silent Night” was originally written in German and first sung on Christmas Eve, 1818, at St. Nicholas Church in the village of Oberndorf, near Salzburg, Austria. The organist, Franz Gruber, discovered that the organ wasn’t working at the church. The priest, Joseph Mohr, had composed the words in German to “Silent Night” two years before. So he shared it with Gruber, who composed the tune to be sung by guitar. When Karl Mauracher came to repair the organ, he heard the story of how the song was composed in an emergency and sung without the organ, and Mauracher spread the song everywhere that he went. The song came to America by German-speaking congregations. Originally the words were “Stille Nacht, Heilige Nacht.” The English words we sing today were translated by John Freeman Young. “Silent Night” has been translated into 140 languages.
While these songs are popular today, the first Christmas carols can be found in the Bible itself. More about that tomorrow…
Article copyright by Bob Rogers.
While many Americans sing about Santa, chestnuts and a white Christmas, Christians all over the world have sung about the birth of Jesus Christ for centuries. As early as the fourth century, Ambrose, the archbishop of Milan, wrote a hymn for Christmas to teach that God truly became a man, in response to heretics who denied Jesus’ incarnation.
Singing Christmas carols was popularized by St. Francis of Assisi during the Middle Ages in Europe, and was also encouraged by the Protestant Reformers, such as Martin Luther. As early as the 15th century, groups of singers would go from house to house in England and sing Christmas carols. Christmas carols in English first appear in a 1426 work of John Awdlay, chaplain from Shropshire, who lists twenty five “caroles of Cristemas”, probably sung by groups of “wassailers,” who went from house to house and enjoyed “wassail,” ale, or apple cider, and other desserts given to them at each home. Thus we get the line, “here we go a wassailing among the leaves so green,” and since the homes often fed the carolers, we also get the line, “bring out the figgy pudding, we won’t go until we get some.” It was only later that carols begun to be sung in church, and to be specifically associated with Christmas.
Two of the oldest Christmas carols still sung today are “O Come, all ye faithful,” which was originally written in the 13th century, and “Good Christian Men, Rejoice” which was first composed in the 14th century.
Perhaps the three most popular Christmas carols in English are “Joy to the World,” “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” and “Silent Night.” The first two were sung in the American colonies even before the United States was a nation, but the third one came from Austria. More about them tomorrow…
Article copyright by Bob Rogers.
Many American children look forward to Christmas gifts from Santa Claus, but few people know the Christian roots of the legend of Santa.
Clement C. Moore’s poem
The American traditions of Santa Claus comes primarily from the poem by Clement C. Moore, a seminary professor in New York City. The poem was originally called, “A Visit from St. Nicholas,” but most of us know it by the first line, “’Twas the Night Before Christmas.” It was published in 1823 and had a great impact on the tradition of Santa Claus. It is from this poem that people get the idea of a jolly elf with a big belly coming on Christmas Eve with reindeer and bringing gifts for children. Yet even this poem never calls him Santa Claus, but instead it calls him St. Nicholas.
Nicholas was a real person who was a Christian bishop in the 4th century. He was born in A.D. 270, and died on December 6, A.D. 343. Nicholas grew up in a wealthy home in Myra, part of modern-day Turkey. He became bishop of Myra and was known as an orthodox, Bible-believing bishop, with a reputation for secret gift-giving and caring for children. One legend said that he often put coins in the shoes of people in need. The most famous legend about Nicholas was that a poor man had three daughters but could not afford a proper dowry for their wedding. This meant that they would remain unmarried and probably, in absence of any other possible employment, would have to become prostitutes. Hearing of the girls’ plight, Nicholas decided to help them, but being too modest to help the family in public (or to save them the humiliation of accepting charity), he went to the house under the cover of night and threw three purses (one for each daughter) filled with gold coins through the window opening into the house.
One version of the legend has him throwing one purse for three consecutive nights. Another has him throwing the purses over a period of three years, each time the night before one of the daughters comes of age. Invariably, the third time the father lies in wait, trying to discover the identity of their benefactor. In one version the father confronts the saint, only to have Saint Nicholas say it is not him he should thank, but God alone. In another version, Nicholas learns of the poor man’s plan and drops the third bag down the chimney instead; a variant holds that the daughter had washed her stockings that evening and hung them over the embers to dry, and that the bag of gold fell into the stocking.
The legends develop
You can quickly see how these legends developed over the centuries into the legend of a character who brings gifts in secret, sometimes in stockings or down a chimney. He is known by many names in many countries, including Father Christmas, Père Noël in French, and Sinterklaas in Dutch.
Because the real St. Nicholas died on December 6, in many nations he is remembered on that day with the giving of gifts. But during the Protestant Reformation, many Protestants changed the gift-giver to the Christ child, which is Christkindl in German, and changed the date from December 6 to Christmas Eve. The German Christkindl was corrupted to Kris Kringle in English, and in New York, the home of poet Clement C. Moore, the Dutch Sinterklaas was corrupted to Santa Claus in English.
Copyright by Bob Rogers.
Ever since the star of Bethlehem led the wise men to baby Jesus, Christmas has been associated with lights. For centuries, Christmas lights meant lighting candles.
Lights on trees
The tradition of putting up Christmas lights began with putting candles on Christmas trees. Christmas trees originated in Germany by the 16th century, from several different traditions. Some Germans actually burned an evergreen tree in the town square and danced around it. There is a popular legend that Martin Luther, the German Protestant reformer, began the tradition of putting candles on Christmas trees. The legend says that one crisp Christmas Eve, about the year 1500, he was walking through snow-covered woods and was struck by the beauty of a group of small evergreens. Their branches, dusted with snow, shimmered in the moonlight. When he got home, he set up a little fir tree indoors so he could share this story with his children. He decorated it with candles, which he lighted in honor of Christ’s birth.
Whether or not this is true, we know that the Advent wreath was invented in 1839 by Johann Henrich Wichern, a Protestant pastor who worked with the urban poor in Germany. The children would ask every day if Christmas had arrived, so Wichern built a ring with evergreen and candles to candles to light the 24 days in December before Christmas, and large candles to mark the Sundays. Later this was simplified to four candles for the four Sundays, and a Christ candle in the middle for Christmas Eve or Christmas Day. The custom of lighting an Advent candle did not spread to America until a century later, in the 1930s.
Origin of electric Christmas lights
On December 22, 1882, Edward H. Johnson, vice president of the Edison Electric Light Company, displayed his Christmas tree with 80 red, white and blue electric lights bulbs the size of walnuts, at his home on Fifth Avenue in New York City. This was the first time a Christmas tree had been illuminated with electric lights, but the idea spread quickly. Three years later, the White House Christmas tree was covered with electric lights. By the early 19th century, it became popular to put lights on buildings, not just on Christmas trees. In the 1960s, with the construction of so many subdivisions in American communities, it became the custom in American neighborhoods for many families to cover their houses with lights. This custom has spread around the world, and is particularly popular in Japan.
Today, Christmas lights cover waterfronts, caverns, skyscrapers and shopping centers. Some even use synchronized timers to have their lights flash to music. May each light remind us of a star long ago that led to Jesus, the Light of the world!
Copyright by Bob Rogers.
After the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, country singer Alan Jackson wrote a hit song, asking, “Where were you when the world stopped turnin’ that September day?” One line in that song expressed how little most Americans understand the Middle East:
“I’m just a singer of simple songs
I’m not a real political man
I watch CNN, but I’m not sure I can tell you
The diff’rence in Iraq and Iran.”
So how does one piece together the puzzle of the Middle East? There are four important pieces to the puzzle that are key. Fit these four pieces in place, and you will get a good picture of why there is conflict in the Middle East:
1. Muslims are not all alike. Most Americans assume that all Muslims are the same. In fact, there are two major branches of Islam: Sunni and Shiite. They have different doctrines, and a long history of bitter conflict. On the Shiite side is Iran, southern Iraq, rebels in Yemen, Hezbollah in Lebanon, and Bashar al-Assad, dictator of Syria. On the Sunni side is most of the rest of the Muslim world, including northern and western Iraq, the government in Yemen, the Islamic State (ISIS), the majority of Syria, and such large nations as Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Turkey. You do the math.
2. Middle Easterners are not all Arabs. Most Americans assume all Middle Easterners are either Arabs or Jews. In fact, there are three other major ethnic groups in the Middle East that speak different languages and have different cultures: Turks, Kurds and Persians. Jews dominate Israel, and most of the southern part of the Middle East is Arab, including Egypt and Saudi Arabia, but as one goes north, there are other ethnicities. Turks are the majority in Turkey, but some 20% of Turkey are Kurds. Iran is primarily Persian. There are also ethnic groups like the Coptic Christians of Egypt, Druze in Lebanon, Assyrian Christians in Iraq, and Yazidis in Iraq (who are Kurds but not Muslim).
3. Many of their national boundaries were forced on the Middle East. Before World War I, the Ottoman Empire ruled a vast area that included what is now Turkey, Iraq, Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, Israel, and Saudi Arabia (even Egypt was subject to the Ottoman Empire). The Ottomans sided with Germany in WWI, and lost everything but Turkey after the war. Europeans, who didn’t understand the region, drew new national boundaries to create many of the nations we now have in that region, most notably splitting up the region inhabited by 25 million Kurds into parts of Iran, Turkey, Iraq and Syria. Thus the Kurds have been a mistreated minority in their own homeland. Kurds who fight for independence are considered freedom fighters by Kurds but considered terrorists by surrounding nations, especially Turkey. The Kurds in northern Iraq overwhelmingly approved a non-binding referendum for national independence in 2017, and their neighbors immediately reacted against them. In early 2018, Turkey invaded northern Syria on the pretense that the Kurds were terrorists, and seized a large territory of northern Syria ruled by the Kurds. This had the affect of giving ISIS breathing room to regroup, as they are no longer under attack by the Kurds.
4. There are two sides to the story in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Before World War I, the population of Palestine was about 90% Arab. The Ottoman Empire turned over Palestine to British rule after WWI, and the British encouraged Jews, who had no homeland, to move to Palestine. Jews immigrated there in such massive numbers, buying up the best land, that by World War II, the Jews were nearly equal in number to Arabs. Palestinians deeply resented this, which they saw as an invasion of their homeland. After the Nazi holocaust of World War II, many more Jews fled to Palestine. Britain tried to divide the nation between the Palestinian Arabs and the Jews, but this just led to war, which the Jews won, establishing the state of Israel in 1948. Feeling disenfranchised, Palestinians have resorted to riots and terrorism ever since then.
This is only a simplified summary of the Middle East. There are many other pieces to the puzzle, and other complicating factors. But if you understand these four key pieces above, you will have a much clearer picture of the Middle East puzzle.
(Dr. Bob Rogers has a Th.D. in Church History, and has taught History of the Middle East at The Baptist College of Florida.)