The 3rd annual Tuba Christmas Concert was held on Saturday afternoon at St. Anne's Church, downtown Annapolis.
Every year on the winter solstice, I’m reminded of the history of the Christmas holiday it ushers in and the roller-coaster evolution of that festive day. Today, Dec. 25th is both a holy day and a legal holiday, but it didn’t begin that way nearly 1,700 years ago.
The shortest 24-hour period of daylight occurs between the 20th and the 23rd of December each year. During that span, it is said that ancient cultures feared the sun was going to disappear forever, leaving them in permanent darkness unless they somehow intervened. The days perceptibly lengthen by the 25th, so that date was commonly chosen by pagans for lighting candles to help the sun’s struggle against darkness. That’s the genesis of the “Yule log” some people burn for 12 days.
In 1965, “A Charlie Brown Christmas,” the first animated TV special featuring characters from the “Peanuts” comic strip by Charles M. Schulz, was first
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Feasting, displays of generosity, fire festivals and prayers to the gods and goddesses became common elements of the season’s rituals for many religions and cultures through the years. Then, late in the third century B.C., Roman Emperor Aurelian combined many solstice celebrations into one called the Birthday of the Unconquered Sun and decreed that Dec. 25th be the day of observance. In the year 336, the first Christian emperor of the Roman world, Constantine the Great, set the 25th as the immovable date to celebrate Jesus’ birth. The Catholic Church reinforced that decision in 354 when Bishop Liberius of Rome also ordered Jesus’ birth commemorated on the 25th.
These actions fueled the ire of many Christians who refused to obey the decrees because of the date’s long association with the pagan festivals. Christians largely preferred to celebrate the feast of St. Nicholas on Dec. 6th and the Epiphany on Jan. 6th.
Christmas fell in and out of favor over the years, but it became wildly popular in the 19th century because of the confluence of actions by songwriters, storytellers, state lawmakers, artists and shopkeepers seeking profits.
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Queen Victoria’s lifelong love of the German Christmas tree tradition did much to popularize that facet of the holiday, particularly after publication in the United States of the image of Victoria and Albert’s Windsor Castle tree.
Clement Moore’s 1822 poem “Twas the Night Before Christmas” made gift giving integral to the holiday and triggered the oft-heard objection about excessive commercialism, with Harriet Beecher Stowe being the first luminary to complain.
Englishman Sir Henry Cole introduced Christmas cards for sale in 1843, the same year Charles Dickens’ novel “A Christmas Carol” debuted; it was an instant sensation that reinforced the notion of Christmas as less a religious ritual than a broader secular celebration encompassing family togetherness, community goodwill and generosity to the downtrodden.
Many popular Christmas carols were also written in the 19th century — the final ingredient in a recipe for uplifting the general population.
On June 28, 1870, President Ulysses S. Grant signed a federal law making Dec. 25th the official, legal Christmas holiday, as many states already had done (Alabama was the first in 1836).
If there was a victim in all of this, it was poor St. Nicholas. Not only was his feast day forsaken, but “Twas the Night Before Christmas” portrayed him as jolly — and so portly that he shook like a bowlful of jelly when he laughed. Philadelphia department stores rejoiced at the makeover of the stern-faced St. Nicholas into the roly-poly Santa Claus who was a magnet for children and therefore a boon to toy sales.
While historians agree that Jesus was not born on Dec. 25th, the tension between advocates of a more religious observance and those who favor a more secular focus persists. One should not preclude the other.
What is undeniable is that it’s a time of year when, in general, charity, goodwill, family and community cohesion are all uplifted by the pervasive ethos Christmas creates. Regardless of one’s religious preference, cultural background or social standing, this national holiday fosters outreach rather than insularity and an elevated level of goodwill that society can never get enough of regardless of the origin.