Christmas is both a sacred religious holiday and a worldwide cultural and commercial phenomenon. For two millennia, people around the world have been observing it with traditions and practices that are both religious and secular in nature. Christians celebrate Christmas Day as the anniversary of the birth of Jesus of Nazareth, a spiritual leader whose teachings form the basis of their religion. Popular customs include exchanging gifts, decorating Christmas trees, attending church, sharing meals with family and friends and, of course, waiting for Santa Claus to arrive. December 25–Christmas Day–has been a federal holiday in the United States since 1870.
An Ancient Holiday
The middle of winter has long been a time of celebration around the world. Centuries before the arrival of the man called Jesus, early Europeans celebrated light and birth in the darkest days of winter. Many peoples rejoiced during the winter solstice, when the worst of the winter was behind them and they could look forward to longer days and extended hours of sunlight.
In Scandinavia, the Norse celebrated Yule from December 21, the winter solstice, through January. In recognition of the return of the sun, fathers and sons would bring home large logs, which they would set on fire. The people would feast until the log burned out, which could take as many as 12 days. The Norse believed that each spark from the fire represented a new pig or calf that would be born during the coming year.
The end of December was a perfect time for celebration in most areas of Europe. At that time of year, most cattle were slaughtered so they would not have to be fed during the winter. For many, it was the only time of year when they had a supply of fresh meat. In addition, most wine and beer made during the year was finally fermented and ready for drinking.
In Germany, people honored the pagan god Oden during the mid-winter holiday. Germans were terrified of Oden, as they believed he made nocturnal flights through the sky to observe his people, and then decide who would prosper or perish. Because of his presence, many people chose to stay inside.
In Rome, where winters were not as harsh as those in the far north, Saturnalia—a holiday in honor of Saturn, the god of agriculture—was celebrated. Beginning in the week leading up to the winter solstice and continuing for a full month, Saturnalia was a hedonistic time, when food and drink were plentiful and the normal Roman social order was turned upside down. For a month, slaves would become masters. Peasants were in command of the city. Business and schools were closed so that everyone could join in the fun.
Also around the time of the winter solstice, Romans observed Juvenalia, a feast honoring the children of Rome. In addition, members of the upper classes often celebrated the birthday of Mithra, the god of the unconquerable sun, on December 25. It was believed that Mithra, an infant god, was born of a rock. For some Romans, Mithra’s birthday was the most sacred day of the year.
In the early years of Christianity, Easter was the main holiday; the birth of Jesus was not celebrated. In the fourth century, church officials decided to institute the birth of Jesus as a holiday. Unfortunately, the Bible does not mention date for his birth (a fact Puritans later pointed out in order to deny the legitimacy of the celebration). Although some evidence suggests that his birth may have occurred in the spring (why would shepherds be herding in the middle of winter?), Pope Julius I chose December 25. It is commonly believed that the church chose this date in an effort to adopt and absorb the traditions of the pagan Saturnalia festival. First called the Feast of the Nativity, the custom spread to Egypt by 432 and to England by the end of the sixth century. By the end of the eighth century, the celebration of Christmas had spread all the way to Scandinavia. Today, in the Greek and Russian orthodox churches, Christmas is celebrated 13 days after the 25th, which is also referred to as the Epiphany or Three Kings Day. This is the day it is believed that the three wise men finally found Jesus in the manger.
By holding Christmas at the same time as traditional winter solstice festivals, church leaders increased the chances that Christmas would be popularly embraced, but gave up the ability to dictate how it was celebrated. By the Middle Ages, Christianity had, for the most part, replaced pagan religion. On Christmas, believers attended church, then celebrated raucously in a drunken, carnival-like atmosphere similar to today’s Mardi Gras. Each year, a beggar or student would be crowned the “lord of misrule” and eager celebrants played the part of his subjects. The poor would go to the houses of the rich and demand their best food and drink. If owners failed to comply, their visitors would most likely terrorize them with mischief. Christmas became the time of year when the upper classes could repay their real or imagined “debt” to society by entertaining less fortunate citizens.
An Outlaw Christmas
In the early 17th century, a wave of religious reform changed the way Christmas was celebrated in Europe. When Oliver Cromwell and his Puritan forces took over England in 1645, they vowed to rid England of decadence and, as part of their effort, cancelled Christmas. By popular demand, Charles II was restored to the throne and, with him, came the return of the popular holiday.
The pilgrims, English separatists that came to America in 1620, were even more orthodox in their Puritan beliefs than Cromwell. As a result, Christmas was not a holiday in early America. From 1659 to 1681, the celebration of Christmas was actually outlawed in Boston. Anyone exhibiting the Christmas spirit was fined five shillings. By contrast, in the Jamestown settlement, Captain John Smith reported that Christmas was enjoyed by all and passed without incident.
After the American Revolution, English customs fell out of favor, including Christmas. In fact, Christmas wasn’t declared a federal holiday until June 26, 1870.
Irving Reinvents Christmas
It wasn’t until the 19th century that Americans began to embrace Christmas. Americans re-invented Christmas, and changed it from a raucous carnival holiday into a family-centered day of peace and nostalgia. But what about the 1800s peaked American interest in the holiday?
The early 19th century was a period of class conflict and turmoil. During this time, unemployment was high and gang rioting by the disenchanted classes often occurred during the Christmas season. In 1828, the New York city council instituted the city’s first police force in response to a Christmas riot. This catalyzed certain members of the upper classes to begin to change the way Christmas was celebrated in America.
In 1819, best-selling author Washington Irving wrote The Sketchbook of Geoffrey Crayon, gent., a series of stories about the celebration of Christmas in an English manor house. The sketches feature a squire who invited the peasants into his home for the holiday. In contrast to the problems faced in American society, the two groups mingled effortlessly. In Irving’s mind, Christmas should be a peaceful, warm-hearted holiday bringing groups together across lines of wealth or social status. Irving’s fictitious celebrants enjoyed “ancient customs,” including the crowning of a Lord of Misrule. Irving’s book, however, was not based on any holiday celebration he had attended – in fact, many historians say that Irving’s account actually “invented” tradition by implying that it described the true customs of the season.
A Christmas Carol
Also around this time, English author Charles Dickens created the classic holiday tale, A Christmas Carol. The story’s message-the importance of charity and good will towards all humankind-struck a powerful chord in the United States and England and showed members of Victorian society the benefits of celebrating the holiday.
The family was also becoming less disciplined and more sensitive to the emotional needs of children during the early 1800s. Christmas provided families with a day when they could lavish attention-and gifts-on their children without appearing to “spoil” them.
As Americans began to embrace Christmas as a perfect family holiday, old customs were unearthed. People looked toward recent immigrants and Catholic and Episcopalian churches to see how the day should be celebrated. In the next 100 years, Americans built a Christmas tradition all their own that included pieces of many other customs, including decorating trees, sending holiday cards, and gift-giving.
Although most families quickly bought into the idea that they were celebrating Christmas how it had been done for centuries, Americans had really re-invented a holiday to fill the cultural needs of a growing nation.
Each year, 30-35 million real Christmas trees are sold in the United States alone. There are 21,000 Christmas tree growers in the United States, and trees usually grow for about 15 years before they are sold.
Today, in the Greek and Russian orthodox churches, Christmas is celebrated 13 days after the 25th, which is also referred to as the Epiphany or Three Kings Day. This is the day it is believed that the three wise men finally found Jesus in the manger.
In the Middle Ages, Christmas celebrations were rowdy and raucous—a lot like today’s Mardi Gras parties.
From 1659 to 1681, the celebration of Christmas was outlawed in Boston, and law-breakers were fined five shillings.
Christmas was declared a federal holiday in the United States on June 26, 1870.
The first eggnog made in the United States was consumed in Captain John Smith’s 1607 Jamestown settlement.
Poinsettia plants are named after Joel R. Poinsett, an American minister to Mexico, who brought the red-and-green plant from Mexico to America in 1828.
The Salvation Army has been sending Santa Claus-clad donation collectors into the streets since the 1890s.
Rudolph, “the most famous reindeer of all,” was the product of Robert L. May’s imagination in 1939. The copywriter wrote a poem about the reindeer to help lure customers into the Montgomery Ward department store.
Construction workers started the Rockefeller Center Christmas tree tradition in 1931.
Stuttgart: A rather quaint two – wheeler awkwardly stands out among a long line of imposing Mercs parked at one of world’s biggest automotive museums in Stuttgart, Germany — a light beige Bajaj Chetak scooter,
Most Indian may have discarded their Chetaks for scrap many year ago, but not Armin G Groeger, who recently brought the iconic Indian scooter named after legendary Rajput Warrior Rana Pratap’s horse. The man who explains the magic of Mercedes to thousands as the head of Mercedes Benz museum’s visitor services rides a Chetak to work.
When Groeger spotted an online ad in 2010 for sale of a 1998 model of the iconic Indian scooter, which has gone off the factory floor now, he couldn’t resist the temptation of buying it.
The model, which once used to command a premium in India if one had to beat years of waiting period to buy it, lost ground in the face of growing competition from trendy motorbikes post liberalization. Finally its production was discontinued in 2009,”Best of all it already has had a German licensing as it has been imported via Italy and registered in Germany. But it never malfunctioned after the wheels had clocked only 5 km. I got it for 500 euros — invested another 500 — and am now a proud owner of an original Indian Bajaj,” says Groeger, who first drove the Indian scooter in New Delhi, where his friend runs an NGO. “With no limits on the German Autobahn, my personal record has been 285 km/h on a motorbike.
I was in the German parachute troops but the ultimate ‘kick’ for me as a westerner was in 1996 driving in the Delhi business traffic, on the ‘wrong’ left side, on a main road with six lanes but 12 parallel driving vehicles, with no front brake steering a Bajaj scooter myself. Wow what a ride!” says Groeger, whose father was a skilled German horse – saddler from East Prussia.
(Contributed by: Harit Mehta, The Times of India, New Delhi, on 17 February 2012)
If you can read the following paragraph, forward it on to your friends and the person that sent it to you with ‘yes’ in the subject line.
Only great minds can read this This is weird, but interesting!
If you can raed this, you have a sgtrane mnid too
Can you raed this? Olny 55 plepoe out of 100 can.
I cdnuolt blveiee that I cluod aulaclty uesdnatnrd what I was rdanieg. The phaonmneal pweor of the hmuan mnid, aoccdrnig to a rscheearch at Cmabrigde Uinervtisy, it dseno’t mtaetr in what oerdr the ltteres in a word are, the olny iproamtnt tihng is that the frsit and last ltteer be in the rghit pclae. The rset can be a taotl mses and you can still raed it whotuit a pboerlm. This is bcuseae the huamn mnid deos
The riches belong to nobody, certainly not to our family
The head of a former royal family renounced any personal claim to billions of dollars’ worth of ancient treasure discovered in a temple in Thiruvanantharam, the kingdom his ancestors once ruled. Padma Rao Sundarji speaks to Uthradam Thirunal Marthanda Varma, the former King of Tranvancore.
PRS: What is your family’s connection with the Padmanabhaswamy temple? Varma: We are the Cheras, one of the four erstwhile royal families of South India and have a long and dynastic family tree. By 1750 Travancore had become rich and big. So my ancestor, the then king, made a unique spiritual and historical contribution. He decided to surrender all his riches to the temple – Padmanabhaswamy is also our family deity. He said our family would look after that wealth, the temple and the kingdom forever. But he did want the ego that comes with possessing it. He was influenced by Emperor Ashoka’s catharsis in the killing fields of Kalinga. So he declared our family to be Padmanabha’s ‘dasas’, devotees. A servant can resign his job, but a dasa can do so only when he dies.
PRS: You are one of the wealthiest families in India and yet, you live in a spartan way, unlike many other ex-royals. Why? Varma: I have to go back a bit in time, to explain why. Everybody thinks that we Indians first rose against British colonial rule in 1857. Wrong. In 1741, Travancore was the only Asian power to defeat the Dutch when they arrived here. After the battle, all the Dutch soldiers kneeled before my ancestors. One Dutchman, Benedictus Eustachius, even joined our army. We called him the Great Kapitan. Later, I learned that he was [US president] Franklin Roosevelt’s ancestor when the latter’s grandson came to look at our historical records.
Then in 1839, almost two decades before the mutiny, we rose against the British. Our punishment was severe. They disbanded our police and army of 50,000, transferred our capital to Kollam, dumped two British regiments on us, and ordered us to pay for their upkeep. Thomas Munroe named himself Diwan of Travancore. When our spirit still did not flag, they brought in missionaries. But we did not get gobbled up by Western thought. We travel abroad occasionally, but it has not affected or changed our simple way of life. Why am I telling you this? So that you get an idea of how much our life has revolved around our faith, despite so many outside influences and kept us going.
PRS: How do you feel about what is happening around the temple right now – its cellars being opened up, your donations being discussed around the world, the criticism, the furore? Varma: Sorry, I cannot comment on what is happening there – the matter is subjudice. But this much I will say. I have no problem with the inventory and additional security being provided by the state to the temple. But please don’t remove those objects from the temple. They belong to nobody, certainly not to our family. They belong to god and our law permits that. All these debates swirling around the riches is unfortunate. That’s all I can say – I have to listen to my doctor, lawyer and auditor. Our family has been donating objects to the temple for centuries. As chief patron of the temple, I go there every day. If I miss a day, I am fined Rs 166.35 – an old Travancore tradition.
PRS: But you cannot deny that such wealth could be put to better use for the poor.
Varma: We Indians are more educated now. But this reaction to donations inside a temple is anything but progressive. We are slowly losing our Indian identity. Money has become everything. But I am not surprised. I would rather be philosophical than disillusioned because I can’t change the world.
PRS: Then there is the rationalist argument that this is blind faith. Varma: Please think of England’s Henry VIII in the late 1500s. He had two passions. Wives and money. So he pillaged churches. Finally, he ran into a problem because he wanted a divorce from Catherine of Aragon. The church refused, because she was a zealous Spanish Catholic. His cardinal advised him to invent his own church. So he did that – just to get a divorce. Is that rational?
It is rather difficult to explain our faith to the new world where people have none anymore. When selfishness grows, everything you do seems right, and everything others do seems wrong. It’s all about what do I get, not about what do I do. I like the memory of my trip to a game reserve South Africa. After seeing many wild animals, I asked the guide which was the most rapacious and fearsome. He showed me a mirror.
PRS: What is your source of income? What does your family live off ?
Varma: We have travel and hotel businesses. I am chairman of a former British company that exports various items from Kerala – but no, not pepper to Buckingham Palace, as reported. We also run seven trusts. We spend R5-8 lakh a year on education, health and housing for the poor. We pay good salaries. And the family itself contributes money every month. No government has acknowledged our work but that is all right. We do it because we want to do it.
PRS: Gold statues studded with rubies and diamonds, saphhires, gold coins of the Napoleonic era and the East India Company. Is all that true?
Varma: I have never been inside those cellars. Our philosophy has always been not to look at such objects and get tempted. But of course I know what is inside them.
PRS: Are the younger members of your family angrier than you about the heated public debate? Varma: I am the most hot-blooded in this family but on this matter, we all feel the same. I was a soldier – a colonel for 15 years in the Madras Regiment. I would like to ask those criticizing us for donating these objects: why are they bothered about what someone else has done? What are they doing in the name of faith themselves ? Why the hot gossip over a donation to God?
PRS: At 90, you don’t even use a walking stick. What is your daily routine ? Varma: We have all been brought up very strictly and frugally. My day starts at 4 am with yoga. I only drink milk, I am a vegetarian and a tee totaler. I read the Vedas everyday. I go the temple for a ten-minute private audience with the deity every morning. After that, I indulge in one of my hobbies – “media surgery.” I read the newspapers and clip articles over breakfast. I have a collection of the past 30 years. I will give those to the Trust because my children may not be interested. People come to meet me, they invite me to inaugurate functions. I speak extempore. I go from vertical to horizontal for about 20 minutes in the afternoon. I am in bed by 9.45 PM. I have always slept well. Since there is nothing on my conscience, sleep comes swiftly.
PRS: Are you now thinking of insuring those treasures, now that the whole world is talking about them, or are they already insured ? Varma: (laughs) I am least worried that they will be stolen. If that happens, then it was the Lord’s will.
PRS: Among your ancestors were famous Carnatic musician Swati Thirunal and painter Raja Ravi Varma. What are your passions? Varma: Those two ancestors gave music and art divinity and humanity respectively. That continues. I love art. I once saw a piece of exquisite china in Venice. It was a girl on a swing with the sand looking worn just where her feet touched the ground each time. It cost 100 pounds, I could only afford 40, as foreign exchange was limited those days. So I went away. The dealer called me back and gave it to me. He said he could tell that I was not one of those who ordered 200 pieces of one kind, that I valued minute details.
PRS: Kerala has been a Communist bastion for more than 50 years. Don’t you find it peculiar that people here still flurry around you, they respect you, they still call you Your Highness. Varma: Yes, that is quite amazing because I am a simple man, I don’t expect it at all. At religious gatherings in Haridwar where one of my two gurus lives, I always sit in the last row and am always dressed like this – mundu and bush-shirt. People who don’t know me come looking for the Raja of the South. When I raise my hand, they don’t believe me.
PRS: How wealthy is your family, compared to the other – and internationally more famous – royals of Rajasthan and elsewhere?
Varma: That is a mere technicality and has never been relevant to me. But I’ll tell you a story which will give you an idea. There used to be a British gun salute for the princely states of India: 21, the highest for the richest ruler, 11 for the poorest. When Tranvancore refused to contribute soldiers to the British Army in World War I, our slipped from 21 to 19.
PRS: Who is your heir?
Varma: We have a matriarchal system of inheritance. I have a daughter and a son but it is my sister’s son who will be king after me. I remember a European lady visiting us. I explained this complicated law of succession to her. When she went back, she told her friends that she had not understood a word, but only knew that whatever it was, it was good for women. Kerala is slowly turning patriarchal again. That is not good. Overall in our country, we treat women as second-class citizens. When you look at a man, you are looking at a human being, when you look at a woman, you are looking at a family.
PRS: What is the feeling you get, when you spend those ten minutes at the Padmanabha shrine ? The daily communion between ruler and master, as you put it ?
Varma: Gooseflesh. Everything is surrendered. It is a great, elating feeling. My hair stands on end with joy. Each and every time.
(Padma Rao Sundarji is South Asia bureau chief of Der Spiegel)
BY JASON SAMENOW December 5, 2013 at 4:19 pm A potent blast of cold air, like a knife, is cutting through the central U.S. Bitter, record-setting arctic air now grips the Rockies and northern Plains in its wake. And as this razor sharp cold boundary collides with warm, moist air at its southern reaches, a serious […]