Archive for Thursday, December 11, 2008

The story behind Christmas stories

December 11, 2008

One of the many reasons that I enjoy Christmas is the many and varied traditions and stories of the holiday. Recently, I began to think of some of the stories and how little I knew of the background of some of the individuals who are interwoven into our holiday tradition.

For example, I really enjoy singing about “Good King Wenceslaus” and how he helped a poor man get firewood into his home. After a bit or research, I found that there was, indeed, a Wenceslaus, who might not have been a king, but was a ruler who had great concern about the welfare of the poor. His good deed that immortalized him took place during the Feast of Stephen, which honors the first martyr of the Christian church. Depending on the calendar that was used, the observance was on Dec. 26, Dec. 27 or Jan. 9.

Wenceslaus was born in 903 during a time when Bohemia was grappling with the choice of being a Christian or pagan country. His father was a Christian and mother was pagan. Wenceslaus was soon part of a family fight as he became a Christian and his brother, Boleslaus, remained a pagan.

Wenceslaus was just 15 when his father died and his mother became the regent or ruler of the country. It didn’t take long for her to outlaw Christianity and she even murdered her mother-in-law, who was instrumental in teaching Christianity to her children. The mother’s oppression became so intense that Wenceslaus was asked to accept the throne. When he did, Christianity became the official religion of Bohemia.

He built churches and invited missionaries into the country. However, he was best known for his concern for the nation’s poor and helpless. One source said his generosity toward the poor caused concern among the nobles. Another source said after Wenceslaus married and had a child, his brother Boleslaus saw that his chance of assuming power was about gone. He, along with other nobles, agreed to meet Wenceslaus and attend church services for an unnamed saint. On the steps outside the church, Wenceslaus was murdered. His death, however, made him even more famous, and he was quickly proclaimed as a martyr and saint.

The song that has made him famous was written in 1853 by an Anglican minister, John Mason Neal, as part of a collection of songs for children. The sources I found said Neal never was in Bohemia but heard the legend from British soldiers who had served in the Crimean War. Whether Wenceslaus ever helped a poor man carry wood will never be known, however, it is a great story of service to the less fortunate.

We all know that “Jolly Old St. Nicholas” is one of several names for Santa Claus. I started wondering just who St. Nicholas was and how he became an embodiment of giving.

According to the information I found, he was the bishop of Myra during the fourth century. He was influential and attended the Council of Nicaea in 325 and was believed to have died in about 350. He was persecuted and sent to prison during the reign of Roman emperor Diocletian. He was released by Constantine the Great, who decreed that Christianity was the official religion of the Roman empire. Nicholas soon became an important part of the early church.

He was known for his dedication to the poor and children. While there are many legends about him, probably the one that may have transformed him into the mythical giver of gifts involved a nobleman who had lost all his money. Apparently the only way out for the nobleman was to sell his three daughters. Upon hearing that, St. Nicholas filled three purses with money and on three consecutive nights threw a purse into an open window at the man’s home. This, of course, saved the girls and launched a legend.

In time, he became the embodiment of giving during the Christmas holidays. Unlike Santa Claus, he was tall and slender, however, he had a long, white beard. One story points out that before children received gifts they had to prove they had studied their catechisms, which transitioned into kids having to behave before they got a gift at Christmas. The real-life bishop became intertwined with a variety of other characters who gave to children and is now synonymous with the Dutch, English, German and American character known as Santa Claus. St. Nicholas’ feast day is celebrated Dec. 6.

It is fascinating to read about how our many traditions started and grew. Our secular Christmas observance, like our nation, is a combination of many cultures that has evolved through the centuries. Hopefully, you are enjoying the holiday season, and please don’t forget the real reason for Christmas isn’t Santa Claus but the birth of Jesus in a manger in Bethlehem.

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