Monthly Archives: December 2016
By Lance Hickerson, Reference Department
This poem is also a candidate for the most printed, quoted, illustrated, and parodied poem in America. Most people, age six and above, are so familiar with the poem they can easily supply the words to the first lines:
Twas the night before Christmas, when all through the_____________;
Not a creature was stirring, not even a _______________.
If you identified the rhyming words “house,” and “mouse,” you are in a vast majority. The poem is best known as “The Night before Christmas.” It first appeared on the second page of the Sentinel newspaper in Troy (New York) on December 23, 1823. The fifty-six line poem was published anonymously with the title, “Account of a Visit from St. Nicholas.” It became an instant success as it spread in papers throughout the region.
Problems of Christmas Past
While “The Night before Christmas” continues to play an active role in shaping our Christmas imagination, this was not always the case. Christmas in early America was not always welcome, for its common celebration was very different from our current practices. In New England, for instance, Christmas was seldom celebrated for the first 200 years of settlement. There was instead a strong social hostility that suppressed, and sometimes outlawed, its observance. Historian Stephen Nissenbaum (University of Massachusetts) explains:
The holiday they suppressed was not what we probably mean when we think of ‘traditional’ Christmas. As we shall see, it involved behavior that most of us would find offensive and even shocking today – rowdy public displays of excessive eating and drinking, the mockery of established authority, aggressive begging (often with the threat of doing harm), even the boisterous invasion of wealthy homes.
It may seem odd that Christmas was ever celebrated in such a fashion. But there was good reason. December was the major ‘punctuation mark’ in the rhythmic cycle of work in northern agricultural societies, a time when there was a minimum of work to be performed. The deep freeze of midwinter had not yet set in; the work of gathering the harvest and preparing for winter was done; and there was plenty of newly-fermented beer or wine as well as meat from freshly slaughtered animals – meat that had to be consumed before it spoiled. St. Nicholas, for example, is associated with the Christmas season chiefly because his ‘name-day,’ December 6, coincided in many European countries with the end of the harvest and slaughter season.
Christmas was a social challenge in early American life. To be sure, there were churches and Christians in America who celebrated December 25th for religious reasons as they commemorated the birth of Christ The very name of the holiday (holy day) recalls Christ’s Mass for a reason. The basis for the practice goes far back to the early church fathers, beginning 200 A.D. and later, meaning that the date for Christmas as being December 25th was not likely the church simply displacing the pagan celebration of Sol Invictus, as is commonly claimed. The early church rationale is clearly otherwise, for their concern was to avoid pagan ways and persecution while reasoning to a common date for Christ’s conception and death. The early church thought Jesus was conceived at the same time of year he died, reflecting a symmetry in the redemption of the world. Since Jesus died during Passover time on the 25 March, they reckoned that Jesus was conceived on March 25. If Jesus were conceived at that time of month, his birth nine months later would be December 25th.
Even though the Christian religious element was certainly a part of Christ-mas, it was largely discounted by the more influential Protestant churches which refused to choose a date for Christ’s birth because the Bible is silent on the issue. Instead of Christmas, many focused their post-harvest celebrations on Thanksgiving and New Year’s. America in the early 1800s was ready for a new Christmas emphasis. This came in part from the poem, “The Night Before Christmas.”
By speaking of the night before Christmas, the poem takes the focus from common concerns with Christmas day itself. Taking one step back, it introduces players on the scene with a delight that ignites the imagination of children and adults alike. The poem simultaneously picks up emerging social developments of the day while also promoting the same. It gleefully reframes Christmas at just the right time, in just the right way, so that Christmas takes an amazing turn which continues through present day.
The Dutch Influence: Enter the Good Cheer of St. Nicholas
“The Night Before Christmas” centers on the activities of a pipe smoking “jolly old elf” identified throughout as St. Nicholas, or St. Nick. “The stockings were hung by the chimney with care / in hopes that St. Nicholas soon would be there.” When St. Nick arrives with a miniature sleigh and eight tiny reindeer, the poet remarks, “With a little old driver, so lively and quick / I knew in a moment it must be St. Nick.” After the toy laden sleigh is flown atop the roof, to the poet’s surprise, “Down the chimney St. Nicholas came with a bound.”
The poet then spends a full thirteen lines describing the appearance and mannerisms of St. Nick, concluding significantly: “He was chubby and plump, a right jolly elf / And I laughed when I saw him, in spite of myself / A wink of his eye and a twist of his head / soon gave me to know I had nothing to dread;” The remark about “nothing to dread” is especially appropriate. What a different feeling from Christmas past when reveling home invaders made for tense and cheerless times. In contrast, St. Nicholas leaves gifts in all the stockings, and a parting word affirming the new Christmas tone: “Happy Christmas to all, and to all a good night.”
With all the talk about St. Nicholas, it would surprise no one that the poet had connections to Dutch Christmas traditions. In Europe of the 1500s the Protestant Reformation undermined the practice of honoring the saints. Yet Biography.com explains:
St. Nicholas, however, remained an important figure in Holland.
The Dutch continued to celebrate the feast day of St. Nicholas, December 6. It was a common practice for children to put out their shoes the night before. In the morning, they would discover the gifts that St. Nicholas had left there for them. Dutch immigrants brought St. Nicholas, known to them as Sint Nikolaas or by his nickname Sinterklaas, and his gift-giving ways to America in the 1700s.
In America, St. Nicholas went through many transformations and eventually Sinterklaas became Santa Claus. Instead of giving gifts on December 6, he became a part of the Christmas holiday. . . . The cartoonist Thomas Nast added to the St. Nicholas legend with an 1881 drawing of Santa as wearing a red suit with white fur trim. Once a kind, charitable bishop, St. Nicholas had become the Santa Claus we know today.
So the “Night Before Christmas,” focused especially on “A Visit from St. Nicholas.” The real Saint Nicholas was born around 280 A.D. in a Greek speaking area of what is now southern Turkey. He lost his parents early on in an epidemic, but inherited their wealth. As a devout Christian, he took seriously Jesus’ words to “sell what you have and give to the poor.” Even though exiled and imprisoned for his faith during Roman Imperial persecution by Diocletian, Nicholas maintained an amazing generosity to those in need, especially extending concern and protection to children.
One story of his humble generosity tells how he responded to a poor man who had no dowry for his three daughters. This meant the daughters might be sold into slavery. Under the cover of darkness, so as not to broadcast his good deed, Nicholas threw three bags of gold through the poor man’s window, and they landed in and about stockings the three girls left by the fire to dry. This eventually led to hanging stockings “in hopes that St. Nicholas would soon be there.”
In summation, turning again to the Christmas scholar Nissenbaum:
… The next incarnation of Christmas was taking shape. That incarnation engaged powerful new forces that were coming to dominate much of American society in the years after 1820—a heady brew that mixed a rapidly commercializing economy with a culture of domesticity centered on the well-being of children. Both elements were present in a new Christmas poem that soon came to define the rituals of the season in middle-class households throughout the United States. . . . . Although it was set on the night before Christmas, its subject was not the nativity but ‘A Visit from St. Nicholas.’ So it would be Santa Claus, not Jesus of Nazareth, whose influence finally succeeded in transforming Christmas from a season of misrule into a day of quieter family pleasures.
Ironic indeed. Yet there remains a subtle historical perspective unspoken by Nissenbaum. Not to be missed is the further irony of the subtle yet stupendous influence of the little Christ child lying in a manger on the youth from Turkey who became St. Nicholas. The saint who transformed Christmas would honestly say, he himself is a transformer only because of the impression on his heart by the Christ of Christmas Day. And St. Nicholas, both the historical and symbolic, would no doubt continue this hearty good will in wishing,
“Merry Christmas to all, and to all a good night.”
Note: “The Night Before Christmas” did not remain anonymous for long. It was later attributed to and claimed by Clement Clarke Moore, a scholar in New York City. However, the family of Henry Livingston eventually contested Moore’s claim, saying their father had written the poem, which they and a housekeeper heard at home as early as 1807. There have been detailed studies of word usage and phraseology by two scholars who separately conclude the internal evidence points best to Livingston as the author. But the external evidence has in the past led most to attribute the poem to Moore.
During the month of November, we asked our patrons to share what they were thankful for. The entire month our interactive display just kept growing and growing until we had to attach the responses to the furniture beneath the display. We had responses ranging everywhere from coffee, to politics, to sobriety, but by far what our patrons are most thankful for were their family and friends. It’s a good community we’re working with here.
Here’s the unedited list of all of the responses we received. Thank you for sharing with us.
- My family and friends
- My therapist
- God and Jesus
- Friends and family
- Post-it notes
- Books and libraries
- My family
- Friends and family
- That I have a family
- Family and friends
- For God and my family
- Cute boys
- Fuzzy friends (my pets)
- The hope that is found in Christ
- Food, God, hope and the Bible
- Quadruple shot espressos
- For god, family and my community
- That I don’t personally know any Trump supporters
- That God considers me
- Food, friends and family
- Doing great in class because of my teacher
- The gift of family and a fresh new year to live to the fullest
- For God and Jesus
- This library and electronics
- Friend of the Williamson County Public Library
- My health, my family, my friends and all of God’s blessings
- A loving mother and father
- Family (and my brother)
- My family and my life
- My beautiful friends, even though we are separate
- Friends and family
- Elie, Aiden, Asa and Ethan, rain and coffee
- My family and dog
- What I have and all my friends and family
- Harambe (the gorilla)
- For God and God alone
- This library
- For my wife and kids
- Jesus, love
- Pokemon Go
- A great book
- Small acts of kindness
- Good health, family and beautiful earth
- For food on my table, a bed to sleep in and a roof over my head; also that my Momma and Daddy love each other and we’re all healthy; I’m thankful that the sun came up this morning and that we live in a country with freedom for all, and definitely the pursuit of happiness
- My family, my jog, my boyfriend and Twenty-One Pilots
- Thankful god has blessed me to live 43 years. If he does nothing else for me, he has already done enough
- The library
- The amazing school I go to
- Books and the library
- For my family and friends, for God and Mary and Jesus
- For kindness in all its forms
- For my kids, family and the path Goad has for me and my dearest friend
- For wonderful parents and late husband
- For the right to be heard
- My cat, my jobs, my friends, my boyfriend, Dr. Brunner, the refugee center, Happy Thanksgiving!
- Very thankful for my mom
- My sobriety – one day at a time
- For my best friend
- For NPR, national public radio, its great broadcasts and programs and for the kind people and wonderful atmosphere of the Franklin (WC) public libraries
- Dolores and her wonderful staff and this beautiful library
- For good health and lots of love from my family and friends
- For my son! Family!
- For my family and other stuff
- For the ocean
- Our republic and the 2nd amendment and furry cats
- My diagnosis
- My awesome husband and kids
- God and everything he’s given me and my family and friends
- For god making us!
- My mother, my cat and Trader Joe’s mac n cheese
- New friends, music, beauty
- My family, a God who loves me, a great job, my cat (most of the time) and living in a democracy
- My mother and the love she has for her kids
- New friends and family in Franklin, TN
- Thanks to God for giving such a beautiful life
- For easy ways to cheer someone on a gloomy day
- For libraries!
- The power of prayer and my new job and friends, and dressing
- My family and friends
- Thankful that Christmas is coming soon
- For my mom and grandma and dad; I have three wonderful kids and their dad is OK, and to be alive and healthy and I love the Lord
- Our President and first lady Barack and Michelle Obama
- Random acts of kindness
- A good job and friends who I like to work with
- For education, parents and kids; for my life and such a loving family and friends, for everything and mom and dad; for all good things in this world and things that give hope that is light at the end of the tunnel
- My life and everything else
- For each new sunrise—each day is a new beginning
- For my friends and family, especially my son
- For my cat, Stevie, and Nintendo Funk
- For the opportunity to start over in some situations, righting your wrongs
- My friends, family and home/belongings
- My best friend, my family and boyfriend, music and marching band, my other close friends, reading and the library, God and how he saved me and how he still loves me unconditionally, even when I mess up, Camp Crestridge
- For my family and friends, for food and my safe home, for my city and each day of my life
- Being able to learn and grow. To do the best I can
- For my mother
- My family: mom, dad, brother, cousins, uncles, etc.
- For everything…family friends, scouts, God
- For gymnastics and family
- That I’m getting my gender reassignment surgery and moving to Canada
- That Trump is now our president
- For crunching leaves, laughter and the anticipation that Christmas is coming, and coffee
- Family and friends, and books
By Lindsay Roseberry, Reference Department
We all know about Christmas when we talk about December holidays. But there are other holidays around the world (and often celebrated in the United States) that you may not know about. You never know, you may want more days off to celebrate these holidays. Or a reason to celebrate in the first place!
Dec. 5 – The Day of the Ninja
This day was either created to commemorate Tom Cruise’s movie the Last Samurai (which had a ninja bit in it) or it was created by the Ninja Burger. Either way it really caught on, showing up in the nation’s consciousness by 2007. Now it has evolved to something similar to Talk Like a Pirate Day. So dress like a ninja on December 5 or watch your favorite ninja movie(s).
Dec. 6 – St. Nicholas’ Day
Yes, this is the same Nicholas that our Santa Claus comes from. Nicholas of Myra was a Christian bishop who legends say was a gift-giver, often putting coins in people’s shoes. Many people often left their shoes outside, so as not to track in outside dirt and keep the floors clean. It would have been easy to drop coins in shoes with no one watching. This day is most observed in the European countries (or families with European backgrounds here in the U.S.). Children often receive treats – including candy, cookies, small toys, or fruit – in stockings, socks, shoes or bags on December 6. Some churches have special services dedicated to the feast of St Nicholas on this day.
Dec. 10 – Dewey Decimal System Day
For library lovers everywhere, surprise! This day commemorates the birth of Melville Dewey (born Dec. 10), the inventor of the Dewey Decimal System of library classification, and if you’ve ever looked up books with a three digit number in a library, you were using the Dewey Decimal System. Maybe you’ve never thought about how you find a book in the library?? Dewey divided all of the world’s knowledge into ten sections, starting with 000 and ending with 900, using decimals to continue to group books into smaller and smaller subject categories, which would make longer and longer numbers (the longest so far being 331.892829225209712743090511). Anything that didn’t fit in any category was put in the 000s, which explains why computer books are there. They weren’t invented until many years after his death!
Dec. 13 – Saint Lucia’s Day
Saint Lucia (or Lucy) was a Christian martyr who according to legend brought food to Christians hiding in the caves and catacombs. She lit her way with a candle wreath, leaving her hands free to hold as much food as possible. This day is celebrated (or commemorated) mostly in the Scandinavian countries, where winter lasts longer; since she brought light, which is most appreciated on dark days. These days, girls are in white dresses with candle wreaths, and they bring cookies and pastries to everyone in the household.
Dec. 16-24 – Los Posadas
Los Posadas are held across Mexico and are becoming more and more popular in the United States. The word posada means inn or shelter, and these nine days commemorate and re-enact the arduous trip that Mary and Joseph took to get to Bethlehem. The celebration begins with a procession through the neighborhood where the participants hold candles and sing Christmas carols. Sometimes there will be individuals who play the parts of Mary and Joseph who lead the procession. Each night they go to one designated home in the neighborhood. There is even a special song for this event—it is “La Cancion Para Pedir Posada”. When they are finally let in to the house, the celebration starts. It can be either a big party or a small gathering. Often children get to break piñatas to get candy. I’m sure they like this part!
Switching gears completely, and also on December 16 (this year, it always falls on the third Friday of December) is Ugly Christmas Sweater Day. Basically it is an excuse to have a party and wear the sweaters you are often gifted that you wouldn’t normally wear. National Ugly Christmas Sweater Day (.com) has created a way you can make your party, either at home or at the office, a fundraising event. You can have fun and do good at the same time! In many countries, the holiday is associated with fundraising events for children’s charity.
Dec. 17 – Wright Brothers Day
In 1959, Dwight D. Eisenhower proclaimed December 17 as Wright Brothers Day. This is the anniversary of the day they actually got their first plane prototype up in the air in Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. This plane, Flyer, managed to stay in the air 12 seconds and it flew close to 120 feet. It was definitely a cause for celebration.
Dec. 24-31 – Hanukkah
The most well-known holiday on this list is Hanukkah, which this year starts on December 24 and lasts eight days. Since the Jewish calendar is a lunar calendar, the date for the start of Hanukkah is different each year. This Festival of Lights commemorates a miraculous event in Jewish history. The Jews were rebelling against their overlords, the Seleucid Greeks, during the Maccabean Revolt—some of the Jews revolted because they didn’t want to worship idol gods. After the victorious Jews regained the Temple in Jerusalem, they rededicated it to God. When they checked the oil for lighting the menorah (the seven candle slotted candelabrum), they only had enough oil for one day. That oil lasted for eight days, by which time they had created a new supply of consecrated oil. The priests called this The Festival of Lights or Hanukkah (or Chanukah.) This is why menorahs have nine candles, eight for the eight day festival and the middle candle to light them with.
Dec. 26 – Boxing Day
Boxing Day is always the day after Christmas and is mainly celebrated in the countries of the United Kingdom. There are similar celebrations in Germany, though. Why Boxing Day? The day after Christmas was traditionally the day the collection boxes in the churches were opened and the money distributed to the poor. Some churches are still carrying on this tradition. In Holland, the boxes were ceramic, and called pigs—could this be where our term piggy bank comes from?? Also, servants were given the day off on this day, probably to be able to get a share of the collected coffers from the collection boxes. So many companies continued this tradition in Britain that December 26th is now an official public holiday. Boxing Day has become Britain’s Black Friday, but many people are unhappy with this.
*Boxing Day is also St. Stephen’s Day—the Christmas carol Good King Wenceslas tells the story of the king who goes out to help a poor family on the Feast of Stephen, or St. Stephen’s Day.
Kwanzaa was established in 1966 by Ron Karenga; his goal was to reconnect black Americans to their African roots and recognize their struggles as a people by building community. Derived from the Swahili term, “matunda ya kwanza,” which means “first-fruits,” Kwanzaa is based on African harvest celebrations. According to the official Kwanzaa Web site,
“Kwanzaa was created out of the philosophy of Kawaida, which is a cultural nationalist philosophy that argues that the key challenge in black people’s lives is the challenge of culture, and that what Africans must do is to discover and bring forth the best of their culture, both ancient and current, and use it as a foundation to bring into being models of human excellence and possibilities to enrich and expand our lives.”
Just as many African harvest celebrations run for seven days, Kwanzaa has seven principles known as the Nguzo Saba. They are umoja (unity); kujichagulia (self-determination); ujima (collective work and responsibility); ujamaa (cooperative economics); nia (purpose); kuumba (creativity); and imani (faith). Kwanzaa is not celebrated as much as it was in the 1960s and 70s, for several reasons. First is the overkill of Christmas celebrating, with presents and food, and the second is it’s a relatively recent creation, which means it doesn’t carry a long tradition of celebration behind it.
By Lance Hickerson, Reference Department
One story of the present holiday season tells of Magi bearing gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh for the baby Jesus. These Magi from the East were riding a wave of expectation common in the Mediterranean world and beyond. One Roman historian of the day explains:
There had spread over all the Orient an old and established belief, that it was fated at that time for men coming from Judaea to rule the world. (Suetonius, Life of Vespasian, 4.5; similarly other first century historians Tacitus, Histories 5.3 and Josephus, War of the Jews, 6.5).
Indeed, the Magi were bearing gifts fit for a king, but what gifts would properly honor one who is “to rule the world?” The Magi chose gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Of course, gold makes complete sense as a fitting gift, but why would frankincense and myrrh rate so highly?
Frankincense and myrrh are widely available today as “essential oils,” but in the first century world, they were much more essential, especially since the peoples of that time exhibit refined sensitivities in matters of smell and fragrance. One geographer from Greece who sailed around southern Arabia, named Agatharchides, recounts:
A heavenly and indescribable fragrance seems to strike and stir the senses. Even far out from land as you sail past you do not miss the fragrant odors blowing from the myrrh bushes.
The tree that captivated the explorer’s sense of smell, might not appear so impressive in full sight. Myrrh trees are small, thorny, and often just a bush. Like frankincense, myrrh trees grow in places limited to an arid climate like that of southern Arabia.
Yet what matters is the treasure the trees produce. Both frankincense and myrrh are harvested by tapping the inner sap with cuts to the tree bark. The gummy resin oozes out in the form of what some ancients called “tears.” After two weeks for drying, the resin is scraped off the tree, and sent on a long journey aboard camels and ships to crossroads and ports the world over.
What were the Uses of Frankincense and Myrrh?
Frankincense and myrrh had common uses and were even sometimes used together. But frankincense was more fragrant as incense and myrrh more helpful for perfume and skin care.
The top use for both frankincense and myrrh was for religious expression. Religion in our western world is often separated from other aspects of life, whereas religion in the first century world was part of everything and considered to be the most important aspect of all. This includes the wide ranging pagan religions as well as the Judaeo-Christian stream. Since religion was so important, religious expression was essential. And essential to religious expression was offering incense, especially frankincense.
Both frankincense and myrrh were widely used in preparing bodies for burial, which also included groups who cremated their dead. Frankincense in particular was good for masking the odor of a burning body. Emperor Nero burned an entire year of the frankincense harvest in honoring the death of one of his favorite people. That was extravagant indeed.
Each substance had a number of particular uses as well, again sometimes overlapping. The Middle East Institute remarks:
The market for frankincense was unlimited. Whereas other exotic spices and aromatics were luxury items, frankincense, though expensive was a household necessity. For many families throughout the Mediterranean and Middle East frankincense was a basic staple just as things like toothpaste and deodorant are always on the grocery list today.
Among the medical uses for frankincense were: stopping bleeding, cleansing, and functioning as an important ingredient in prescriptions used as antidotes to poisons, help for side and chest pain, and abscesses. It was used as well for a pest repellant and food flavoring.
Myrrh likewise had many functions in the first century world. In addition to the uses common with frankincense, it figured prominently in perfumes and ointments. Furthermore, its medical uses were wide ranging, for both internal and external use. It was a chief ingredient for the Egyptian army’s balm for the healing of sword cuts and wounds. Myrrh is mentioned 54 times in the Hippocratic literature helping alleviate various diseases. It helped with snakebites, coughs, stomach pains, toothaches, and ear aches. It was in demand as a pain killer and antiseptic, and also served as a mouthwash. So while in the first century world, its religious significance was primary, myrrh was helpful in many other ways.
When the parents of baby Jesus saw the Magi bearing frankincense and myrrh, along with gold, they were most certainly not disappointed. The frankincense and myrrh had many more uses than gold, and were fitting gifts of high value and honor.