Theodore Roosevelt, 1903

"Let us speak courteously, deal fairly, and keep ourselves armed and ready." - Theodore Roosevelt, 1903

Saturday, December 24, 2016

America's Christmas Traditions Are Like A Stew

 

Dear Friends,

I get a lot of email. While some are to tell me that I'm full of it, most ask questions about this or that about something I have written, and every once in a while I'll get an email that really makes me think. That's what happened this morning when I got a nice email from some great folks in Idaho.

Their email had me thinking about my roots, my Hawaii roots and Christmas, Christmas and us. Yes, about those things that stay with us all our lives. Those things that we remember and cherish. Those things that we always look forward to at Christmas.

So about now, you're saying, "OK! Here he goes down memory lane again."

And while you may be right, this may surprise you. You see that email has me thinking about being away from family at Christmas, the closeness of family, our foods, and the traditions of which we all share. Traditions vary from place to place depending on where you live, but we all celebrate Christmas in ways that have influenced us as a nation.

And yes, that's what got me thinking about what my grandfather told me about Christmas in America being like a stew. Yes, he once said that our Christmas, the Christmas that we all celebrate as Americans is really a lot like stew.

Stew is an interesting dish. Although my grandmother made it with chicken and even cod fish at times, I loved beef stew when I was growing up in Hawaii. And while maybe beef stew is simply not on that many menus today, it was always something to look forward to when I was a kid. 

For those in the dark on this, a stew is a combination of ingredients that have been cooked in liquid and served in a gravy. Ingredients in a stew can include any combination of  carrots, potatoes, onions, string beans, and of course meat. Stew meat is tougher but more suitable for slow-cooking. While I love beef stew, as I said before, my grandma made stew with chicken. And yes, even with cod fish. Seasoning and flavorings may be added to fit the taste of one's family.

Served with bread, or in a soup bowl, or on rice which is an Island favorite, eating stew is up to how one feels. It has everything, and it's just to be enjoyed as is. Or as with your own seasoning, it can be garnished in all sorts of ways. 

What makes up your particular stew, all of the ingredients used, whether you prefer beef or lamb or chicken or fish, that all depends on your appetite and how your family likes their stew prepared.  Basically, that's Christmas in America today. 

In my life, I've known Jews, Hindus, Buddhists, and even an Agnostic or two who celebrated Christmas. I grew up with many religions and nationalities, and have had friends from many places in the world. And yes, they have their own unique and interesting traditions that they observe at Christmas. Some are based on culture, but I found most were based on family. 

Christmas in Hawaii wasn't much different than Christmas in other parts of the United States in that my siblings and I were told Santa had a sleigh and reindeer. We were told that Santa kept an eye on us and knew if we were bad or good. We had our Christmas tree, the lights, the tinsel, all sorts of decorations. Granted that some of us there were decorating coconut trees, or substitute Santa Claus’s sleigh and reindeer with an outrigger canoe and paddlers. In Hawaii, it was not unusual to see elves with aloha shirts, Santa in a aloha shirt, and Christmas dinner could be a luau with kalua pig.

Since America is truly the world's melting pot. The variations of Christmas traditions in our United States are many. As with those traditions that were brought to Hawaii, Christmas traditions are about cultures that have settled here. 

From Old English "Cristes Mæsse," which means the "Mass of Christ", we get the word "Christmas," The Holy Bible tells us in Luke 2:9 -11 that the reason for Christmas is the birth of Jesus Christ in Bethlehem. 

As for Santa Claus, he had his origin in the 4th century with Saint Nicholas. His kindness and reputation for generosity gave rise to claims he that he could perform miracles. St. Nicholas became the patron saint of Russia. He was known by his red cape, flowing white beard, and bishop’s mitre. 

In Greece, he is the patron saint of sailors, in France he was the patron of lawyers, and in Belgium the patron of children and travelers. Thousands of churches across Europe were dedicated to him and some time around the 12th century an official church holiday was created in his honor. The Feast of St. Nicholas was celebrated December 6th and the day was marked by gift-giving and charity.

After the Reformation, European followers of St. Nicholas dwindled, but the legend was kept alive in Holland where the Dutch spelling of his name was "Sint Nikolaas" was eventually transformed to "Sinterklaas." 

It is said that Dutch children would leave their wooden shoes by the fireplace, and "Sinterklaas" would reward good children by placing treats in their shoes. Dutch colonists brought brought this tradition with them to America in the 17th century. Once here, "Sinterklaas" was Anglicized into the name of Santa Claus. 

Other countries feature different gift-bearers for the Christmas or Advent season. For example, there is La Befana in Italy, The Three Kings in Spain, Puerto Rico, and Mexico, Christkindl or the Christ Child in Switzerland and Austria, Father Christmas in England, and Pere Noël, Father Christmas or the Christ Child in France. 

But the figure of Santa Claus as a jolly, benevolent, plump man in a red suit that we all know and love came about in 1822. That was when American writer Clement C. Moore composed the poem A Visit From Saint Nicholas. It was published as The Night Before Christmas as a gift for his children. 

In it, he portrays Santa Claus:

He had a broad face and a little round belly,
That shook when he laughed, like a bowl full of jelly,
He was chubby and plump, a right jolly old 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.

Santa Clause and the hanging Christmas Stockings are joined together in legend. The story goes that there was a kindly nobleman who grew despondent over the death of his beloved wife. He foolishly squandered his fortune and left his three young daughters without dowries and facing a life of spinsterhood. St. Nicholas, hearing of their plight went to help. 

Legend has it that St. Nicholas wanted to remain anonymous, so he rode by their house and threw three small pouches of gold coins down the chimney where they were captured by the stockings the young women had hung by the fireplace to dry. 

As for Christmas Trees, 16th-century Germans decorated fir trees both indoors and out. Their decorations were apples, roses, gilded candies, and colored paper. 
In fact, it is said that not long after Europeans began using Christmas trees that special decorations were used to adorn them. Candies and cookies were used. 

Legend has it that during the 17th century, craftsmen created the white sticks of candy in the shape of shepherds' crook at the suggestion of the choirmaster at the Cologne Cathedral in Germany. The candy treats were given to children to keep them quiet during church services. Soon the custom of passing out the candy crooks at such ceremonies spread throughout Europe.

According to the National Confectioner’s Association, in 1847 German immigrant August Imgard used the candy cane to decorate a Christmas tree in Wooster, Ohio. 

More than 50 years later, Bob McCormack of Albany, Georgia supposedly made candy canes as treats for family, friends and local shopkeepers. McCormack’s brother-in-law, Catholic priest Gregory Keller, invented a machine in the 1950s that automated the production of candy canes, thus eliminating the usual laborious process of creating the treats and the popularity of the candy cane grew.

For me, I like to believe the story that says the candy cane has symbolism with the Lord. Legend holds that the color white represents Christ's purity and the red represents the blood he shed. The presence of three red stripes represent the Holy Trinity. 

Surprising as it might sound, it is believed that Protestant reformer Martin Luther was the first to adorn Christmas trees with lights. The story goes that while coming home one December evening, the beauty of the stars shining through the branches of a fir tree inspired him to recreate the effect by placing candles on the branches of a small fir tree inside his home

The Christmas Tree was brought to England by Queen Victoria’s husband, Prince Albert from his native Germany. The famous Illustrated News etching in 1848, featuring the British Royal Family gathered around a Christmas tree in Windsor Castle. This popularized the tree throughout Victorian England. And yes, brought to America by the Pennsylvania Germans, the Christmas tree became part of America's Christmas tradition by the mid to late 19th century.

While we have looked at the contributions made by Europeans, a native Mexican plant, the poinsettia was named after Joel R. Poinsett, U.S. ambassador to Mexico who brought the plant to America in 1828. But we know that poinsettias were likely used by Spanish Franciscan priests in the 17th century, during Christmas celebrations in Mexico and California.

One legend has it that a young Mexican boy, on his way to visit the village Nativity scene, realized he had no gift for the Christ child. He gathered pretty green branches from along the road and brought them to the church. It is said that the other children mocked him. But they stopped when the leaves were laid at the manger, there a beautiful star-shaped flower appeared on each branch.

So as you can see, by the mid-1800s, the way Americans celebrated Christmas tradition included much of the same customs and traditions we have today. Yes, that includes decorating a Christmas tree, the presence of Santa Claus, and stockings hung by the fire. Of course, there were church activities and family gift-giving, a feast, and folks even sent Christmas cards back in the day.

While this was true in the East, there was a whole nation away from the more civilized life of the East. A place where pioneers, ranchers, and cowboys, celebrated Christmas with a little less ease than in the cities of the East. The problem of course is that nature could make Christmas pretty tough for many in the Old West.

Sure there were homemade gifts and feasts, dances and parties, but there were also horrible weather and savage cold to content with. Of course, as I stated in my article: California Gold Rush Christmas & The Christmas Nugget

"A Gold Rush Christmas was usually an unassuming, often spontaneous affair that consisted primarily of eating, drinking, companionship and entertainment. Although, in the mid-19th century, gift giving was becoming fashionable, if there were presents in the gold fields they were practical in nature. 

For example, clothing, hats, knitted socks, scarves, and mittens were always prized. In the towns where there were children, little girls received homemade rag dolls and miniature quilts while little boys received tops or other wooden toys."

And frankly, I gather the mid-West was about the same. After all, it was noted that soldiers could be heard caroling at their remote outposts, the smell of beef roasting over an open fire could be taken in for miles on open prairie. And like those in the meager mining camps in California, pioneers on the plains looked forward to Christmas.

Laura Ingalls Wilder wrote of the preparations for Christmas on the Kansas Prairie: "Ma was busy all day long, cooking good things for Christmas. She baked salt-rising bread and r'n'Injun bread, and Swedish crackers, and huge pan of baked beans, with salt pork and molasses. She baked vinegar pies and dried-apple pies, and filled a big jar with cookies, and she let Laura and Mary lick the cake spoon."

And while some make it sound like only Easterners had Christmas trees, and decorated them with lights and garland and tinsel, or sung carols and went to church to celebrate the birth of Christ, that's not at all true. Yes, even on the prairie there were those make-shift Christmas trees decorated with bits of ribbon, yarn, berries, popcorn, and other homemade decorations.

As with the mining camps where families were being raised, the homes of early pioneer were small. Yes, too small to make room for a Christmas tree. But then again, as in California where pioneers decorated a bush or a tree outside, so did pioneers in places like Nebraska.

As today, every home would make the holiday a time of family and friends, feasting and celebration. From bringing out preserved fruits and vegetables, to butchering that Christmas hog, from pies and cakes and cookies, to leaving the plum pudding to age in the pot, Christmas was a time for celebration.

As with today, Christmas Eve was a day of family. In the Old West it was a time generally set aside for telling stories, reading passages from the Bible, singing carols around the Christmas tree or fireplace, and simple rejoice in the birth of our Lord. On Christmas Day, most folks attended church. When they return home, it was time for the traditional Christmas meal. Then as today, they spend the day visiting with friends and neighbors. Yes, much like today.

As you noticed, I'm stressing that things have not really changed much in the last 100 years of more. Granted, in the 20th century, folks started to enjoy radio and then television more this time of year as a form of entertainment. And yes, Christmas music has come along way from strictly singing carols and hymns. But all in all, our traditions have been pretty steady for quite a while now.

Christmas is influenced by a number of factors including one's religion, after all today not only Christians celebrate Christmas, one's ethnic background, what part of the country you're from, and many other factors including if you live in a city or rural America. But most importantly, I believe our Christmas is formed over years of adjusting and maneuvering schedules and gift giving and so on all to fit family needs. And with that, thus we create traditions.

In the Southwest, a popular food at Christmas are tamales. And yes, there are some special customs which have some similarities to those that take place in parts of Mexico. These include "luminarias" or "farolitos" which are paper sacks partly filled with sand and then have a candle put in them. They are lit on Christmas Eve and are put the edges of paths. They represent "lighting the way" for somewhere for Mary and Joseph to stay. 

On Christmas Eve in Louisiana, families in small communities along the Mississippi River light bonfires along the levees to help "Papa Noel," which is the the name for Santa in French, find his way to the homes of children. And yes, each state has their own traditions of sorts. 

Weather it's a Christmas Rodeo or a Celebration In The Park, our towns and cities often decorate the streets and a tree with lights to celebrate Christmas. Of course, the most famous Christmas tree is the one at Rockerfeller Center in New York. And yes, even this too was born out of a desire to celebrate Christmas. In the case of the tree at Rockerfeller Center, it was one that workers started during the Great Depression. 


As Americans we have traditions born out of the desire to celebrate the birth of Christ in any way that's possible. And to this, my grandfather was right, Christmas in America is like a stew that combines cultures and traditions to create a dish that is as personal as can be -- yet enjoyed by all.

From my family to yours, Merry Christmas!

Tom Correa





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