American Minute with Bill Federer
Christmas Traditions, Tree, Date, Poinsettia, White House, Lights & Carols
DATE OF CHRISTMAS

To understand how the date of Christmas was established, it is first necessary to determine the date of the conception of John the Baptist.
King David divided the Levite priests into 24 family groups, called courses, which took turns ministering at the altar in Jerusalem on a twice-a-year rotating basis -- the sacerdotal rota system as recorded in I Chronicles 24 (NIV):

"The sons of Aaron ... Eleazar and Ithamar served as the priests. With the help of Zadok, a descendant of Eleazar, and Ahimelek, a descendant of Ithamar, David separated them into divisions for their appointed order of ministering."
In 1958, Israeli scholar Shemaryahu Talmon published research from the Qumran Dead Sea Scrolls (Parchment No. 321-4Q321) in which he was able to reconstruct the sacerdotal rota calendar, identifying the particular months of each family's course.
The family of Abijah , from which descended Zechariah the father of John the Baptist, served from the 8th to the 14th day of the third month, and the 24th to the 30th day of the eighth month in the Israelite calendar.
Translating this into the Roman calendar shows that, during the reign of King Herod, the time Zechariah would have been ministering at the altar was the end of September, during the day of atonement -- Yom Kippur, and, therefore, John the Baptist would have been conceived shortly thereafter.
The Gospel of Luke, chapter 1 (NIV), explained:

"In the time of Herod king of Judea there was a priest named Zechariah, who belonged to the priestly division of Abijah; his wife Elizabeth was also a descendant of Aaron ...
When Zechariah’s division was on duty and he was serving as priest before God, he was chosen by lot, according to the custom of the priesthood, to go into the temple of the Lord and burn incense ... All the assembled worshipers were praying outside.
Then an angel of the Lord appeared to him, standing at the right side of the altar of incense. When Zechariah saw him, he was startled and was gripped with fear.
But the angel said to him: 'Do not be afraid, Zechariah; your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you are to call him John.'"
The Byzantine Rite Church Calendar celebrates September 23 as the date of the conception of John the Baptist.
Six months after the end of September is the end of March , when Elizabeth, now six months pregnant, was visited by her younger cousin Mary.
The liturgical calendar, therefore, celebrates March 25 as the Feast of the Annunciation, as told in the Gospel of Luke, chapter 1: 26-35 (NIV):

"In the sixth month of Elizabeth’s pregnancy, God sent the angel Gabriel to Nazareth, a town in Galilee, to a virgin pledged to be married to a man named Joseph, a descendant of David. The virgin’s name was Mary.

The angel went to her and said, 'Greetings, you who are highly favored! The Lord is with you.'

Mary was greatly troubled at his words and wondered what kind of greeting this might be.
But the angel said to her, 'Do not be afraid, Mary; you have found favor with God. You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you are to call him Jesus.

He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over Jacob’s descendants forever; his kingdom will never end.'
'How will this be,' Mary asked the angel, 'since I am a virgin?'

The angel answered, 'The Holy Spirit will come on you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God.

Even Elizabeth your relative is going to have a child in her old age , and she who was said to be unable to conceive is in her sixth month. For no word from God will ever fail.'"
Luke continued:

"At that time Mary got ready and hurried to a town in the hill country of Judea, where she entered Zechariah’s home and greeted Elizabeth.

When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the baby leaped in her womb, and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit.

In a loud voice she exclaimed: 'Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the child you will bear! But why am I so favored, that the mother of my Lord should come to me? As soon as the sound of your greeting reached my ears, the baby in my womb leaped for joy. Blessed is she who has believed that the Lord would fulfill his promises to her!'”
Therefore, if Zachariah ministered at the altar at end of September, and Elizabeth conceived shortly thereafter, and six months later Mary conceived by the Holy Spirit, around March 25, then nine months after that is December 25, the traditional date of the birth of Jesus.
CHRISTMAS TREE

The Christmas tree's origins can be traced back to the 200 AD's, when the early church father Tertullian wrote:

"You are the light of the world, a tree ever green, if you have renounced the heathen temple."
In the 6th, 7th and 8th centuries, missionaries from Ireland, Scotland and England evangelized Europe.

It was during this time that the courageous St. Boniface (680-755) evangelized the heathen Germanic tribes.
Also called Wynfred, St. Boniface left his home near Crediton, Devonshire, in Britain, being sent by Pope Gregory II to be the Apostle of the Germans.
Just like St. Nicholas confronted the paganism of the Greeks and Romans:

and just like St. Patrick confronted the paganism of the Druids;

St. Boniface, on Christmas Eve in 716 AD, confronted the paganism of the Germanic tribes.
The pagan chieftain Gundhar was about to offer the little Prince Asulf as a human "bloody sacrifice" to Thor, their feared pagan god of thunder, who supposedly lived in the huge "donar" oak tree at Geismar.
"Thor" is the namesake of Thor's day, or "Thursday."

Since Thor was a pagan diety, Quakers did not want to use the his name, so they refer to Thursday as "Fifth Day."

Another pagan god "Odin" or "Woden," who is namesake of "Woden's Day" or "Wednesday."
St. Boniface boldly took an ax and after a few swings, chopped down Thor's mighty "blood" oak.

By some accounts, an enormous wind swept in at that moment and helped blow the tree over.
The heathen throng was in awe.

They rejected their defeated pagan gods of Thor and Odin and converted to Christianity.
Pointing to an evergreen tree that was next to the fallen oak, or that had miraculously grown up out of it, St. Boniface declared:

"This is the word, and this is the counsel. Not a drop of blood shall fall tonight, for this is the birth-night of Saint Christ, Son of the All-Father and Saviour of the world.

This little tree, a young child of the forest, shall be a home tree tonight. It is the wood of peace, for your houses are built of fir. It is the sign of endless life, for its branches are ever green.
... See how it points toward Heaven! Let this be called the tree of the Christ Child; gather about it, not in the wild woods but in your homes; there it will shelter no deeds of blood, but loving gifts and lights of kindness."
The evergreen tree became important to Germans as a remembrance of the defeat of the pagan god Thor by St. Boniface - the Apostle to the Germans, and it stood as a symbol of the German population converting to Christianity.
The shape of the Christmas tree also convened a spiritual meaning.

Similar to St. Nicholas defending the doctrine of the Trinity during the Arian heresy, and St. Patrick using the three-leaf clover to teach the Trinity, St. Boniface used the triangular shape of the evergreen tree to explain the Trinity.
Germans hung the triangular-shaped evergreen tree from the ceilings of their humble homes as a Christian symbol of the Trinity -- "In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit." (Matthew 28:19)
LIGHTS ON THE TREE

Martin Luther (1483-1546) is credited with popularizing the tradition of putting of lights on the tree.
In 1520, Martin Luther was walking home on Christmas Eve under the cold December sky and noticed the countless stars illuminating the night.
Luther returned home, and to the delight of his wife and children, set up an evergreen tree placing a great number of small candles on its branches.
He set up a creche scene under the tree so that the lights would appear as the stars above Bethlehem on the night of Christ's birth.
An inspiration for the candles may have also come from the nearly 17 centuries of Jewish families placing Hanukkah candles in their homes at this time of year.
KRIS KRINGLE

Martin Luther said that all gifts come from the Christ Child, which in old German was pronounced "Kris Kindl" (Christkindl) , later pronounced "Kris Kringle."
POINSETTIA

Another addition to Christmas decorations occurred in the early 1800s.

In 1829, the first U.S. Ambassador to Mexico was Joel R. Poinsett.
He brought back a plant called "Flower of the Holy Night" (Flores de Nochebuena) which supposedly sprang up as a poor boy knelt to worship Jesus on Christmas Eve.

Joel Poinsett planted it on his land in South Carolina where it began to be called "Poinsettia."
FIRST WHITE HOUSE CHRISTMAS TREE

In 1856, President Franklin Pierce put up the first Christmas Tree in the White House.
In 1862, President and Mrs. Lincoln visited soldiers in Washington, D.C., hospitals on Christmas Day.

On December 26, 1864, Lincoln gave a Christmas reception at the White House.
CIVIL WAR CHRISTMAS

President Jimmy Carter, in a speech seeking U.N. sanctions against Iran, December 21, 1979, commented on Christmas during the Civil War:

"Henry Longfellow wrote a Christmas carol in a time of crisis, the War Between the States, in 1864.

Two verses of that carol ("I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day") particularly express my thoughts and prayers and, I'm sure, those of our Nation in this time of challenge ... I would like to quote from that poem:
'And in despair I bowed my head.
There is no peace on earth, I said.
For hate is strong and mocks the song
of peace on earth, good will to men.
Then pealed the bells,
more loud and deep,
God is not dead,
nor does he sleep.

The wrong shall fail,
the right prevail,
With peace on earth,
good will to men.'"
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow not only wrote popular books and carols, but he was also a professor at Harvard, where he taught a student named Phillips Brooks.
Phillips Brooks, born DECEMBER 13, 1835, was the Episcopal bishop of Massachusetts.
While on a trip to the Holy Land in 1865, Phillips Brooks wrote:

"After an early dinner, we took our horses and rode to Bethlehem ...

It was only about two hours when we came to the town, situated on an eastern ridge of a range of hills, surrounded by its terraced gardens.
... It is a good-looking town, better built than any other we have seen in Palestine ...

Before dark, we rode out of town to the field where they say the shepherds saw the star.
... It is a fenced piece of ground with a cave in it (all the Holy Places are caves here), in which, strangely enough, they put the shepherds ...

As we passed, the shepherds were still 'keeping watch over their flocks or leading them home to fold.'"
Phillips Brooks returned to Massachusetts in September of 1866 and wrote the carol, "O Little Town of Bethlehem":

"O little town of Bethlehem!
How still we see thee lie;
Above thy deep and dreamless sleep,
The silent stars go by;
Yet in thy dark streets shineth,
The everlasting Light;
The hopes and fears
of all the years,
Are met in thee tonight."
FAMOUS CHRISTMAS SPIRITUAL

Another Christmas carol of this era is "Go, Tell It on the Mountain," one of the most popular Negro Spirituals. It was first published in 1865, after the Civil War ended slavery, in a collection complied by John Wesley Work, Jr.

The song was recorded by notable singers, including Mahalia Jackson, who once stated:

"I sing God's music because it makes me feel free ... It gives me hope.

With the blues, when you finish, you still have the blues."
"Go, tell it on the mountain,
Over the hills and everywhere;
Go, tell it on the mountain,
That Jesus Christ is born.

While shepherds kept their watching
o'er silent flocks by night,
Behold, throughout the heavens
There shone a holy light.
Go, tell it on the mountain,
Over the hills and everywhere;
Go, tell it on the mountain,
That Jesus Christ is born.

The shepherds feared and trembled,
When lo! above the earth,
Rang out the angels chorus
That hailed our Savior's birth.
Go, tell it on the mountain,
Over the hills and everywhere;
Go, tell it on the mountain,
That Jesus Christ is born.

Down in a lowly manger
The humble Christ was born
And God sent us salvation
That blessed Christmas morn."
In 1865, William Chtterton Dix wrote the Christmas carol, "What Child Is This":

What child is this, who, laid to rest
On Mary's lap, is sleeping?
Whom angels greet with anthems sweet,
While shepherds watch are keeping? (Chorus)
This, this is Christ the King,
Whom shepherds guard and angels sing:
Haste, haste to bring him laud,
The Babe, the Son of Mary!

Why lies he in such mean estate
Where ox and ass are feeding?
Good Christian, fear for sinners here,
The silent Word is pleading. (Chorus)
So bring Him incense, gold, and myrrh,
Come peasant king to own Him,
The King of kings, salvation brings,
Let loving hearts enthrone Him.

Raise, raise the song on high,
The Virgin sings her lullaby:
Joy, joy, for Christ is born,
The Babe, the Son of Mary!
In 1867, Mark Twain visited the Holy Land, as recorded in his book, Innocents Abroad, 1869:

"In the starlight, Galilee has no boundaries but the broad compass of the heavens, and is a theatre meet for great events; meet for the birth of a religion able to save the world."
In 1885, "Away in a Manger" was published in a Lutheran Sunday school book. It was edited in 1892 by Charles H. Gabriel and set to music in 1895 by William J. Kirkpatrick:
Away in a manger,
No crib for His bed
The little Lord Jesus
Laid down His sweet head
The stars in the bright sky
Looked down where He lay
The little Lord Jesus
Asleep on the hay
The cattle are lowing
The poor Baby wakes
But little Lord Jesus
No crying He makes
I love Thee, Lord Jesus
Look down from the sky
And stay by my side,
'Til morning is nigh.
Be near me, Lord Jesus,
I ask Thee to stay
Close by me forever
And love me I pray
Bless all the dear children
In Thy tender care
And take us to heaven
To live with Thee there."
OFFICIAL CHRISTMAS HOLIDAY

In 1836, Alabama became the first state to recognize Christmas Day as a holiday.

Eventually, all 50 states recognized Christmas Day as an official legal holiday.
On Christmas Day, 1868, President Andrew Johnson proclaimed full pardon and amnesty for all who had participated in secession, without reserve or exception.
In 1870, President Ulysses S. Grant signed a Bill making Christmas Day a Federal Holiday.
ELECTRIC LIGHTS

In 1880, Thomas Edison, inventor of the light bulb, strung electric Christmas lights on his Menlo Park Laboratory.
In 1882, Edward Johnson, Edison's partner in the Edison Illumination Company, assembled the first "string" of electric Christmas tree lights.
As of 1893, Christmas Day was recognized as an official holiday in the U.S. States and Territories.
In 1895, President Grover Cleveland placed the first "electrically- lit" Christmas tree in the White House.
NATIONAL CHRISTMAS TREE

In 1923, President Calvin Coolidge turned on the 3,000 electric lights on the first "National Christmas Tree," located outside the White House on the ellipse of the south lawn.
Lighting the National Christmas Tree, December 24, 1952, President Harry S Truman stated:

"Shepherds, in a field, heard angels singing: 'Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men' ...

We turn to the old, old story of how 'God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in Him should not perish, but have everlasting life' ...
Let us remember always to try to act ... in the spirit of the Prince of Peace.

He bore in His heart no hate and no malice - nothing but love for all mankind. We should ... follow His example ... Let us also pray for our enemies ...

Through Jesus Christ the world will yet be a better and a fairer place."
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