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Clark County Press, Neillsville, WI

December 24, 2002, Page 24

Transcribed by Dolores (Mohr) Kenyon.

Index of "Oldies" Articles 


Good Old Days

“Christmas Folklore & Traditions” 

By Dee Zimmerman



“Silent Night” if often called the “Song from Heaven” because the story of its inspiration and composition is one of the most beautiful Christmas stories in existence.


On December 24, 1818, in the Austrian village of Hallein, as Father Joseph Mohr sat reading his Bible, there was a knock at his door.  It was a peasant woman who wanted the priest to visit a poor charcoal-maker’s wife to whom a child had been born.  The parents had sent her to ask the priest to come and bless the infant.


Father Mohr was strangely moved by the visit to the mother.  That evening, as he returned to his home he saw that the dark slopes of the Alps around the village were alight with torches of the mountaineers on their way to church.  To him, it was a Christmas miracle.


Later, as he tried to put down on paper his feeling and experience, the words kept turning into verse.  When dawn came, he found he had written a poem – a beautiful and moving poem.


On Christmas Day his friend, Franz Xaver Gruber, music teacher in the village school, composed music to fit the verses.  Village children heard the priest and teacher singing the song and learned it.  From there it spread throughout the world. Today, it is regarded as the greatest hymn and wherever there are those of good will they sing:


“Silent night, holy night

All is calm, all is bright,

Round yon virgin,

Mother and Child;

Holy Infant, so tender

And mild,

Sleep in heavenly peace-

Sleep in heavenly peace.”




When you see the Christmas seal do you ever wonder how it started?


It was born in Denmark, home of the fairy tales of Hans Christian Anderson.


Einar Holboell, a Copenhagen postal clerk, was sorting mail one snowy afternoon before Christmas, 1903, when he thought of the idea of a penny stamp to swell a fund for children’s hospitals.


Authorized by King Christian, the first Christmas seals were sold in Copenhagen in 1904.


Holboell’s scheme out-grew his wildest imaginings, for before his death in 1927; he lived to see it spread to 45 countries, including Korea, India and French-Indo-China.


The seals found their way to America on letters and packages, first attracting the attention of Jacob Rils who wrote an article about them.  Few people, however, were interested in the idea.


Then, in the autumn of 1907, Emily Bissell, a public health worker, concerned about the fate of a small sanatorium, recalled the article and sat down to sketch America’s first Christmas seal, a wreath of holly encircling the words, ‘Merry Christmas.”


With 50,000 stamps printed and nowhere to sell them, Miss Bissell at last enlisted the aid of a columnist on a Philadelphia newspaper.  The idea caught and within a few weeks $3,000 was collected.


The first nation-wide sale was held the following year and was backed by newspapers all over the country, supported as well by religious and civic groups.  The Christmas seal program has been sponsored by the American Red Cross and the National Tuberculosis Association.


“Auld Lang Syne” has become such an integral part of our modern New Year’s Eve that no celebration, however festive, would be complete without it.


The music sheets for those nostalgic strains simply say “Robert Burns – Scotch Air,” as Robert Burns generally is supposed to have written it.  He had settled down on a farm and taken himself a wife, following the sweeping success in 1778 in the second edition of his “Poems.”  Well and good but Auld Lang Syne was not exclusively a Burns product, nor did he claim it to be.


In a letter to George Thomson, a publisher, Burns explained:  “It is an old song of olden times, which has never been in print.  I took it down from an old man’s singing.”


Modern scholarship has discovered that Burns was wrong when he told Thomson “Auld Lang Syne” never had been in print.  Its refrain, at least, was printed obscurely long before Burns heard his “old man singing.”


Further, the original song often has been credited to Sir Robert Aytoun (1570-1638).  Aytoun was one of the earliest Scots to use the lowland dialect as a literary medium.  Multitudes of Americans, descended from non-British stock have been perpetually mystified by the dialect, which doesn’t seem to make much sense in its standard English translation.


Regardless of its original author and origin, it was Burns who gave “Auld Lang Syne” its immortality.  Though the bells now welcome the New Year with joyous peals, symbolizing mankind’s hope for a bright future, the nostalgia of “Auld Lang Syne” summarizes an adherent reluctance to leave the security and friendship of the past and embark upon a future which, however promising, may not be more pleasant.  Thus, it remains a part of the English-speaking heritage to: “Drink a cup of kindness yet, For Auld Lang Syne.”



Saint Nicholas lived some 1600 years ago, in Turkey, where he was for 17 years Bishop of Myra.  Today, the place is known as Demre, province of Antalya – where his church may still be found.  One may yet hear of the generous acts, which made his life a great legend and gave him the “Santa Claus” character we all know today.


It is said that Saint Nicholas, a man of great virtue and piety, became the patron saint of boys when he restored to life the sons of a rich Asiatic, who had been murdered by a robber-innkeeper while they were enroute to school in Athens.  It is said that he was warned of the crime in a dream, but was unable to reach them in time to prevent the murders.  He restored the boys to life through prayer and the murderer confessed his crime.




One of the most plausible versions of the origin of the custom of giving gifts at Christmas time is the one saying it began in England.


In the days of the knights, it was custom to hang kissing rings in the great halls.  These rings were decorated with mistletoe and beneath them would meet the young knights and ladies, each bringing Christmas roses to their secret love.




Christmas was a festival like Easter in that it was a movable feast, celebrated on a different date each year. 


St. Cyril, bishop of Jerusalem, is responsible for establishment of the universal date we celebrate today.  In 337 A. D., with the permission of Pope Junfus 1, St. Cyril appointed a commission to determine, if possible, the precise date of Christ’s nativity.  The theologians of the Church finally agreed upon December 25.  So since the year 354 this date has been celebrated as Christmas.



St Francis is credited for having set the stage for the custom of displaying the Nativity Scene.  These displays are commonly seen during the celebration of the Christmas season.  We can find the manger scenes in churches, homes and outdoor displays.


Credited with the idea of the first display, St. Francis of Assisi is reported to have said to one of his followers: “I wish to celebrate Holy Christmas night with you.  In the woods, near the cloister, you will find a cave where we shall arrange a manger filled with hay.  We shall have an ox and an ass just as at Bethlehem.  I wish to see how poor and miserable the Infant Savior became for us.”


This was in the small village of Garcia, in Italy, in the year 1200.  St. Francis and his followers celebrated Mass at the cave and sang hymns in honor of the Christ Child.



The delicate beauty of the Christmas rose is hallowed by legend.  A poor shepherd girl, the story goes, wept bitterly as she watched the Wise Men on their way to the Christ Child bearing rich gifts when she had nothing.  An angel appeared.  Upon learning the reason for the girl’s distress, the angel caused the ground to be carpeted with shining white flowers.  The young shepherdess gathered some blossoms.  When she presented her gift, the infant smiled and as His fingers touched the white flowers, the petals became tinged with pink.



Christmas is traditionally a day of universal good will.  Even in times of war the battlefronts are often quiet and serene, by mutual consent, on Christmas Day.


It was also on December 25th, in 1868, that President Andrew Johnson issued his Civil War amnesty in an attempt to heal the wounds left by the war.  Johnson issued an amnesty proclamation, which did not exclude any persons or classes of persons – not even the highest officials of the Confederacy.  Previous amnesty proclamations, issued both by Johnson and his predecessor Lincoln, had not been “total” amnesties.


At the time, President Johnson expressed the belief that universal amnesty would tend to secure permanent peace, order and prosperity throughout the country.  Also, it would renew and restore respect fork, and attachment to, the national government.


The proclamation pardoned all persons who participated directly, or indirectly, against the United States in the Civil War “with restoration of all rights, privileges and immunities under the Constitution and the laws which have also been made in pursuance thereof.”



The mistletoe, once a weapon of death, which later became to be considered as a magical medicine, is now a universal symbol of love.


It was with a mistletoe arrow, according to Norse mythology, that Lokl killed Balder, the sun god.  It was after Balder’s mother had obtained a promise from all living things, other than the mistletoe, that they would not harm him.  Balder was restored to life and it was ruled by the gods that the mistletoe would never again be used to do harm.


Ancient Europeans considered the mistletoe a magical medicine.  They carried it about with them for health, luck and believed it a cure for ulcers and epilepsy.


The present day custom; of giving a kiss of love or peace beneath the mistletoe, although a relatively modern one is derived from the fact that down through the centuries the mistletoe has been recognized throughout the whole world as a symbol of lasting peace.


Christmas has been observed in Bethlehem on December 25, by the Roman Catholics and Protestants, on January 6, by the Greek Orthodox and affiliated churches, and on January 18 by the Armenians. 


All Bethlehem, however, turns out on December 24 for the arrival of the patriarch of Jerusalem – Cardinal of the Holy Land – who each year brings an ancient effigy of the Infant Jesus to Bethlehem, which he lays in the manger where Christ was born.


Dramatically, the procession approaches; heralded by a single horseman, his banner streaming aloft.  A corps of native police, mounted upon fiery Arabian horses is followed by another black steed carrying the cross on high.  Next, comes the Patriarch in his cardinal white robed acolytes – swinging censers – preceding the jeweled pavilion of the Holy Child.  Magnificent corteges of government officials, foreign embassies, bands, religious organizations follow, and finally, American made automobiles mingle with native two-wheeled carriages.


The procession enters the Church of the Nativity.  The public is not permitted to witness the actual placing of the effigy, as that part of the Church – built above the Cave of the Nativity – is under the jurisdiction of the Greek Orthodox Church.


The Grotto-like Cave of Nativity in no way conforms to the modern conception of a “stable;” in Biblical times, however, shelters for man and beast were hewn into rocky ledges – thus, the Stable of Bethlehem.


On Christmas Eve, members of all denominations assemble to sing carols above the birthplace of the Holy Child before midnight Mass is solemnized in the Church of the Nativity.


(As of 50 years ago, the above observance was carried out in Bethlehem. D. Z.)


The Prophecy

Isaiah 9:6

For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given; and the government shall be upon his shoulder; and his name shall be called Wonderful, Counselor, the mighty God, the everlasting Father, the Prince of Peace.



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