Tag Archives: holidays

Yes, even New Years resolutions have a Christian history


New Years sparklers 2013

Early in my training as a church historian, I learned the important fact that here in the West, pretty much everything has a Christian history. So I wasn’t surprised to find that New Years resolutions are rooted in old Christian practices too. Here’s what I discovered about the subject. Enjoy, and Happy New Years!

The history of Easter: A basketful of illuminating articles


Belarusian Easter Eggs

Belarusian Easter eggs

Next time a friend or family member asks you (because you clearly are an erudite person, since you read this blog!), “Was Easter originally a pagan holiday?” or “Why eggs and bunnies?” or any other question about the history of Easter and Holy Week, you can point them toward these articles written by the editors of Christian History magazine:

How the Fast of Lent Gave Us Easter Eggs
Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of Jesus, and Simon of Cyrene all appear in legends about eggs turning red.

Was Easter Borrowed from a Pagan Holiday?
The historical evidence contradicts this popular notion. Continue reading

The goodness of Good Friday: The oxymoron of an unhappy celebration


c. 1632

"Christ on the Cross," Diego Velazquez, c. 1632

Since the day is fast approaching–Good Friday, that is–I thought readers might appreciate this brief Christian History article I wrote on the subject:

What a supreme paradox. We now call the day Jesus was crucified, Good.

Many believe this name simply evolved—as language does. They point to the earlier designation, “God’s Friday,” as its root. (This seems a reasonable conjecture, given that “goodbye” evolved from “God be with you.”)

Whatever its origin, the current name of this holy day offers a fitting lesson to those of us who assume (as is easy to do) that “good” must mean “happy.” We find it hard to imagine a day marked by sadness as a good day. Continue reading

Why do we have Christmas trees?


A Christmas tree in the United States.

Just why do we put these odd things in our houses?

When I have questions about church history, I often turn to one or the other of our family’s dear friends (and our older kids’ godparents) Jennifer and Edwin Woodruff Tait. So naturally, when my wife came back today from shopping for a Christmas tree (empty-handed! The trees at the only lot she could find were dried out and $75!), and I began musing over this odd tradition, I turned to an article by the Woodruff Taits that reminded me how odd, indeed, is the history of the Christmas tree:

The evergreen tree was an ancient symbol of life in the midst of winter. Romans decorated their houses with evergreen branches during the New Year, and ancient inhabitants of northern Europe cut evergreen trees and planted them in boxes inside their houses in wintertime. Many early Christians were hostile to such practices. The second-century theologian Tertullian condemned those Christians who celebrated the winter festivals, or decorated their houses with laurel boughs in honor of the emperor:

“Let them over whom the fires of hell are imminent, affix to their posts, laurels doomed presently to burn: to them the testimonies of darkness and the omens of their penalties are suitable. You are a light of the world, and a tree ever green. If you have renounced temples, make not your own gate a temple.” Continue reading

The “new monastics” on Old St. Nick


Saint Nicolas - an icon 17th cent., Historic M...

A 17th-c. Saint Nicolas icon, Historic Museum in Sanok, Poland

I could apparently spend my entire day just posting on interesting articles around the web about St. Nicholas, whose feast day is today. But this will be the last one. It’s a brief piece in the Huffington Post by new monastics Shane Claiborne and Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove, giving their own particular take on the jolly old guy . . . well, at least on his prototype, St. Nicholas of Myra:

Even though we don’t expect Santa for another few weeks, December 6th is the day when we remember the original “Old St. Nick.” Nicholas was bishop of Myra in fourth-century Turkey. Little is known about his life except that he entrusted himself to Jesus at an early age and, when his parents died, gave all of their possessions to the poor. Continue reading

“Super-saint” Nicholas: A fascinating St. Nicholas Day lecture from John McGuckin


January 3, 1863 cover of Harper's Weekly, one ...

January 3, 1863 cover of Harper's Weekly, one of the first depictions of Santa Claus

John McGuckin is one of those wonderful creatures, an erudite historian who can also communicate history compellingly to a lay audience. I know because he wrote a great, colorful article for Christian History‘s issue on the Council of Nicea–my last issue as editor at that magazine.You can see a preview of his article here and buy the issue here.

The “powers that be” at Union Theological Seminary in New York chose Thursday, December 6, 2007 as the date of Dr. McGuckin’s installation as Nielsen Chair in Late Antique & Byzantine Christian History. That was all the excuse the good Dr. needed: since Dec. 6 is the Feast Day of St. Nicholas, he took St. Nick as his text.

The result was this enjoyable (and yes, compelling) talk. Skip the intro material and just jump ahead to 3:30. Here Dr. McGuckin begins to spin the tale of how Nicholas morphed into Santa Claus–jolly American consumerism and all–by way of Norse mythology!

Enjoy, and Happy Feast Day of St. Nicholas!

Traveling St. Nick exhibit in St. Paul, MN – check it out!


Sinterklaas or Saint Nicholas, considered by m...

Sinterklaas or Saint Nicholas, considered by many to be the original Santa Claus

Yup, there’s a traveling exhibit on St. Nicholas that’s been going around the country for the past few years, and now it’s here in St. Paul. MN.

The exhibit has actually been here since November 7 and will stay through December 26, 2010. It’s at the Landmark Center, 75 West 5th Street, St. Paul, Minnesota. For more information, see here.

The exhibit’s website tells us this about the original St. Nick:

The true story of Santa Claus begins with Nicholas, who was born during the third century in the village of Patara. At the time the area was Greek and is now on the southern coast of Turkey. His wealthy parents, who raised him to be a devout Christian, died in an epidemic while Nicholas was still young. Obeying Jesus’ words to “sell what you own and give the money to the poor,” Nicholas used his whole inheritance to assist the needy, the sick, and the suffering. He dedicated his life to serving God and was made Bishop of Myra while still a young man. Bishop Nicholas became known throughout the land for his generosity to the those in need, his love for children, and his concern for sailors and ships. Continue reading

Happy Feast Day of the (real) St. Nick!


Saint Nicholas (Greek: Άγιος Νικόλαος, Aghios ["holy"] Nicolaos ["victory of the people"]) (270–6 December 346) is the canonical and most popular name for Nikolaos of Myra, a saint and Greek[3] Bishop of Myra (Demre, in Lycia, part of modern-day Turkey). Because of the many miracles attributed to his intercession, he is also known as Nikolaos the Wonderworker (Greek: Νικόλαος ο Θαυματουργός, Nikolaos o Thaumaturgos). He had a reputation for secret gift-giving, such as putting coins in the shoes of those who left them out for him, and thus became the model for Santa Claus, whose modern name comes from the Dutch Sinterklaas. In Britain he is known as ‘Father Christmas’. His reputation evolved among the faithful, as is common for early Christian saints.[4] In 1087, his relics were furtively translated to Bari, in southeastern Italy; for this reason, he is also known as Nikolaos of Bari.His feastday is December 6.

The most famous story about Nicholas is this one (pictured above):

A poor man had three daughters but could not afford a proper dowry for them. This meant that they would remain unmarried and probably, in absence of any other possible employment would have to become prostitutes. Continue reading

Happy Thanksgiving! Peace, love and Puritanism–an article from Harvard’s David Hall


The First Thanksgiving, painted by Jean Leon G...

The First Thanksgiving, painted by Jean Leon Gerome Ferris (1863-1930).

My doctoral advisor at Duke, Grant Wacker, sent this along, with the comment, “It offers the usual Hall wit, erudition, and elegant writing style.” Yes, it does. Here’s a taste, and Happy Thanksgiving to all!

THANKSGIVING 1971, the 350th anniversary of the “first” of the harvest celebrations in Plymouth, Mass. Invited to speak to a local historical society about that long-ago event, I described the ritual significance of food to the colonists and the Native Americans who attended. Afterward, someone asked, “Did they serve turkey?”

This was no idle question, for it captured the uneasiness many of us feel about the threads that connect past and present. Are our present-day values and practices aligned with the historical record, or have they been remade by our consumer culture? Is anything authentic in our own celebrations of Thanksgiving? And isn’t the deeper issue what the people who came here were like, not what they ate in 1621? Continue reading

Resolutions Worth Keeping: The origins of New Years’ resolutions, and one famous list


Resolutions Worth Keeping
The origins of New Years’ resolutions, and one famous list
Chris Armstrong

Like other Christian festivals, the celebration of New Years Day in the West started before the church came into existence.

At first, the Romans celebrated the beginning of the new year on March 1, not January 1. Julius Caesar instituted New Year’s Day on January 1 to honor Janus, the two-faced god who looks backwards into the old year and forwards into the new. The custom of “New Years resolutions” began in this earliest period, as the Romans made resolutions with a moral flavor: mostly to be good to others. Continue reading