Although Christians claim this season for Christ’s birthday, the celebration of winter goes back thousands of years, long before the time of the ancient Romans. It’s an amalgam of traditions from all over the European world.
From many of the early northern European tribes, we inherited the tradition of a decorated tree to mark the passing of the shortest day of the year, and the hope that it brings for spring. Some regions used bare branches, to represent the barren season and the hope for the rebirth of a fertile, productive future. In more mountainous areas, we see artwork representing decorated evergreens.
From early Germanic peoples we inherit the tradition of exchanging presents. Many tribes and regions had their own mysterious night-time gift-bringer, like Kris Kringle, Father Christmas, Saint Nicholas and others.
Children had to behave to earn their gifts; these all-knowing mysterious visitors were privy to the whole year’s antics of every child in the region! And no one wanted to find only lumps of coal in their stocking on Christmas morning.
In Middle Europe, mistletoe grows in abundance even in winter, which gives us our present-day tradition — a kiss, the first step in the all-important human process of fertility.
Music often conveys the emotion of the season best. Christmas carols speak of stars, of Christmas trees, of ships and travelers, and of course, of the baby whose birth Christmas celebrates. And the most oft-played, oft-sung carol of all is Silent Night.
Franz Xaver Gruber, a choir director at St. Nicholas Church in Oberndorf bei Salzburg, Austria, wrote the music in 1818. Joseph Mohr, a priest, wrote the lyrics, and once it was first performed at the church, it was picked up and spread around Europe by traveling singers. Today it’s become one of the most beloved hymns of peace that mark the traditions of this season.
Whether your winter season celebrates a birth that occurred 2,000 years ago — and changed the world — or simply the hope of the renewal to come after these short, dark days of winter, you’re no doubt familiar with the melody, and maybe the words, of Silent Night. We can all use a little peace, this season and all to come.
Merry Christmas! Happy Chanukah. Happy Kwanzaa. Happy solstice. However you welcome it, I hope this silent night of Christmas brings you the joy of peace, and most of all this year, health to enjoy it.