Random Musings: 12-18-2009

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    As Christmas approaches, let’s look at some of the traditions associated with the holiday. The holiday itself can be traced to the Roman celebration of Saturnalia, a week-long carnival which culminated with the winter solstice. In 350, Pope Julius I decided to make December 25 the date that Jesus’ birthday would be celebrated, in part to supersede Saturnalia, and in part because various other religious traditions already associated that time of year with the birth or rebirth of a god.

         Dec. 25 as Christmas day isn’t universally embraced, however. Members of Eastern Orthodox churches celebrate Christmas on Jan. 6, the feast of the Epiphany, when the three wise men were believed to have visited the baby Jesus.

         What about decorating Christmas trees? In The Book of Christmas Folklore (1973), Tristram P. Coffin writes that one legend dates the custom to the 8th century Germany. Seems St. Bonifice dedicated a fir tree to Jesus, to rebut the sacred oak of Odin.

         In Europe, the first Christmas Tree was raised in Strassburg in 1604. Princess Helen of Mecklenburg then brought the custom to France in 1837. It subsequently came to England in 1844; and to the U.S. with German immigrants. However, it didn’t gain national recognition until President Pierce decorated the White House with a Christmas tree in 1856.

         And then there’s Santa, for whom millions of children eagerly wait. His association with Christmas followed a circuitous route. One legend states that Santa evolved from St. Nicholas, a 4th century Bishop of Myra in Asia Minor. Martin Ebon relates in his 1975 book St. Nicholas, Life and Legend, a popular story that before becoming a priest, Nicholas anonymously threw bags of gold through the window of a penniless, widowed nobleman who feared he would have to sell his teenage daughters into either slavery or prostitution.

         On the other hand, B.A. Robinson, writing on the Internet site www.religioustolerance.org, says some religious historians and folklore experts argue that Nicholas never existed- that his life story combines legends attributed to the Greek god Poseidon, the Roman god Neptune, and the Teutonic god Hold Nickar.

         Robinson also identifies similarities between St. Nicholas and “The Grandmother” or “Befana” from Italy. She was said to have filled children’s stockings with gifts.

         Robinson also says that by the 19th century Nicholas had been superseded in much of Europe by Christkindlein, the Christ child, who delivered gifts in secret to the children. He was accompanied by a dwarf-like helper called Pelznickel (or Belsnickle) or with St. Nicholas-like figures. In time all three amalgamated into the familiar image of Santa, while “Christkindlein” became “Kriss Kringle.”

         The name Santa Claus- or Sinta Claes- is said to be Dutch in origin, However, Ebon cites Dr. Charles W. Jones’ article in the Oct. 1954 issue of the New York Historical Society Quarterly as stating that there is no reference to Santa Claus during the Dutch rule of New Amsterdam (New York). Instead, he identifies the first such reference as occurring in 1773, with an item in the Rivington’s Gazetteer.

         Ebon argues that Jones was saying that “St. Nicholas” was an anti British symbol adopted by the colonists known as the Sons of St. Nicholas, and not meant to be taken seriously.

         While Thomas Nast, who illustrated Christmas issues of Harper’s Weekly between the 1860s and the 1890s, and Haddon Sundblom, who drew a series of Santa images in Coca-Cola Christmas advertisements between 1931 and 1964, are most often credited with creating the modern image of Santa- including his reindeer and sleigh- Ebon includes both Washington Irving and Clement Clarke Moore in that company.

         Irving’s 1809 satirical history of New York, “From The Beginning of the World To the End of The Dutch Dynasty” contained 25 references to St. Nicholas. Moore is credited with writing the poem “A Visit From St. Nicholas” in 1822. It also names eight of Santa’s reindeer.

         According to Robinson, however, some credit a Moore contemporary, Henry Livingston, Jr. as the poem’s author.

         Rudolph, “the most famous reindeer of all” (as the song goes), first appears in 1939, and was conceived by Robert L. May for Montgomery Ward’s advertising department. Rudolph’s creation, Coffin argues, was the one significant addition to the legend since Francis Church’s Sept. 21, 1897 “Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus” editorial in the New York Sun.

         The editorial replied to 8-year-old Virginia O’Hanlon’s letter asking if Santa were real. According to the story, Virginia stated that if something were written in the Sun, it was true.
         Rudolph’s song, “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer”, was written in 1949 by Johnny Marks and recorded by Gene Autry.


         Still shopping for gifts? Here are some suggested DVD box sets. For someone who appreciates good quality science fiction storytelling, as well as first-rate television, consider Babylon 5, which was a five season novel for television with a beginning, middle and end- the first American TV series to take such an approach. More than 85 percent of the episodes were written by the series creator, J. Michael Straczynski, ensuring that the storyline hewed to his vision.

         Among other things, Babylon 5 explores the relationships between individuals and among governments before, during and after a major war. One of the themes of the series is the importance of creating one’s own future and of determining one’s own destiny.

         Got someone on your list who enjoys the Twilight books and movies, and/or the Vampire Diaries books and TV show? Then they might enjoy Buffy the Vampire Slayer, which ran for seven seasons, and/or its spin-off series, Angel, which ran for five seasons (both created by Joss Whedon).

         And going back even further, there’s the excellent 1990s series Forever Knight, which ran for three seasons. It concerns Nicholas De Brabant (using the alias Nick Knight), a 700-year-old vampire who is trying, in part through his work as a Toronto homicide detective, to atone for past crimes and regain his humanity. Nick’s quest is complicated by his love/hate relationship with his sire and father figure, LaCroix, who encourages Nick to embrace his vampiric nature. LaCroix also isn’t above manipulating situations to break Nick’s will.

         Another worthwhile series is Veronica Mars, a mystery drama which ran from 2004 to 2007 on UPN/the CW. Former metro Detroiter Kristen Bell portrayed Veronica, a young woman determined to uncover the truth about her best friend’s murder. Under the tutelage of her father, a private detective and former town sheriff (who was voted out of office because of his own investigations into the crime), Veronica persists despite being ostracized by many of her former friends, and despite threats to her own safety.

         In subsequent seasons, Veronica works to uncover the truth behind a fatal school bus crash; the death of a college dean; and a series of campus rapes, among other crimes.
         So far Sen. Al Fraken’s (D-Minn) “anti-rape” amendment to a defense appropriations bill has survived attempts to water it down. According to an article in the Huffington Post, Franken’s amendment would prevent the government from doing business with contractors who won’t allow sexual assault survivors employed by the contractors to take their cases to court.

         Jamie Leigh Jones, a defense contractor with Halliburton/KBR, has charged that fellow employees assaulted her while she was in Iraq in 2005. According to reports, under the terms of her contract, she could only take the matter through arbitration. However, an appeals court later allowed her to take the case to court, agreeing with her that the alleged attack wasn’t related to her employment.

         On Dec. 15, the Senate Committee on Appropriations passed the defense appropriations bill that included Franken’s amendment.

         The amendment itself retains a provision under Title VII that would allow assault victims to sue the perpetrator’s employer, as well as the perpetrator.

         The Huffington Post article can be read here:

    And an article about Jones’ case can be read here:


         This amendment, with all its teeth intact, needs to remain part of this bill when it comes across the president’s desk. And the president needs to sign it into law. There is no excuse for any company to tell an employee who charges that other employees raped her that she has to take the matter through arbitration. That is beyond disgraceful.

    Copyright 2009 Patrick Keating



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