'Origins of Christmas Traditions' presentation
AL ZAGOFSKY/SPECIAL TO THE TIMES NEWS John Gunsser holds a late 19th century Noah's Arc toy. The toy, an inexpensive German assemblage of wood covered with a lithographed design, served to illustrate a Biblical lesson.
Why do people celebrate Christmas by chopping down a tree, bringing it indoors, and decorating it? Why are cards exchanged? Why are toys given as presents, and how did Santa Claus come to be?
The answer my friend is not blowing in the wind. Nope. It's at the "Origins of Christmas Traditions" presentation by teacher and historian John Gunsser at the Dimmick Memorial Library Annex at 58 Broadway in Jim Thorpe on Sunday, Dec. 13 at 2 p.m. The event, followed by refreshments of homemade cookies, is hosted by the Friends of the Dimmick Library.
According to Gunsser, many of the popular Christmas traditions in America trace their heritage to the Victorian period. The English queen was setting the standard for what was fashionable, especially to the English, Irish and Germans who had settled in America.
Gunsser notes that the Christmas tree became popular in England in 1841 when Queen Victoria's husband, Prince Albert, brought it from Germany into Windsor Castle. In a newspaper, the Royals were illustrated standing around a Christmas tree, and the tradition of decorating a tree became fashionable.
Christmas cards became available as inexpensive printing made illustrated post cards affordable. And what about wreaths, candles and mistletoe?
Although St. Nick and other personages have been part of the Christmas tradition for ages, the Santa Claus with the red suit and black boots has only been around since Coca Cola ran a 1931 ad campaign featuring the jovial "Ho, Ho, Ho" character.
Gunsser, wearing a Victorian reproduction suit, made-to-order by a former student turned costumer, will illustrate his presentation with period displays, such as a late 19th century Noah's Ark toy.
The toy, an inexpensive German assemblage of wood covered with a lithographed design, served to illustrate a biblical lesson. Gunsser suggests that the giving of toys on Christmas began with a religious purpose.
Gunsser grew up in Philadelphia and Pen Argyl. After graduating from Pen Argyl High School, his family moved to Jim Thorpe in 1956 to be closer to his father's sportswear manufacturing business.
Gunsser graduated from East Stroudsburg State University with a BS in Education with a major in chemistry and math; and from Temple University with an MS in Science Education. He taught at Panther Valley High School, retiring in 1995. Since retiring, he has become a professional tutor and is associated with Prosper, Lehigh Carbon Community College, and the Carbon County Career Institute. From 1962 to 1995, he served as the curator for the Asa Packer Mansion.
He has been exposed to a variety of Christmas traditions through his parents.
"My dad, Fred, was German Lutheran, he said. "My mom, Mary, was Irish Catholic."My dad was an intellectual and my mother was fun-she was a hoot."
"Personally, I have a problem celebrating it with all the commercialism," he said. "I don't celebrate it like most folks. I don't buy gifts."
"I go to church, visit people. It's a time to see relatives. It's the season where most people are in good humor. I'm OK with it."
"I had my problems with Christmas when my wife, Carole, got sick," Gunsser noted. "It made life different because we didn't have the family thing."
Gunsser met Carol Burnhauser when she worked at Dickmans, a shop that sold washer and dryer appliances in East Jim Thorpe. Both were valedictorians in their classes of 1961. They married in 1966 and they had two boys. She worked at Scotty Fashions and served for 11 years as the principal's secretary at Carbon County Vocational Technical High School, now CCTI.
In 1976, Carol was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis. She worked at the Vo-Tech until her MS forced her to resign in 1986. In 1990, she entered the Lehighton Nursing home. She passed away in 2002.
"When Carole was here, we celebrated Christmas Eve," John said. "We always had family members. But when she got sick, we couldn't do that. I felt a little cheated."
So, instead of celebrating a family Christmas, Gunsser will be sharing his Christmas insights and stories with his friends at the Dimmick Library Annex.