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Our sacred symbols of Christmas

    IF POSSIBLE PLEASE USE THIS Jack Gunsser brought Christmas items and explained their traditions at Palmerton Area Historical Society banquet.
Published December 16. 2011 05:00PM

Betsy Burnhauser, secretary of the Palmerton Area Historical Society, introduced the speaker for the Christmas banquet held Dec. 12 at the Blue Ridge Country Club.

According to Burnhauser, Jack Gunsser is one person who draws a lot of people to the January show-and-tell meeting of the Society. He will entertain and educate you, said Burnhauser.

Gunsser asked everyone to get up and stretch before he began his talk about Christmas traditions.

His subject was where traditions came from and where we're going. "With a strict German father, all we did was go to church," he said. They were told they did not deserve presents because they had been given the present of life.

The Christmas we celebrate is not very old. It begins with Advent, the fourth Sunday before Christmas Day, and ends with Epiphany on January 6. Christmas is a combination of pagan and Christian holidays and some of what he will present is not necessarily true, Gunsser said.

Our Christmas is based on Christmas traditions established in 350 A.D. Why is it December 25? The Romans had a 360-day calendar because the Sumerians believed 60 was a magic number. They had 10 months of 36 days in a year. But Julius and Augustus, Roman Caesars, added the months of July and August. The Saturnalia - the feast of the harvest - lasted five days beginning on Dec. 25. The church took the pagan feast and made it into a Christian holiday. After the year 350 A.D. it spread all over Europe.

The Puritans did not celebrate Christmas. The Dutch, Swedes and English were the first to bring the holiday to this country. Since the United States was a melting pot the traditions were a hodgepodge.

"I got dressed and what do I wear?" asked Gunsser. He had a bright red and green tie. Red was for energy and the blood of Christ. Green is an eternal color, everlasting, so the tradition is red and green.

A bell is the sound of an angel. It brings good news and drives out evil spirits. "We use them to say good news is coming," said Gunsser.

What are angels? There are guardian angels. They announced the birth of Jesus and filled the heavens. They surrounded the Child. What do they look like - white robes and wings? No one knows.

"X" used to designate Christmas is considered disrespectful but X is the symbol for Christ in Greek.

Many people have nativity sets. They provide a pictorial story of the birth of Christ. He showed Mary and the Baby in bisque and a larger group on a chromo-litho picture. "We really have no idea of what it was like because we do not have photos or sketches," said Gunsser. "This is what we think it was like but it is probably inaccurate."

In 1273, St. Francis of Assissi put a crèche outside with real people and real animals who posed but did not speak for those who could not read. "Many people have them but will it be so in 25 years? Will your grandchildren? I don't know," he said.

The Star of Bethlehem was supposed to be over the spot where the Christ Child was born. It led the Wise Men. Was it a meteor, a comet, a planetary conjunction? From 5 B.C. all three happened. Maybe the star is true. It happens every 314 years and will again in 2200.

"Is it a miracle? The concept is important like these white lights on the tree (beside which he was standing). The Wise Men brought gold, frankincense and myrrh."

Gold was a sign of wealth, frankincense a form of incense to chase away spirits and myrrh is a burial ointment. Was there magic in the number 3 - the gifts of the Magi?

Christmas is gift time. If you were bad you got a lump of coal. We got an onion if we were bad. Good kids got oranges, toys and practical presents. He showed a Noah's Ark with miniature animals under the roof to use with the ark. The Christian tradition had presents that instructed in that tradition. For boys it might be trains or hammers because they were occupational. Gifts still do that.

Candles are traditional. Hanukkah is the Feast of Lights. Jesus is the Light of the World. Candles in a window are a sign of welcome. A candle is a fire, an energy, warmth, not like this little Chinese thing. Gunsser holds up a small square with a "flame" on top. A candle should not be allowed to burn out until 12th night.

Santa Claus is derived from St. Nicholas who was born in 270 - a Turkish, Catholic bishop who rode a white horse and wore a red cloak. He carried a staff and a Book of Sins. A poor family could not marry off their three daughters because there was no dowry. So St. Nicholas climbed up on the roof and dropped enough gold for a dowry, and did it again and again until all three girls were married. Each time the gold fell in a stocking.

A merchant killed three seminarians and put them in a pickle barrel. St. Nicholas came along and brought them back to life. That is why a pickle is placed as an ornament on a tree. It is hidden and if a child finds it there will be an extra gift. If an adult finds it there is good luck.

From the saint came the legends surrounding Santa Claus, or in Pa. Deitsch, the Belsnickle. At one time his most important name was Kriss Kringle - the Christ Child.

Washington Irving's story of "Knickerbocker's History of New York" contained references to a St Nicholas character in 1809. Clement Moore filled out the story of a man who flew in the sky. He has whiskers, a red coat, and a sleigh with reindeer. The reindeer were named. All had special meanings. Dunder and Blitzen were thunder and lightning.

However, it was probably Major Henry Livingston Jr. who wrote the story. It was stolen by a nanny and given to Moore who changed some words and published it under his name.

Mrs. Claus was introduced in 1899. In 1939, "Rudolph" was added for a five-year-old child. Her father was asked to write a story by Montgomery Ward which had Santa in its stores. They tried the name Rollo and Reginald, but Rudolph was the one that fit.

Society members recited the poem to see how much they remembered.

Another Christmas character is Scrooge found in "A Christmas Carol in Prose Being a Ghost Story of Christmas" by Charles Dickens. It reads biographically since Dickens was an unhappy man.

Christmas cards began in 1843 when a thousand were printed because someone wanted to see if the British Post Office could deliver them.

The Christmas tree is evergreen, the Paradise Tree. The Idea began in France where it was associated with religion. The story was that the tree grew in the Garden of Eden. Martin Luther took it to Germany because he could see the stars through its branches. Hessian soldiers brought it to America.

In 1856, President Franklin Pierce put a tree in the White House. Typically, candles as decorations caused a lot of fires. They represented the light of the world, the stars peaking through.

Gunsser brought a glass-blown ornament lined with mercury in the form of a pinecone. The ornaments were called glass junk. They were hung in hallways, not on trees. F.W. Woolworth brought them to market.

Tinsel was developed to imitate the spider webs that were found on a tree.

"The Christmas I know and you do has certainly changed. It doesn't matter what your celebrate. It is a family tradition. Pass it on," Gunsser said. "It is a feast of love that we all have to share if we want the peace of the Christ Child to be here."

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