Today in History
History's Happenings for December 25
"... And lo, the star, which they saw in the East, went before them, till it came and stood where the young child was.
Thus was born the child who would, thirty three years later, sacrifice Himself for the sins of a world which would forever after bear His reflection.
Science says that Christ was, in fact, born in 3 BC -- a bit of a paradox, but understandable when one considers that the calendar we use today is the product of mere human hands, and has been tweaked at least once since the Big Day. What time and even which day saw His birth is a matter both undiscoverable and of no consequence.
For He was surely born, surely lived a miraculous life, and as surely died on the cross, giving His life for our salvation. We choose to celebrate the gift of His birth on this day, the second most holy on the Christian calendar.
Although Christ's birth has always been celebrated at the end of December, the raising of Christmas to its current spectacle owes more to the pressure of mercantilism than to religion. Over the past century or two, what was an important but little-celebrated holiday involving the exchange of gifts was recognized as an opportunity by merchants, and hyped into today's retail bonanza.
It's easy to forget that the anniversary is really two thousand-plus years old.
And far more important than the exchange of sneakers, ties and CD-players.
It would be great, as we put on those new Asian-made $150 sneakers, if we also thought about walking in His shoes.
"And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night.
William the Conqueror, Duke of Normandy in western France, crossed the English Channel with his army in September, 1066, and conquered the English army under King Harold II near Hastings on October 14.
He was proclaimed king by the Saxon Witan (council) -- not that they had a lot of choice, but William had some arguments in his favor besides force of arms.
On Christmas Day, 1066, King William I of England, the first of the Norman line that has since produced, directly or indirectly, all of Britain's monarchs, was crowned in Westminster Abbey near London.
Prior to the Norman Conquest, Saxon kings had largely been crowned in Winchester Cathedral, in the old Saxon capital of Winchester. William's coronation set a new tradition which has lasted to this day.
After his surprising victory at Harlem Heights, near New York City, on September 16th, General George Washington had led the Continental Army on a long retreat across New Jersey, hotly pursued by the Redcoats under British General Howe. December found them on the Pennsylvania side of the Delaware River, with Howe setting up his defensive perimeter from Trenton to Perth Amboy, New Jersey.
At Trenton Howe stationed a few British regulars reinforced with German Hessian soldiers. They felt secure enough against the ragtag American army they had just chased across the colony to enjoy a proper Christmas.
If this seems a low point for the fortunes of American Independence, what happened next rings through history. On a cold, wet Christmas Night, 1776, Washington mustered out his men and, taking great risks in a bold stroke, crossed the ice-choked Delaware in small boats with 2400 Continentals. Through the night they marched in several columns, slogging through icy mud with horse and cannon in an attempt to achieve surprise.
As dawn broke, the Americans surprised the Hessian garrison in Trenton, blasting the enemy with cannon and small arms as they tumbled, confused and hung over, out into the street. The stirring victory chewed off Howe's southern anchor and, understandably, bolstered American spirits.
Buoyed by success, Washington's army marched north and, a week later, reprised the victory at the Battle of Princeton.
The 1890's, much like today, were a time of self-satisfaction in America. The new middle class had emerged comfortably from mid-century industrialization; politically, liberalism (though clearly distinct from modern liberalism) had taken root with its wide views of personal freedom and equality; and science had decided it had discovered about all there was to be discovered. Life was comfy. It was truly the "gay nineties".
In the fall of 1897, a little girl named Virginia, apparently reaching that age when doubt about childhood magic starts to creep in, wrote a letter to the New York Sun worrying whether Santa Claus really existed.
In a response that seems to break with the humanist tendencies of the times, editor Frank P. Church wrote his renowned and inspiring editorial in answer to little Virginia's concern. We think his response is still valid and meaningful today. Although originally printed in September, we'd like to share it with you -- as so many papers do -- on this very important day.
The New York Sun, September 21, 1897:
"Virginia, your little friends are wrong. They have been affected by the scepticism of a sceptical age. They do not believe except they see. They think that nothing can be which is not comprehensible by their little minds. All minds, Virginia, whether they be men's or children's, are little. In this great universe of ours, man is a mere insect, an ant, in his intellect as compared with the boundless world about him, as measured by the intelligence capable of grasping the whole of truth and knowledge.
"Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus.
"He exists as certainly as love and generosity and devotion exist, and you know that they abound and give to your life its highest beauty and joy. Alas! how dreary would be the world if there were no Santa Claus! It would be as dreary as if there were no Virginias. There would be no childlike faith then, no poetry, no romance to make tolerable this existence. We should have no enjoyment, except in sense and sight. The external light with which childhood fills the world would be extinguished.
"Not believe in Santa Claus! You might as well not believe in fairies. You might get your papa to hire men to watch in all the chimneys on Christmas eve to catch Santa Claus, but even if you did not see Santa Claus coming down, what would that prove? Nobody sees Santa Claus, but that is no sign that there is no Santa Claus. The most real things in the world are those that neither children nor men can see. Did you ever see fairies dancing on the lawn? Of course not, but that's no proof that they are not there. Nobody can conceive or imagine all the wonders there are unseen and unseeable in the world.
"You tear apart the baby's rattle and see what makes the noise inside, but there is a veil covering the unseen world which not the strongest man, nor even the united strength of all the strongest men that ever lived could tear apart. Only faith, poetry, love, romance, can push aside that curtain and view and picture the supernal beauty and glory beyond. Is it all real? Ah, Virginia, in all this world there is nothing else real and abiding.
"No Santa Claus? Thank God he lives and lives forever. A thousand years from now, Virginia, nay 10 times 10,000 years from now, he will continue to make glad the heart of childhood.
"Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!!!!"
The Sun reprinted this editorial every Christmas season until it went out of business in 1949. Many newspapers continue to print it today.
As Mr. Church intimated…just when you think you know everything, remember that on the scale of God's universe, you know nothing.