Wish I Was At Home For Christmas

Just how long has this lament been uttered by soldiers, sailors, students and expats of all stripes at this time of year?  By Jove, that’s an interesting question.

For over three centuries Easter was Christendom’s foremost holiday. Since there is no mention of Jesus’ birth date in the Bible, Christmas was an abstract notion until 350 AD when Pope Julius I decreed that a Feast of the Nativity be celebrated on December 25th.

It was a well-considered choice in an age when Christianity was not yet the official religion of Rome.  Observing Christmas on the Winter Solstice – which fell on the 25th under the Roman calendar – enabled the Church to convert legions of pagans with the assurance that, as Christians, they could still celebrate the ancient festival of Saturnalia.

Commencing with a human sacrifice before the Temple of Saturn, and then carrying on for a number of days, Saturnalia was beset with overeating, intoxication, gambling, nakedness (especially while singing  in the street), flagrant sexual indulgence, and – one mustn’t forget – gift giving, all of which ended on the 25th with the pagan rite of Natis Solis Invicti (Birth of the Sun God) that promised the return of daylight in the months ahead.

As Christianity supplanted paganism throughout Western Europe, the vestiges of this not-so-pious celebration tagged along (minus the human sacrifice and with Baby Jesus far outshining the Sun God) while adopting other pagan customs along the way.

Yule, for example, had long been celebrated in Scandinavia. For the great 12-day Solstice feast enormous Yule logs were burned and having festooned their homes with holly, ivy, and other evergreens in the spirit of rejuvenation, revelers feasted, sang, and danced in praise of light and life.

Christmas reached England in the 6th Century and by the reign of Henry VIII the holiday had become quite the Yuletide extravaganza with lavish pageants and sporting events, feasting and dancing, and the customary debauchery that squares so nicely with a Midnight Mass.

This midwinter bacchanal was merrily upheld by Henry’s Tudor and Stuart successors into the 17th Century until  – sigh, no party lasts forever – the rise of the Puritans and Lord Protector Cromwell, who forbade all religious festivals especially Christmas with its gluttony, drunkenness, promiscuity … and lewd caroling. Such distain was shared by the Pilgrims of New England, who demonstrated their contempt for the New World’s first Christmas (and those that followed) by treating it like any other working day.

Although it was modestly observed in the Southern Colonies, Christmas was out-and-out outlawed in Boston as it had been in England and Scotland. “The early Christians who first observed the Nativity on December 25 did not do so thinking that Christ was born in that month,” wrote the Reverend Increase Mather, “but because the heathens’ Saturnalia was at that time kept in Rome, and they were willing to have those pagan holidays metamorphosed into Christian ones.”

Fortunately (for all those Whos in Whoville) Christmas did return, albeit as a ghost of its former self (goodbye gambling, drunkenness, promiscuity, and lewd caroling). It returned to England (but not for a long while to Scotland) after the coronation of Charles II. And with the advent of the Enlightenment, Christmas muddled along in the Colonies, where there was little agreement as to whether it should be seen as sacred, secular, or simply sacrilegious.

It wasn’t until after the American Revolution, when New Yorkers expressed an interest in the city’s non-English past, that Washington Irving began to make his indelible impact on the season. Published in 1809, his Knickerbocker’s History of New York, included a story about the Dutch Sinterklaas, aka St. Nicholas, who smoked a pipe and rode in a wagon over the tree tops to place gifts in the stockings that children had hung by the chimney.

Years later his friend, Clement Clarke Moore would further define the modern image of Santa Clause (and Father Christmas) by turning the wagon into a sleigh with eight tiny reindeer in his iconic poem that began with the lines“Twas the night before Christmas…” Yet by the time Dasher, Dancer, Prancer, Vixen, Comet, Cupid, Donner and Blitzen had become household names with the publication of Moore’s poem in 1822, Irving had been instrumental once again in helping to shape the holiday as we know it.

While living in England he serially published his Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent (1819/20), which in addition to Rip Van Winkle and  The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, featured tales of near-forgotten English holiday traditions such as the charitable ushering of the poor into the homes of the wealthy for dinner with all the trappings, and the essential ground rules regarding mistletoe.

“The mistletoe is still hung up in farmhouses and kitchens at Christmas,” he wrote, “and the young men have the privilege of kissing the girls under it, plucking each time a berry from the bush. When the berries are all plucked, the privilege ceases.”

Back home, Washington Irving’s countrymen delighted in his seasonal stories of hearth, home and humanity; as did another friend of his, Charles Dickens, who in 1843 hugely inspired his Victorian readership by capturing the spirit of goodwill, family gatherings, and festive generosity with A Christmas Carol.  And then there was the greatest doyen of Christmas Future, Queen Victoria herself.

The holiday may have endured a long fugue state in Britain and America but with its lovely caroles (carols), plätzchen (Christmas cookies), hexenhauses (gingerbread houses), glühwein (mulled wine), christstollen (fruitcake), and especially with its tannenbaums (Christmas trees), Christmas in der Fatherland had always remained clean and bright.

With a German mother (Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz), Victoria fondly remembered  childhood Christmases spent with her family opening presents around a beautifully ornamented tree; a tradition that was expanded upon by her beloved German husband, Prince Albert, who encouraged his family to decorate the tree themselves.

However, not until The Illustrated News (1848) published a rendering of the Royal Family with their Christmas tree in Windsor Castle, did many of her subjects even consider such a thing (a tree inside your home?).  Once they did, most clamored to get one too, as did many  of their fashion-conscious American cousins.

By the time Christmas became a recognized U.S. federal holiday in 1870, the jovial celebration with presents around the tree and a festive meal with turkey, goose, or ham followed by mince pie and plum pudding, was well on its way to becoming an All-American tradition.

Meanwhile across the waves, Christmas had become firmly re-established as Britannia’s most beloved holiday. Realizing this, Victoria – who felt great sympathy for those who fought for Queen and Country in the far reaches of her empire – began to send ornate tin boxes of chocolates as a present from their grateful sovereign. It was a practice that (even after her death) would be repeated on each Christmas day of the Great War (WWI).

Which finally brings us to this, Jona Lewie’s December 1980 song (peaking at Number 3 on the UK Singles charts) about the eternal plight of those who in this season of light, would rather be dancing in the arms of the ones they love…

Stop the Calvary

Hey, Mr. Churchill comes over here

To say we’re doing splendidly

But it’s very cold out here in the snow,

Marching to win from the enemy

Oh I say it’s tough, I have had enough

Can you stop the cavalry?

I have had to fight, almost every night

Down throughout these centuries

That is when I say, oh yes yet again

Can you stop the cavalry?

Mary Bradley waits at home

In the nuclear fall-out zone

Wish I could be dancing now

In the arms of the girl I love

Dub a dub a dum dum

Dub a dub a dum

Dub a dum dum dub a dub

Dub a dub a dum

Dub a dub a dum dum

Dub a dub a dum

Dub a dum dum dub a dub

Dub a dub a dum

Wish I was at home for Christmas

Bang! That’s another bomb on another town

While Luzar and Jim have tea

If I get home, live to tell the tale

I’ll run for all presidencies

If I get elected I’ll stop, I will stop the cavalry

Dub a dub a dum dum

Dub a dub a dum

Dub a dum dum dub a dub

Dub a dub a dum

Dub a dub a dum dum

Dub a dub a dum

Dub a dum dum dub a dub

Dub a dub a dum

Wish I was at home for Christmas

Wish I could be dancing now

In the arms of the girl I love

Mary Bradley waits at home

She has been waiting two years long

Wish I was at home for Christmas

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