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Herb Opalek: Feliz Navidad or God Jul

Herb Opalek

There are many quaint customs that have arisen around Christmas.

Some of us put a candle in the window; others hang mistletoe and holly around the house. Many sing carols, put up nativity scenes, and decorate Christmas trees.

The origins of these traditions are often clothed in myth and mystique. They come from all four corners of our Earth. It is these customs and traditions add to our joy of celebrating the birth of Jesus the Christ.

The Christmas tree emerged from the "Paradise Tree," an evergreen tree decorated with apples and used in a popular play held on Dec. 24 in medieval Germany.

Martin Luther is credited with being the first to decorate a tree with lights. As he walked through the woods near his home, he looked up into the night sky and thought about the star that led the wise men to the Holy Child.

He took home a small tree and decorated it with candles to represent the stars he saw that night.

German emigrants brought the first Christmas trees to America as early as 1747.

In 1851, Mark Carr opened the first retail Christmas tree lot in the United States, hauling his trees from the Catskills to New York City.

These early-American trees were decorated with candles, popcorn, nuts, and homemade paper ornaments.

The candy cane started out about 400 years ago as a plain stick of white candy. Europeans put them on their trees as decorations along with fruits and cookies.

In 1670, a choirmaster in Germany gave the candy to the children attending his church's nativity service so that they would be quiet.

To make the candy reminiscent of Christ, he bent the candy into the shape of a shepherd's staff.

In 1847, a German immigrant named August Imgard decorated his tree with them.

About 50 years later the first candy canes with red stripes appeared.

As to good ole Santa Claus, St. Nicholas was born in 280 A.D. in Patara, in Asia Minor. Legend says that when he was born he stood up in a tub, clasped his hands, and thanked God for bringing him into the world.

Much of the information we have on St. Nicholas' life comes in the form of legends, but there are some kernels of truth among all the legends.

Nicholas' parents died while he was young leaving him great wealth. Instead of wasting it, he gave much of the money to the church and the poor.

Nicholas became bishop of Myra in 325 A.D. As bishop he became well known for his great generosity and his love for children. Nicholas died on Dec. 6, 343. Many European countries celebrate this date as St. Nicholas' Day, and gifts are given on that day rather than Dec. 25.

The legend of St. Nicholas came to America when the Dutch settled in New York.

St. Nicholas' northern residence, fur-lined suit, and reindeer-pulled sleigh came from the Slavic regions. His red suit, his secret arrival, and his giving to good boys and girls came from Europe.

Engravings by Thomas Nast in the 1800s and paintings by Haddon Sundbloom, in the mid-1900s, as ads for Coca-cola, allowed the world to see Santa as we know him today.

There are some countries where Santa Claus, is not the gift-giver.

In parts of Italy, southern France, Switzerland, Austria and Russia, the three wise men deliver the gifts.

In other parts of Italy and Russia, the gift giver is Befana, a witch who rides a broom and goes down the chimney of every house looking for the Christ child and leaves gifts for all good children on the eve of Epiphany, Jan. 5.

In Spain, the gift giver is Balthazar, one of the three wise men.

The custom of hanging stockings by the fireplace began around 300 A.D.

Legend tells of three daughters of a poor miller who could not marry because they had no dowry. St. Nicholas, upon hearing of their plight, passed by their house in the middle of the night and tossed three bags of gold coins down the chimney of the girls' house. The bags landed in stockings, which the girls had hung to dry the evening before.

The tradition of giving gifts at Christmas is attributed to the wise men who gave gold, frankincense and myrrh to the Christ Child.

However, the true origin of gift-giving at Christmas is described in the Gospel of John, "For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son. That whosoever believeth in Him shall not perish but have everlasting life."

Lastly, we should not forget the Nativity scenes.

To Christians they are a picture of the poverty and squalor into which Jesus was born; serving as a reminder to never forget the poor.

The first nativity scene was set up by Francis of Assisi on Dec. 24, 1223. Popular, in many heritages, are painted nativity scenes, living nativity scenes and dramas that portray the birth of Christ.

In Mexico, for example, people participate in Las Posadas, a commemoration of Mary and Joseph's journey to Bethlehem and their search for lodging.

Whatever custom you have inherited, we all share in the joy of this holiday time.

Merry Christmas!

Herbert A. Opalek is CEO of the Merced County Rescue Mission. He writes a column every other Saturday.

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