Of Christmases past

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hen I was a child, Christmas meant traveling (not very far) to my grandparents' home on an Iowa farm for a gathering of the Godwin clan.

Everyone brought side dishes and desserts, and Grandma prepared the main course.

Each family brought gifts for my grandparents and for the new babies.

The rest of us drew names each summer for the Christmas gift exchange.

One year I received a small manicure set. I had never seen one before and was rather ungrateful. I wound up using the set for about 25 years.

I also recall big trees -- or maybe they just looked big -- and lots of candy.

My grandmother moved like a buzzsaw at such events. After watching her for the day, my mother went home exhausted.

By the standards of ancient or modern festivities, our secular observances of Christmas were (and are) low key.

Early church fathers would have disapproved anyway. They said it was a sin to observe Christ's birth "as though He were a King Pharaoh," according to the book "Extraordinary Origins of Ordinary Things."

The church, when it yielded on this point in the fourth century, chose a pagan holiday, Dec. 25, in order to be competitive with Mithraism, a religion of sun-worshippers.

If not for that, we might have had a spring holiday. The Bible says, at the time of Christ's birth, shepherds were watching their sheep by night. Keeping vigil over sheep day and night only occurred at lambing time, in the spring. Early theologians favored May 20 as the birthday.

In this country, the Puritans in 1659 banned Christmas celebrations other than a religious service. You could be fined for violations.

Only in 1856 was Christmas made a legal holiday in Massachusetts.

Meanwhile, Americans have adopted the tree, holiday cards, gift-giving and Santa Claus, traditions that were brought from Europe. However, the original St. Nicholas was born in fourth century Turkey. After St. Nick crossed the ocean with the Dutch, he became Santa Claus and he got fat. (Also, interestingly, there seems to be no link between Christmas gift-giving and the gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh brought to Christ.)

These ruminations on Christmas were written for an issue dated Dec. 25, but I saved the travel link for last.

I don't have to tell you how thoroughly Christmas and travel are entwined these days.

But going back 2,000 or so years, how can we forget the young family bounced from an inn in Bethlehem or Three Wise Men rushing in from the Orient to visit them?

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