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
The rest of us drew names each summer for the Christmas gift
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
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
Only in 1856 was Christmas made a legal holiday in
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?