When we hear about the good old days at this time of year, it usually refers to the era before the notorious Supreme Court decisions Abington School District v. Schempp and Murray v. Curlett that eliminated school prayer and scripture reading, and gradually removed religion from the public square.
I now offer some remembrances—those of a young child, namely this writer…
While there was slightly more overt reference to the religious aspects of Christmas, there was definitely more mention of the commercial holiday aspect, under the title of “Christmas.” Thus, you would see countless ads about Christmas GIFTS, with a traditional-looking Santa always prominent. Arguably, the only difference with the present is that we now seem to talk about gifts for “the holidays,” and the “holiday season,” with merely the word “Christmas” being uttered less.
Quite often, there would be short television specials featuring some celebrity at home with their family, all well-dressed, and sitting next to an oversize Christmas tree. Sometimes, these would take the form of a short and simple Christmas greeting. Folks my age might remember such a program that showed Mommie Dearest Joan Crawford at home, along with tell-all daughter Christina and her little brother.
Running on TV from 1951 through 1966, and shown in prime time until 1960 was Gian Carlo Menotti’s one act opera Amahl and the Night Visitors. The work was written specifically for television, and its libretto is essentially a riff on the three kings story.
On their way to Bethlehem, the kings—bearing gifts—stop to rest at the home of poor cripple Amahl and his mother. They talk of a special child they are soon to meet, and the mother draws the parallel to her own unfortunate son. In desperation, she even tries to steal some gold, and is told by one of the kings to keep it, as the child they seek does not need gold.
Now inspired by the notion that this child may indeed be the Messiah, the mother wants to offer a gift, but has nothing of value. Amahl, too, wants to give a gift to the child, and without thinking about it selflessly offers the crutch that he has been hobbling about on all this time. At that very moment, his crippled leg is healed, and he joyfully goes off with the kings to give thanks for his miracle cure.
This touching story, replete with beautiful songs, was definitely a Christmas highlight for a musical little kid.
When I was in the third grade, I was in the choir (called the glee club), and we were featured in the so-named Christmas pageant. The theme of the play was not terribly religious, and concerned a little girl who just lost her father, but is rendered less sad by the milieu of the Christmas season. I do remember that the glee club teacher, Miss Gagner (pronounced “Gahn-your”), was a blond, and was by far the best looking teacher in the school.
That same year, a number of kids in my class were asked what Christmas meant to them. Two or three of the girls made much of how cold Baby Jesus must have been in the manger, and wished that they could have brought him blankets to warm him up. One boy said that it was the time that all his family got together.
Another lad said that it was the time to get lots of presents, and was even given the opportunity to advance a somewhat less mercenary observation, but declined, and stuck to his original comment. Finally, a slightly chubby girl, who was by no means the smartest or most articulate in the class, said that Christmas was about the birth of Jesus our Savior. This was followed by several seconds of awkward silence, and we moved on to something else.
I still don’t know what the teacher wanted to hear, but surmise that it was something along the lines of “peace on earth, goodwill to men”, minus too much reference to Jesus. This sort of self-restraint by the enlightened was far from uncommon back then, but it just wasn’t called being “politically correct.”
Fifty-plus years later, I would have to conclude that absent the superficial trappings of a supposedly more religious society, things have not changed all that much. Let those who decry the present day war on Christmas recall that our religion was originally practiced in the catacombs, and even during the best of times has always been opposed by the world.
Perhaps those who believe that the US is a Christian nation, also believe that President Bush is a conservative.