By Bob Ferris
It is interesting to see the current rhetoric about the "War on Christmas" which is being promoted by the most self-righteous and intolerant among us. These are those who shake, rattle and roll with religion and cannot seem to have any conversation that does not ultimately swing around to some mention of God, Jesus or being saved. They also seem to be the ones who festoon themselves with all manner of symbols proclaiming their Christianity from cross-shaped earrings and necklaces to devotional t-shirts much as the Puritans wore black and the simple as overt signs of their devotion.
We live in a country with freedom of religion, so fine...great for you. The operative word being "you." But problems arise when the "you" seeks to include and control "me" and others not "you." It is instructive to remember that the first War on Christmas on this continent was waged by the Puritans who banned the celebration in 1659. These folks, unbridled and in full control of government, followed up that enlightened action a generation and half later by hanging witches including one of my long-ago grandmothers, Mary Towne Estey, on my mother's side.
Now I will admit to having double-dipped Puritan roots in that both my mother and father descend from families on the Mayflower so I cannot escape genetic responsibility but I am likely more proud of those who resisted this prohibition and understood the social value of a time-honored and frequently-pagan celebration at this time of year to chase away the frozen cobwebs of our souls. Perhaps the laughter and frivolity of it all was a type of early Vitamin D surrogate.
Enter ancestors Annetjie Loockermans Van Cortlandt and her daughter Maria. The former is rumored to have celebrated Christmas openly in the New Netherlands colony and the latter certainly did as we have the above receipt from Walter the Baker (Wouter Albertsz) from 1675 which includes types of cookies that were essentially Saint Nicholas treats. It is important to note here also that the wife of Clement Moore, Catherine Elizabeth Taylor, who wrote "A Visit from St. Nicholas" (now know as "Twas the Night Before Christmas") also descended from Annetjie and her husband Olaff Van Cortlandt. Way to go knickerbockers!
For me there are number of lessons in all of this. First, is that there is an almost universal need throughout cultures and belief systems to celebrate something when the skies are darkest and the days most short. We should do so regardless of our beliefs. It matters less what you celebrate and more that you do celebrate. So kick up your heels and do something.
Moreover, these celebrations work best on a landscape of honesty and tolerance not one that waits anxiously to pounce on the newest Starbuck's cup design or a friendly, more inclusive seasonal greeting. Sure you can emulate the Puritans and push for a "pure" Christmas but you should also remember that you probably do so while talking about some variant of Saint Nicholas which in its purest form includes mention of the walking-lump-of-stocking-coal known as the Krampus marching in the above video.
Your celebration also likely involves a decorated tree with complicated and convoluted roots both in Paganism and Christianity. Sure Martin Luther is credited in some circles with this "tree" idea but golly the Vikings, Romans, Egyptians, and Chinese used it also in pre-Christian times. (And don't even get me started on the Druids.) Even the two Judeo-Christian holy days are named either for the sun or for the god Saturn. My point being that no matter how pure we think ourselves, we are products of many cultures and beliefs (take a DNA test). So why not celebrate the season with curiosity and wonder rather than hatred and spite?
|Theodore Roosevelt, also a descendant of Annetje Loockermans (as are the acting Fondas and Elizabeth Schuyler Hamilton), was one of at least three presidents who was not holding a Bible while sworn into office.|
"Oh blessed Season! Lov'd by Saints and Sinners/ for long Devotions, or for longer Dinners." Benjamin Franklin 1739I am with old Ben: Celebrate the season for whatever reason, whoever you are, and in your own manner. For me my inner knickerbocker seeks some ancient memory more than a century before the sleigh lithograph (at top) when Captain Petrus Douw and his wife Anna Van Rensselaer (granddaughter of Maria Van Cortland) lived at Wolven Hoeck (Wolf Corner) and drove sleighs on the frozen river where their son Volkert Petrus Douw later raced his famous horse "Sturgeon" to victory across the softened ice. I wonder what it was like to spend Christmas in this manor house (see below) where Indian treaties were signed, a barrel of spiced wine sat, and the stone above the entry door was incised with the initials PD and AVR. Happy Holidays all!