Musings on Christmas past, present and future
Carol Kammen, Correspondent
December 22, 2016
The historic figure known as St. Nicholas lived in the 4th century. Born to a wealthy family in Asia Minor, he was orphaned, left the family fortune, and raised by an uncle who was a bishop.
Over the years, St. Nicholas acquired a number of roles and attributes: He was the patron saint of sailors, merchants, archers, repentant thieves, children, brewers, pawnbrokers and students. And he is beloved in a number of religious traditions.
So bifurcated is St. Nicholas that his bones can be found in two separate places.
He has also changed overtime. Once an aesthetic monk, he had grown in Saint Nicholas, the roly-poly man with a pack on his back expecting cookies each time he comes down a chimney. He keeps the post office to which children send their Christmas wishes.
Those wishes have changed over time. In the 19th century, Christmas often meant going to church and receiving an orange — much prized and infrequently enjoyed in those days.
For some, recalled E.R. Eastman, who grew up over in Berkshire, a turkey, games — tiddly-winks and dominoes dominated — and the holiday was enhanced by visiting and with songs. The family gathered around the piano and sang songs that “would really stir your blood.” It was an era when people made their own music.
Carrie Manning, the young teen who kept a diary, noted that she went to school on Dec. 24, where the class read compositions and spoke pieces, meaning that they recited memorized poems.
Lois O’Connor, writer and Tompkins County historian, beloved by all who remember her, thought of Christmas as a community affair rather than a family party.
In our own times, Christmas is often heralded in by a fierce competition for the right presents, beginning after Thanksgiving and lasting throughout December.
Toys have changed: From dolls and blocks, children today hope to receive Lego and electronics of all sorts. There has been a move from the handmade to the mass-produced, with the items desired the same everywhere. Plastics are involved today, rather than wood.
As we age, our own desires for Christmas switch from wanting things for ourselves to hoping that we can please others with carefully thought-out gifts and with wishes — and even actions in the form of checks — for the community.
The Food Bank of the Southern Tier (388 Upper Oakwood Ave., Elmira, NY 14903) is always in need. I support Loaves & Fishes, which feeds people daily — 210 N. Cayuga St., Ithaca, NY 14850.
Planned Parenthood (620 W. Seneca St. Ithaca NY 14850) provides medical services for women and girls, and the Family & Children Services (127 W. State St., Ithaca), the Ithaca Health Alliance (521 W. Seneca St., Ithaca), Hospicare (172 W. King St., Ithaca, all 14850) and other providers of care are deserving of our contributions.
Our cultural organizations also deserve our aid as they add so much to the rich life in this community. Everyone has favorites, but it is important that we appreciate the wide range of museums, performing groups and galleries we have to fill our lives with joy.
Political action is always important and one of the responsibilities of citizenship. We need vigilance concerning actions of government. We should run for office or help others do so. We are a wonderful country with diverse views to which we all can contribute, knowing that it is our duty and privilege to do so.
My Christmas and holiday wish is that everyone is healthy, has work that brings a sense of accomplishment, and has family and friends with which to celebrate and who bring consolation in time of sadness. Do smile at someone you do not know, contribute to a cause you believe in, take a child by the hand, sing a bit, walk in the woods, wave to a neighbor, and rejoice that we are together.Merry Christmas to you all.Carol Kammen is the Tompkins County historian and the author of several books on local history.