The Great Crusade: Remembering D-Day

(Updated for 2014)

The date was June 6, 1944. The biggest invasion fleet ever assembled was about to depart their ports in Britain, on the way to their landing areas, the beaches of Normandy, France. It was the launch of the “Great Crusade”-Operation OVERLORD, the 1944 seaborne invasion of France by the combined forces of the US, Britain, Free France, Belgium, and Poland, and the beginning of the liberation of Western Europe, occupied by the Nazis since the lightning victory of 1940. Supreme Commander General Dwight D. Eisenhower nervously fingered the note in his pocket: the note in which he defended his troops and accepted full responsibility for the failure of the invasion. There was reason to worry: while success may seem inevitable in hindsight, poor weather had already delayed the invasion by a day, the degree of success in Allied deception operations was unknown, and the Germans in the West had had four years to prepare their defenses AND were being commanded by Field Marshal Erwin Rommel, the famed “Desert Fox” who had taught the Allies such painful lessons in mobile warfare in North Africa in 1942. A thousand troops had been killed just practicing for the invasion, when the landing craft were surprised by German E-boats. The rough seas were destined to sink many of the ‘swimming’ tanks, and the minefield-clearing flail tanks developed by the British were not included in the American order of battle. It was a gigantic gamble, with the highest possible stakes. Long demanded by Stalin and obsessed over by Hitler, this invasion was considered the decisive engagement of the war by Rommel’s superior, Field Marshal Gerd von Rundstedt. While this is debatable, its role as a decisive engagement is beyond question.

As the defining event of the Twentieth Century, the Second World War and the experiences of those who fought it, both individuals and nations, became central to the identity of the participants: Britain had Dunkirk, the Blitz, and El Alamein, the US had Pearl Harbor and D-Day (and the A-bomb), and the Soviet Union had Stalingrad, Kursk, and Berlin. The character and behavior of every major participant was informed by the experience. The State of Israel was formed as a result, and both Germany and Japan underwent major cultural shifts, both in dealing with defeat and in confronting the reality of their conduct of the war. For better or worse, the world would never be the same.

The narrative of D-Day is also an essential building block of the discourse of heroic Americans storming ashore into the teeth of German fire to liberate helpless Europe groaning under a Nazi boot, and the root of a million resentful “we saved your ass from speaking German” reminders from Americans insulted by European perceptions of them as arrogant, uncivilized rubes. In reality, given the speed of the Soviet advance from the East, the likelihood is that the US, rather than saving anyone from speaking German, instead actually saved a whole lot of people from speaking Russian. The Soviet Army had crushed the bulk of German mobile forces in the East at Kursk in July 1943, and the Soviet march towards Berlin that then began had stopped only to occasionally resupply and reorganize, and to crush fanatical German resistance. The German response was to transfer the vast majority of its remaining forces to meet the onrushing Russians, and this reduction of available German forces was an important factor in the success of the D-Day invasion. And success was essential: had OVERLORD failed, it would not have been possible to try again until the next year. The alternatives, such as the Red Army standing watch on the Atlantic Wall in France, the invasion of a France held by Stalin instead of Hitler, or the use of atomic weapons against Germany, the Soviet Union, or both, are nearly unimaginable. In short, for millions, the stakes could not have been higher.

The OVERLORD invasion also heralded the true opening of the long-delayed “second front” in Europe; while forces of the Western Allies had been engaged in North Africa, Sicily, and Italy, and the combined air forces of RAF Bomber Command and the US Eighth Air Force had been bombing Germany since 1942, these actions represented piecemeal commitments to the war against Hitler, and constituted no direct threat to Hitler’s position in Europe. The delay in opening this front had fueled Stalin’s belief that the Western Allies were dragging their feet in order to force the Soviets to bear the brunt of the fighting and the lion’s share of the losses. This belief was reinforced by British attempts to conduct peripheral operations more designed to assure the solidity of the British Empire after the war, especially in the Mediterranean, the Balkans, and India. After the Tehran Conference, when Stalin made this belief plain and mentioned the possibility of a Soviet-German truce, the plans for OVERLORD were set for May, 1944.  The D-Day invasion is often mischaracterized as “the biggest/greatest invasion of all time,” and other such hyperole. The biggest invasion of all time was Operation Barbarossa, the 1941 German invasion of the Soviet Union, and the biggest coordinated military operation ever was Operation Bagration, the 1944 Soviet offensive in the East that followed closely after D-Day in the West.  OVERLORD was, however, the largest amphibious invasion ever, one of the most complex operations ever, and the apex of the amphibious invasion as military operational art, rivaled only by Saipan, Iwo Jima, and Inchon.

There were two possible landing grounds:  Pas de Calais, directly across the English Channel from  Dover, and Normandy. Choosing Normandy over the more advantageous Pas de Calais created several important effects: dissension in the German chain of command, and the biggest deception operation of the war. Rommel, as the German ground commander, anticipated the Allied landings at Normandy, but his superior Rundstedt was convinced the stroke would fall at Calais. This was particularly important because it was the deciding factor in where to place two German Panzer (tank) divisions being held as strategic reserve. The disagreement eventually reached Hitler, who made a frustrated parent’s decision: neither would get the Panzers, which would be held in yet another place, and released only upon Hitler’s direct order. The consequences were catastrophic: Hitler was sleeping when the call to release the panzers first came in, and his staff declined to wake him and ask; and, in any case, the Panzers would have been unable to reach either, due to Allied air superiority.

The Allies had gone to a great deal of trouble to encourage Rundstedt’s belief: during the build-up, General George S. Patton, who had been recalled and disciplined after slapping a shellshocked soldier in a hospital, was put in charge of a mythical US invasion army mustering opposite Pas de Calais. Thousands of inflatable decoy tanks, trucks, and artillery pieces were built and deployed in pre-invasion configuration, and the air was filled with fake radio traffic. Rundstedt bought it. Had Rommel prevailed, the consequences at Omaha Beach in particular, where the US was very nearly driven back into the sea with heavy losses anyway, may have been catastrophic.

The five invasion beaches were Omaha, Utah, Sword, Gold, and Juno. The  landings at Utah and Sword went fairly smoothly with light casualties, while the landings at Gold and Juno took heavy casualties, and the US landing at Omaha, though successful, was a bloodbath. Ineffective naval gunfire and aerial bombing had left many of the well-prepared and dug-in German troops intact and ready on the cliffs overlooking the landing beach. The resulting carnage nearly repulsed the American landings, and victory was in grave doubt, until a Ranger unit managed to scale the cliffs and eliminate the German positions there. The survival of the American beachhead was assured, and could finally begin moving off the beach; two months later, after finally breaking out of the bocage country around Normandy, the end was assured, with only the timing and final Soviet position remaining in question. As Rundstedt said, “the war ended in September.” That may have indeed been the case for any realistic possibility of a German victory in the West, the Battle of the Bulge notwithstanding, although millions of German civilians were still to face the wrath of a Soviet Army for whom the war wasn’t nearly over yet. D-Day is the iconic American experience of World War II. To have simply survived such an event is an act of heroism, as anything less than individual heroism in the aggregate would have been insufficient to the moment. The affirmation that may be taken from that, however, is tempered by the certainty that many, every bit as heroic, motivated, and determined, still found their deaths on the beaches of Normandy. Heroism was necessary, but it was not in and of itself sufficient: one’s position in a landing craft when the grenade went off was utterly beyond one’s control. This, then, shows the expression of necessary faith that is part  of every military operation, that confirms itself in the survivors while betraying the dead,  and leaves all to ponder the meaning of the sacrifice. The examples are all there. Faith. Heroism. Boldness. Honor. Confidence. Responsibility. Competence. Resiliency. Fortune. Imperfection. Humanity…. No wonder D-Day is such a defining moment in 20th century American identity-it should be.  Remember–D-Day, June 6, 1944. Happy D-Day, America!

911: What’s your emergency?

This is 911.  What’s your emergency?

I need help.  My community, my state, my nation is being overrun.

Overrun?  By whom, Ma’am?

Men and women carrying BIG guns like soldiers.  They’re driving armored cars and sometimes tanks.  Yes, I said tanks.  And they are wearing all black riot gear and..and….badges.

copld

If I say “police”, what is the first thing that comes to mind?  (Cue Jeopardy music)

Once upon a time, I would have thought of public service.  Of bravery.  Of courage.   As a child (and, no, how long ago that was does not matter), I remember having fun interactions with police officers.  They were the “good guys” who passed out lollipops when they saw you at the playground.  They visited our schools with plastic badges and mini flashlights.  They encouraged us to “be good and stay out of trouble” with smiles on their faces.  We were allowed to sit in the police car, lights flashing and sirens blasting.  They made me feel …safe.

Here we are a few years later (yes, a few years) and that feeling of safety is nearly non-existent.  Don’t get me wrong, I am perfectly aware of the fact that the world had changed in the few years it took me to grow up.  We’re not in Mayberry anymore, Andy.  The danger that they face is not imagined.  And, sure, I know that not all police officers are bad apples.

But, come on….

swat

Storm Troopers?  And tanks?  Really?

Beating and kicking a man after you’ve hit him with the stun gun?

Two officers stand over the motionless man and begin kicking him. A third officer drives up and attacks him.

That sounds more like brutality than bravery.

Excessive use of force in New Mexico..courage..or crisis?

Five officers gave chase, and when Lopez reached a fence and began to turn around, one of the officers fired three times, hitting Lopez once. The nonlethal shot put Lopez on his back, the report said, and the officer approached him and fired a fourth shot into his chest, killing him.

 I know it’s hot as Hades out there, but seriously?  Are they losing their minds??

All over the nation, our children are scarred for life.  Rendered sterile.  Because hoodies.

But don’t get too comfortable in your justifications.  Eight year old girls are deadly!

Our blackberry bushes and sunflowers must not be allowed to disturb the peace.

And whatever you do.. Don’t. Clinch. Your. Buttocks!

Is this what we are?  Who does this militarization help?

…a sheriff in Illinois was accused of lending the assault rifles, which he got through the 1033 program, to his friends.

…a firearms manager in North Carolina pled guilty to selling his on eBay.

…a county in Arizona acquired $7m worth of weapons and Humvees before giving them to unauthorized persons and attempting to sell them to boost their budget.

…in Mississippi, it took six years before federal authorities discovered that a state office, which was ineligible for the program, had received $8m worth of equipment, despite the fact that the Defense Department is supposed to review the program every two years.
 

As an American, I know we don’t want cops who resemble this…

funny cop

…but the statistics on police brutality and misconduct are appalling.  (Check out Radley Balko.)

Know your rights!  Also know that knowing your rights won’t always protect you.

So, yeah, dispatcher..that is my emergency.  That is everyone’s emergency.  Can you help us?

Or…Maybe Flava Flav had the right of it…911 is a joke in your town.  And mine.

Continue reading

How to be an “ally”

First of all, let me acknowledge that some have valid objections to the word “ally.” Not the idea, the word itself and the way many feel it’s been cheapened over time.

For sake of convenience, I shall use “ally” in this post though, with the hopes of reaching a broader audience.

We all have some benefits because of health, race, class, gender, sexual orientation, etc. This is also called privilege (which isn’t “bad”).   I’d venture that we all belong to a minority group,too.

Let “G” =  marginalized group.

Allies get down and dirty.

Allies constantly work to educate themselves on issues affecting G.

Allies educate others. It’s sad, say, that when I reported sexual harassment, the institution took the word of men over mine. “OH, MEN saw this happen so it must have occurred.”

As an ally, you should always challenge yourself. Recognize your limitations–you will and can never know what it’s like for G. (And that’s not good or bad, that’s just how it is.) 

Listen to members of G regarding their personal and institutional experiences of marginalization. Think about how your privileges (again, NOT a “bad” term) impact your life in a given situation and then just think about how it is for members of G. Multiply it by 10.

What you can imagine is most likely not even close to what members of G must endure, and often endure on a daily bases.

Be vigilant. When you’re at the store, wonder what this trip would be like if you were a member of G. Did the clerk listen to you or follow you around because of your skin color? Wonder about it at work: would I be promoted for the amount of work I put in or would I have to work a lot harder, often times for less pay?

Ponder which stereotypes are applied to you  now and what stereotypes would non-G folks apply to a member of G? To use race, one thing that’s always struck me as terrible is that white-skinned people aren’t called “white professionals.” White people are just doing what they’re “supposed” to be doing.

So why the term “black professional?”

Being an ally isn’t always comfortable and sometimes, you, as an ally, must draw the attention back to a member of G, say, if they’re making a damn fine point, etc.

Notice the diversity of groups to which you belong. All white? Why? No women speakers? Again, why?

Allies align themselves publicly and privately with members of target groups and respond to their needs. This may mean breaking assumed allegiances with those who have the same privileges as you.  Don’t underestimate the consequences of breaking these allegiances, and be sure to break them in ways that will be most useful to the person or group with whom you are aligning yourself.

An ally is not a rescuer. Members of G don’t need “rescuing”–that’s too Savior Complex. Work with us.

Be mindful that the G member you’re allying with could be at risk of a demotion or some form of retaliation. Be aware that the G member you may draw attention to (“X has a good point, why don’t you finish that idea for [whatever]?”) may not be delighted by your well-intentioned action. Explain and apologize. (Keep your explanation short, or you risk sounding like you’re preaching at the person.)

TALK about the fact you have privileges others don’t. Openly acknowledge this. And no, you don’t have to use the word privilege, since so many people shut down when they hear that term.

Being an ally takes personal growth, and with growth comes growing pains. If you say something supportive and a person of G responds negatively, pause and reflect. No one is perfect. Dig deep to the root and try to figure out if it was your delivery, you messed up, or they did.

Know what internalized oppression. Sometimes internalized oppression is like kudzu.

As an ally, share how oppression of G is something you may have inadvertently benefited from.  Let’s say you are running for office. A member of G has to think about public office more than you do. I mean, look at Sarah Palin. There’s plenty to dislike about her political views, but the media seems so focused on her hair/appearance. Same with Hillary and her “cankles.” That’s not cool.

Allies will make mistakes. Expect this. YOU WILL MAKE MISTAKES.  You are learning, after all. Allies should help promote a sense of justice and inclusiveness.

Humor can be a method a survival, both for G and allies.

Feeling safe if not a realistic expectation; a good ally learns to be comfortable being uncomfortable. Again, growing pains. Allies understand that emotional safety is not a realistic expectation. Act to alter the too-comfortable when necessary.

(When I write, “feeling safe,” I mean more “KNOW your boundaries will be pushed, and some biases you may not be aware of may surface.” It’s very uncomfortable realizing you have a bias against something–but you can’t fix something you don’t know is broken.)

If you take anything out of this:

  • Educate yourself. It’s not the job of G to educate you, though listening to stories has helped me in the past. You can easily read stories online. Check out microaggressions. Read blogs of marginalized groups. Read the news and ask yourself questions via thought-experiment. (“If X was a member of G, would they really have gotten probation for rape? Denied bail for protecting their children?”)
  • LISTEN. I cannot emphasis this enough. LISTEN thoughtfully and with your full attention.
  • Accept that you will mess up, and then learn from it. Apologize. I’ve messed up, and I’ve learned. I’ve apologized.

And we then laughed about my gaffe.

This is by no means all-inclusive, so any ideas, suggestions, corrections are happily welcome in the comments.

I’m Not Saying I Agree…But I Understand

Chris Rock once did a stand-up routine where he talked about the OJ Simpson case, and his theme was, “I’m not saying it’s right-but I understand.” This is kind of how I feel about Ukraine: I’m not defending Putin, and I’m not saying taking the Crimea in violation of treaty was right-but I DO understand. Here’s why:

I had forgotten about Zbigniew Brzezsinski’s famous quote: “without Ukraine, Russia ceases to be an empire, but with Ukraine suborned and then subordinated, Russia automatically becomes an empire.” This kind of fanatical bipolar myopia isn’t really funny anymore, given that the Cold War ended a generation ago, but it seems to be the core of much US thinking toward the current crisis in Ukraine, much to the detriment of our understanding why Russia is doing what it is doing. With communism defeated, there was  little ideological reason to continue fighting, beyond the entrenched corporate interests of  surviving Cold War -era institutions and the knee-jerk opposition of the Grand Chessboard-type thinking that thought it was a good idea to, say, march NATO up to Russia’s border. The idea that Russia, and any Russian leader, has a legitimate interest in Ukraine complicates this simplistic Good Guy/Bad Guy  narrative, so attempts to undermine Russian influence in Ukraine are left out of the mainstream conversation, as are the activities of Western intelligence agencies in fanning the unrest, and the uncomfortable presence of a significant fraction of neo-Nazis in Ukrainian resistance.

This reactionary impulse may have something to do with US motivation in aiding the anti-Russian Ukrainians, and maybe some of the Ukrainians are simply US aid sponges,  but there is a long history of antipathy between Ukraine and Russia, even before Stalin starved somewhere around 3.5 million Ukrainians to death in the Thirties. This was repaid, of course, by many Ukrainians welcoming the Nazi invaders of 1941. After the war, a Ukrainian independence movement largely controlled by unreconstructed fascists fought on, until finally crushed by the Soviets.

Fast forward. During de-Stalinization, Crimea is transferred to Ukraine from Russia, though the Russian Black Sea Fleet is headquartered there.

Fast forward. When the USSR collapses, Ukraine has the world’s third-largest nuclear arsenal on its territory. In return for giving them up, Russia signs a treaty guaranteeing Ukraine’s territorial integrity; this is the one broken-maybe-by Russia’s incursion into the Crimea. We’ll return to that momentarily. Also, US Secretary of State James Baker promises Mikhail Gorbachev that NATO will refrain from moving East if the USSR stands down. After the USSR dissolves, NATO, of course, immediately adds most the old Warsaw Pact nations of Eastern Europe to NATO, which is why it so infuriated the Russians when Ukrainian President Yushchenko started talking about Ukraine, on Russia’s border, joining NATO, and expelling the Black Sea fleet from Crimea.

So, when Putin outbid the EU for favorable trade terms with Ukraine, he was operating within the accepted rules of the game. Meanwhile, the US is funding the Ukrainian resistance, and is wiretappedamong other things, picking the next leader of the resistance. Then, after Yanukovich’s “turn” toward Russia backfired, and the demonstrations got out of hand-the Russians brokered a deal to end the protests, and Yanukovich agreed to step down and transfer power to the Parliament.

That should have been the end of it; instead, the Ukrainian resistance reneges on the deal, essentially staging a coup d’tat even though they had already won. Furthermore, to complete the circle, there is a significant, visible presence of Ukrainian neo-Nazis in the Ukrainian nationalist movement.

And that’s why Putin is pissed. In his mind, he was playing a clean game, while Russia was being undercut by a covert op; he brokered a deal in good faith, only to see the Ukrainians immediately renege; and finally, the symbols of the hated fascists who killed at least 30 million Russians in the defining event of Soviet history are being prominently displayed, on Russia’s border.

There is simply no way in hell that any Russian leader is going to allow a hostile government with operational ties to Western intelligence to thrive in Ukraine-period. Especially one that reneges on its agreements, and is working hand in glove with both the US and NATO, who have lied to Russia at every step. Especially one that insists on rubbing its identification with the Nazis in Russia’s face. And, since temporal distance seems to have fogged people’s memories, Russia is a major strategic nuclear power and need have no fear of a conventional military threat, since attacking Russia is a prescription for national suicide.

Also, Russia is allowed to keep 25,000 troops in Crimea, although they are supposed to stay in their restricted area. That’s the treaty violation. There are no dragnets, roundups, or mass executions underway. Putin is walking a fine line here, asserting Russian hegemony in Ukraine without taking the irrevocable plunge of massive bloodletting. So far, he can still back out, and there are some signals that he may be looking for a way out. If he is, we should let him, since the alternative is for Russia to go all the way forward, and just take Ukraine, install the government it wants, and then withdraw to avoid a bloody counterinsurgency campaign. The closest analog in recent US history is probably the invasion of Panama in 1988.

So, I’m not saying it’s right, or saying I approve-but I understand.

Proposed voting reforms from the Presidential Commission on Election Administration

“The Commission has concluded that, as a general rule, no voter should have to wait more than half an hour in order to have an opportunity to vote.”

The Presidential Commission on Election Administration released its report in January. It is the culmination of research and interviews about issues surrounding the efficiency and fairness of elections across the country and offers solutions and best practices that would correct these problems. If you don’t have the time or patience to read the report in its entirety, I encourage you to at least read the Summary of Recommendations after the Table of Contents.

The Commission Co-Chairs are a Democrat and a Republican: Robert F. Bauer (White House Counsel to President Obama 2009 – 2011, is General Counsel for the DNC and was General Counsel for Obama for America 2008, 2012) and Benjamin L. Ginsberg (General Counsel for Mitt Romney for President, involved in the Florida 2000 Gore-Bush election recount, and National Counsel for the Bush-Cheney presidential campaign).

Here are some of the recommendations:

  • States should adopt online voter registration
  • Interstate exchanges of voter registration information should be expanded
  • States should seamlessly integrate voter data acquired by the Department of Motor Vehicles with their statewide voter registration lists
  • Improved management of polling places
  • Jurisdictions should develop models and tools to assist them in effectively allocating resources across polling places
  • States should institute poll worker training standards
  • Election authorities should establish advisory groups for voters with disabilities and for those with limited English proficiency
  • Assure accessible polling places
  • Expand opportunities to vote before Election Day
  • States should provide ballots and registration materials to military and overseas voters via their websites
  • Audits of voting equipment must be conducted after each election

There are many additional worthwhile recommendations in the report. These are common sense reforms that all Americans, irrespective of political ideology, should be able to support.

Who is Barrett Brown? Why you NEED to know.

Read the entire, important article from Rolling Stone here:

“Although he knew some of those involved in high-profile “hacktivism,” he is no hacker. His situation is closer to the runaway prosecution that destroyed Aaron Swartz, the programmer-activist who committed suicide in the face of criminal charges similar to those now being leveled at Brown. But unlike Swartz, who illegally downloaded a large cache of academic articles, Brown never broke into a server; he never even leaked a document. His primary laptop, sought in two armed FBI raids, was a miniature Sony netbook that he used for legal communication, research and an obscene amount of video-game playing. The most serious charges against him relate not to hacking or theft, but to copying and pasting a link to data that had been hacked and released by others.

“What is most concerning about Barrett’s case is the disconnect between his conduct and the charged crime,” says Ghappour. “He copy-pasted a publicly available link containing publicly available data that he was researching in his capacity as a journalist. The charges require twisting the relevant statutes beyond recognition and have serious implications for journalists as well as academics. Who’s allowed to look at document dumps?”

Brown’s case is a bellwether for press freedoms in the new century, where hacks and leaks provide some of our only glimpses into the technologies and policies of an increasingly privatized national security-and-surveillance state. What Brown did through his organization Project PM was attempt to expand these peepholes. He did this by leading group investigations into the world of private intelligence and cybersecurity contracting, a $56 billion industry that consumes 70 percent of the U.S. intelligence budget.”

The Pagan History of Christmas

Everyone loves Christmas. I mean, really we do. As a society and as individuals we love it, despite the stress, irritation, and weight gain it brings. But what do we know about its origins? Sure, we’re told that it’s the celebration of the birth of Christ, but I know I always wondered what in the hell decorating a tree has to do with Jesus being born? Short answer: absolutely nothing. But there’s more than that, and I’m here to tell you all about it.

Let’s start from the word Christmas, as this is one of the few things about this day that actually does have to do with Christianity. The word ‘Christmas’ is combination of Christ’s mass. It comes from Middle and Old English where it was Christemasse and Cristes mæsse. The latter is a phrase dated back to the 11th century. Now, that brings me to the vile word of Xmas. The current church has seen this word as an attack on Christmas. If they’d do their homework, they see that its not so. In ancient Greek versions of the New Testament, the letter X (Chi in Greek) was the first letter of the word Christ. Also, in Rome, the same letter was used as an abbreviation of Christ. So therefore, Xmas is not an attack against any religion, deity, or holiday, but merely ancient shorthand.

Now, lets move on to the date, December 25th. According to the Bible, Jesus was born in Bethlehem when his parents went there to be counted for census and tax purposes, I believe. It also says the shepherds were watching their herds that night. No where does it make any mention of the date. December is the cold and rainy season in the area that was known as Judaea. Earlier in the bible, it is noted in both Solomon and Ezra that the shepherds were not allowed to take the flocks out at night during winter months, so as to protect the livestock. Also, travel on the back of a mule would have been quite difficult for anyone, pregnant or not, during the harsh winter months.  There is a lot of astrological evidence that is pointed out, but an exact month has not been pinpointed. In researching this, the three months most believed months are April, May, or September. But with the current evidence, it may not be possible to ever truly know the month.

The Roman holiday of Saturnalia shares a lot of aspects with Christmas. Saturnalia was not celebrated on the 25th, but the 17th, and lasted until the 25th, with the feast of Sol Invictus. It was an insanely popular holiday that was an all around good time. The holiday closed schools and people made and exchanged gifts. There were also large feasts in Roman homes, in which everyone was equal. Slaves took part in the feasts, were allowed to gamble, and were exempt from any punishment. In an effort to not be persecuted by the Romans, early Christians did participate in some of the common traditions, such as lighting candles and hanging holly and mistletoe. A celebration of the Christ’s birth was first called by Telesphorous between 125 and 136 AD. In 320, the Pope, Julius I mandated that December 25th was Jesus’s birthday. Finally in 325, Constantine made Christmas an ‘immovable’ feast, along with Easter, and Sunday as the Sabbath.

Probably the most Pagan of all of Christmas traditions (oddly enough, the most popular too) is the Christmas tree. Evergreens were revered because of their ability to survive the winter months. Germans and Scandinavians of the Middle Ages used trees outside their front doors to ward off evil spirits. Some historians date the tradition of lighting a tree to none other than Martin Luther. The story goes that he was walking through the woods and was amazed by the way the light hit the snow on the trees and cut a tree down. He brought it home where his family and he decorated it with candles and tinsel. Some trace it to Saint Boniface (patron saint of Germany), saying that he interrupted a pagan sacrifice and crushed the oak tree they were using with his punch and an evergreen sprang up through the remains of the oak.

The controversy surrounding the tree goes both ways. There was a period, specifically during Cromwell’s rule in England, and in the early colonial days of the US, when all usual Christmas celebrations were banned, for being “too pagan”.  To some very fundamentalist Christian sects, the tree is forbidden by Bible and should not be used or celebrated at all. Some of these sects may not celebrate Christmas at all. Cities that have public trees have seen challenges because some secular groups see it as a symbol of Christianity, and renamed the community tree a holiday tree.

Another favorite part of the holidays is gift giving. There are few joys like finding presents for the ones we care about, and watching them enjoy it. The biblical story is that we give each other gifts because the Three Wise Men brought presents to Jesus, shortly after his birth. While this may be the case, gift giving around this time of year pre-dates the birth of Jesus. One of the main tenets of the Roman festival of Saturnalia was exchanging of gifts. Much like today, children were given toys, and other gifts were given depending on the social status of the parties involved. Some gifts would be as simple as pottery or combs, or others as elaborate as slaves, jewelry, or perfume. The Romans would even attach small poems and verses, like a version of early greeting cards.

In conclusion, what Christmas was then, and what Christmas is now, aren’t much different. People getting together, eating copious amounts of food, exchanging presents, and all-around merry-making. Nowadays our holidays are a bit more commercial and the decorations start after Independence Day, but it’s all for the sake of traditions. Traditions are one of the few things that every civilization in recorded history have in common. So whether you believe yours are from the Romans or the Bible, hold them close, and hold them dear. They are one of the most important things we have.