Thursday, December 24, 2009


Growing up at St Matthews Cathedral in Dallas (Episcopal) was in retrospect an idyllic exercise for which I hold many fond memories. I first attended the Cathedral School for Boys in Dallas and then on to St. Marks School of Texas after Cathedral’s merger with Texas Country Day. I don’t know the inspiration or motivation but I somehow ended up as a treble boy chorister singing in the Cathedral Choir at St. Matthews and then at St. Marks which had a much closer relationship then with St. Matthews Cathedral than they do now. The fact that St. Mark’s though Episcopalian-oriented is non sectarian and now has their own chapel probably has everything to do with that. Their charter, however, requires that an ordained Episcopal priest lead the services in the St. Mark’s chapel. By the way, our uniform at St. Mark’s in the 1950’s was military (Army) khaki (long pants and shirts, web belt, slide release brass buckles and black shoes – all spit and polish. Today the uniform is gray shorts or pants with white oxford shirts for grades 1–11 with blue oxford shirts for seniors - less tense.

I sang in the choir at St. Marks under the brilliant tutelage and leadership of iconic Choirmaster L. F O’Connor for several years and was a member of that famous choir invited to stand in for the Westminster Cathedral Choir while they went on world tour. We were the first choir outside the UK to be so invited. I went on to St. Dunstan’s in Providence, RI where I was one of the two mainstays a capella soprano soloists (Billy Duquette was the other and better of the two) under the very able leadership of Choirmaster T. James Hallan who was also the Music Director at Lincoln School and St. Martin’s Episcopal Church in Providence. I think it a shame, yea injustice, that there are no more references to Hallan on the Internet given his absolute genius and lifetime of dedicated tutelage and successful mentorship of young men and women. I owe him a lot. Though he would certainly disagree, he should be canonized for his efforts.

At St. Marks we sang (they still do) the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols (inspired by the Choir of King's College, Cambridge) as well as their then famous Boars Head Dinner replete with the obligatory roasted boar with apple in mouth which was carried into the candlelit banquet hall on a huge silver platter all to the strains of the medieval Boar’s Head Carol, “The boar’s head in hand bring I, bedeck’d with bays and rosemary.” The Boar was the iconic and ferocious monarch of the Great Britain forests, a palpable threat to man and the unquestionable symbol of evil (just ask the folks in one neighborhood in Loma Linda, California who recently engaged a 200+ lbs. tusker!). Serving the boar in this ceremony which dates from the 14th century was the great metaphor – the triumph of Christ over evil.

I vividly recall how my Robin Hood era, maternally-tailored costume (with tights) made me itch something terrible. Mother Betty Buxton said that the home where we actually ate a full, multi course authentic medieval dinner (no spaghetti or egg rolls here) while performing a variety of Christmas music was a huge north Dallas mansion with Flemish tapestries on the wall. The spectators were parents and Friends who occupied the gallery that overlooked the spacious dining area. I remember it as a much smaller though still impressive version of the Biltmore House’s Great Banquet Hall. What a wonderful memory… There has to be some video somewhere… By the way, if you haven’t done the Biltmore House Christmas Tour in Asheville, North Carolina then you cannot count yourself as having led a full life - yet.

Though just a very young neophyte chorister at Cathedral School and St. Marks, St. Dunstan’s afforded me the opportunity to grow and shine as a sometimes soprano soloist and that included my infamous role and performance as the female lead (all boy’s school) for their Christmas production of Babes in Toyland at Brown University.

While at St. Dunstan’s and later at Lenox School I remember singing many songs/carols that inspire me to this day. One of those songs and the focus of this post was Christina Rossetti’s In the Bleak Midwinter. Rossetti wrote a Christmas poem for the American magazine, Scribner’s Monthly in 1872. Like many of our Christmas traditions, it is essentially contemporary and assumes that Jesus was born on December 25 in a winter landscape. While we know better now, that sentiment evoked more poignant images of a couple struggling against even greater odds with their new, divinely inspired baby. It worked.

That poem has been put to music many, many times with the most notable and beautiful tune written by Gustav Holst who was living in the English village of Cranham at the time and appropriately in a house now called “Midwinter Cottage.” Holst wrote the exquisitely poignant and hauntingly quiet and peaceful tune for the 1906 edition of The English Hymnal.

Another tune (similar to Holst) was composed several years later in 1909 by Harold Darke, then a student at the Royal College of Music who was to later achieve fame as an acclaimed organist and Director of Music at King's College, Cambridge. While Darke’s song has met with some favor of late, I think it much more complicated than the Holst version. I find the melody distracting as it varies from verse to verse. No surprise that I personally don’t like Darke’s version as Holst seems to suit my mostly melancholy mood and the predictability of a more somber, flowing reflection. The choir at All Saints Episcopal in Atlanta, Georgia under the direction of the multitalented organist and choirmaster Ray Chenault (and wife Beth) has sung a contemplative Midwinter (sitting) as a communion hymn and choral interlude while folks were partaking in the Eucharist. It was always a beautiful, quietly fluid and fitting accompaniment for meditation and prayer.

I guess I also feel a little miffed that anybody in a copycat mode (OK, OK) would have tried to improve on perfection (several others have also attempted to do so). Indeed, In the Bleak Midwinter has proven to be one of the most popular Christmas carols of all time, witness the BBC Music magazine's 2008 poll of the world's leading choirmasters and choral experts who voted it (Darke’s version) the top Christmas hymn, ever. There has been some controversy over the selection with many feeling the judges were more impressed by the complexity of the tune in contrast to what mere mortals might choose. And that brings us to the point of this post – to share some of the more popular versions, all Holst save two, so that you can appreciate and judge the song(s) and the two versions for yourself. Both are beautiful.

Both settings of In the Bleak Midwinter have been recorded by what is a veritable pantheon of who’s who of popular recording artists from around the world including but not limited to Sarah McLachlan-Darke (2006), James Taylor (2006), Bert Jansch (1974), Moya Brennan (First Lady of Celtic Music - 2005), Julie Andrews (1982), Robin Gibb (2006), Dame Kiri Te Kanawa (1994), Corrinne May (2007), Charlotte Church (2000), Sissel Kyrkjebo (2006), Cyndi Lauper (1998), Allison Crowe (2006), Frida (ABBA) 2004, Sarah Brightman (2008), Olivia Newton-John (2008) and as well as by many choirs and groups including the Robert Shaw Chamber Singers (1993), Moody Blues (2003), Chanticleer–Darke (1995), Steeleye Span-Maddy Prior (2004), the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, Paul Hiller & Theater of Voices (1994), Paul Coleman Trio – PC3 –(2002), Aled Jones (2005), The Choirboys (2008), Celtic Woman - Máiréad Nesbitt (2007), Lichfield Cathedral Choir – Darke (1996), Gloucester Cathedral Choir (2003), Choir of King's College Cambridge (2005), St. John's College Choir, Cambridge (1986), Worcester Cathedral Choir (1993), Choir of St. Mark’s School (2003) and many, many more. Of course, many of the choirs sing both versions of Midwinter to especially include the Choir of Kings College-Cambridge.

A lot of singers from different genres attempt the same songs, each with their own physical and mental interpretations, nuance and style staying aloof or with more or less personal emotion, passion and expression in their performance becoming one with the music, the message and its cultural context. The difference in the approaches determines whether one is music or noise… eye of the beholder stuff. Most of these dynamic performers have become part of the history and tradition of Midwinter because of their passion and fervor for the music, the lyrics and their ultimate motivation – the celebration of the birth of Christ. And, that’s what it’s all about.

Now please understand that this is a long piece and intended for those with patience and anticipation, a love of Midwinter and an appreciation for the history of the piece. If you can’t stay the course and review some of the artists we have featured (thanks to YouTube) then you can opt out and just listen to one track. This particular Celtic Christmas CD (surprise, surprise) has 16 different artists/groups singing a portion of the Holst setting of Midwinter. The artists include Allison Crowe, Cyndi Lauper, Moya (Màire) Brennan, Crash Test Dummies, Gregorian, Bert Jansch, the Pipettes, James Taylor, Polifonico Monteforte, Westminster Cathedral Choir, Wells Cathedral Choir, St Philips Boy's Choir (Libera), Royal College of Music Chamber Choir, Holland Boys Choir, Julie Andrews and John Fahey. It’s well done and interprets The Story across many musical genres. We do pray that these hyperlinks hold and remain active in YouTube.

If you’ve gotten this far, congratulations! The
first individual recording (again, all thanks to YouTube) of Holst's setting is sung by one of England's great cathedral choirs at Glouchester Cathedral (Cathedral Church of St Peter and the Holy and Undivided Trinity). This massive Gothic cathedral’s foundation was laid in the 11th century on top of an older abbey that dated to 678 CE. I’m used to High Church (smells and bells) and the extraordinary music programs like Gloucester. Take special note when the congregation joins the choir in song. It is an exhilarating musical experience. This is an extraordinary offering from an extraordinary church.

We immediately switch from Gloucester in south west central England north 124 miles northwest of London, the west midlands and the Gothic Cathedral at Lichfield and home to the world famous Lichfield Cathedral choir which historians reflect dates from the year 1200 CE. Lichfield concedes that their current Choral Foundation traces back at least as far as 1315 CE. The first cathedral to be built on the present site was in 700 CE by the Saxons, followed by the Normans in 1085 CE onto the present colossal Gothic structure with its distinctive and unique three spires, begun in 1195. The Lichfield Cathedral Choir has cut many records, CDs and music videos among them their 1996 CD Christmas from Lichfield which was preceded by their 1995 video which we offer today. Lichfield gives us a robust view of Darke’s setting of Midwinter. Their music program is unparalleled.

From British High Church to American icon James Taylor who in his James Taylor at Christmas album offers a hauntingly and painfully
beautiful version – pure vintage James Taylor.

Back to the Anglican Church and The Choirboys who are comprised of English cathedral choristers from across England so we can suppose that members will have only a brief time (in human years) to participate as such given the predictability of that painful trek to adolescence and the inevitable breaking of the voice and the loss of their treble status. I experienced that as I went from treble/soprano to alto to tenor to baritone and oblivion. At the end I was mouthing the words at the insistence of the choirmaster and then worked my senior year as one of the Sextons at Trinity Church in Lenox, MA. The ignominy of it all - all the kings men and all the kings horses… My pilgrimage from choir stall in the Chancel to the congregation proper was demoralizing (as Mother said, “Ghastly”) especially when combined with so many other changes that were happening in my life… As a baritone in the Chorus I did rehearse Handel’s Messiah the other night over at the Anglican The Chapel of the Cross in Dallas (like riding a bicycle…). My thanks to the generosity and hospitality of superb mezzo soprano Nicole de Martimprey.

As you will see, the present Choirboys are at least second generation and are perfectly outstanding in their 2007 offering of Midwinter from their The Carols Album.

It seems that the soprano voice, female or choirboy is the perfect fit for this melody proof being the English born but New Zealand raised rising star Camilla Kerslake who made this song a part of her first album (Camilla Kerslake) in 2009. If she has ever had diction problems in the past, she now appears beyond that and nails this version of Midwinter which is worthy of your ear… Pray that we all hear more from this Lady with the only caveat being that she keeps away from her makeup case. She’s very attractive and doesn’t need any help. Watch her vocal technique - the way Camilla enunciates and mouths her words. That’s the correct way – the way we were taught at St. Marks.

So this song is only for soprano? Chanticleer, the extraordinary San Francisco based full-time classical vocal (a cappella) ensemble answers that question. Founded in 1978 to sing Renaissance vocal repertoire this group has travelled the world and gained an unparalleled reputation for their interpretation of music from all genres – no different their version of Midwinter from their 1995 Sing We Christmas album which reached #6 on Billboard’s Classical chart. Gang - it doesn’t get any better. This may be where all good trebles go when they transition to maturity.

While we suspect that Camilla Kerslake probably has some Celtic DNA we are assured that is a certainty with our next several artists of that genre. They represent the best of the lot and we are pleased to feature them. Born in Manitoba and now living in Ontario, Loreena McKennitt is pure Canadian Celt- of Scottish and Irish parentage. Her music is grounded by her appreciation and passion for diverse cultures with her heroism showing mightily through. She is a composer, musician (Celtic harp, piano and accordion) and singer with numerous original works which celebrate many cultures of the Celtic Journey. Loreena McKennitt’s (on harp) In The Bleak Midwinter is a powerful instrumental piece from her 2008 holiday album A Midwinter Night's Dream where she successfully recaptures, “some of the frankincense and myrrh” of the music of the winter season. I have most of her albums and intend to collect and enjoy them all. I’d bet the farm that Celtic Harp Champion, the incredibly talented, late Jan Pennington would be the equal of Loreena. Enjoy.

If you start invoking the Celtic harp can the fiddle be far behind? For me that means either Scotland’s Master Fiddler Alasdair Fraser of Valley of the Moon fame, Cape Breton’s Natalie MacMaster or Ireland’s Máiréad Nesbitt of Celtic Woman. Since I can’t find a version by Fraser or MacMaster we reliability put our good faith in Nesbitt that animated knock out, drop dead gorgeous All Ireland Fiddle Champion and violinist/fiddler for PBS phenoms Celtic Woman. Her offering of Midwinter with violin is beautiful and haunting. Holst would approve of the energetic and inventive Celtic lass from Tipperary who dares you to not get involved in her music. Some say that she’s just as good on piano and we would wonder how long Celtic Woman can challenge her. Kind restores your faith in the Almighty, Eh?

I share the same birth year as Bert Jansch - one of my favorite all time Scottish singer/songwriters (Glasgow) who takes the Scots perspective in folk revival to its highest point. Sometimes referred to as the British Bob Dylan or perhaps Dylan is the American Bert Jansch? Bert’s unique gravelly almost gruff voice and brooding, plaintive sometimes almost mumbling style is immediately recognizable and for me is the template for all successful Scottish singers. Bert has always done it his way and as a veteran of the booze wars and multiple heart bypass surgery, he has been there, done that and is now reinvigorated and better than ever. This innovative and accomplished acoustic guitarist brings me back to my youth but keeps me squarely in the present. His interpretation of Midwinter (originally released as a single in UK in October, 1974) is absolutely superb and as one reviewer recently stated, Jansch is, “damn near perfect.” I sure would like to see what a contemplative and serious Alex Beaton could do with this hymn.

The 1960’s saw the formation and evolution of the iconic soft rock English band, The Moody Blues who offered us many popular hits including Knights in White Satin which I could sing in my sleep. I love the Moody Blues – Blue Cathedral! The on-off-on again seemingly spiritual Moodies play into their sometimes melancholia by recording Midwinter on their October 2003 Christmas-themed album appropriately entitled December. Their always moving songs included originals such as John Lennon and Yoko Ono's 1971 anti war, anti Vietnam future standard, Happy Xmas (War Is Over). The Moodies left the Holst Midwinter tune alone which pretty much reflects Justin Hawyard’s love of and early influence by The English Hymnal. Well, you make up your mind.

We stay in Britain for a while longer to ponder the great and indomitable Dame Julie Andrews and her incredible body of work which has garnered for her every conceivable recognition including designation as one of the "100 Greatest Britons" sponsored by the BBC and selected by the public. Puts her in pretty good company that includes Winston Churchill, William Shakespeare, William Wilberforce, King Henry VIII and my personal favorites Sir William Wallace and Robert the Bruce though the latter would most assuredly prefer to be remembered as among the Greatest Scots. But, back to Julie - her holiday album, Christmas with Julie Andrews was originally recorded in 1963 (rereleased in 1982) before 1998 throat surgery took her voice from us. She has started to sing again of late but her range is limited. At that, it’s still better than most. Her Christmas album is considered by many critics to be “the best ever” with Julie’s vocals and the magnificent orchestral setting. Of note, it contains Midwinter (Julie’s favorite) and I think that just Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious!

We move across the North Sea to Norway and Sweden and find Anni Frid Lyngstad (Frida) of Abba fame and many popular hits including Dancing Queen and Mamma Mia. Though she is no longer actively pursing a career in music she has left a legacy of many hits and, yes, an abbreviated (one verse) recording of Midwinter in her live TV special with Jon Lord in 2004. Frida proves that she like the song is timeless. She brings her great voice and incredible good looks (still) back for all to ponder and appreciate.

It seems a lot of good things are coming out of China these days. First there was those giant pandas Ling-Ling and Hsing-Hsing, ping-pong players, bankers to the United States and now we have the incomparable Corrinne May (born Corrinne Foo May Ying in Singapore). Corrine may be the key to get Taiwan and mainland China back together – she’s that good and sings on a Taiwan label. One of her favorite singers is Sarah McLachlan and that’s reflected in her timber and presentation. A little breathy bit of Sarah Mclachlan and folk-flavored Carole King is in Corrinne though she remains her own very talented performer. Her interpretation of Midwinter is superb and perhaps one of the best of all time and believe it or not, happened at the local Peets Coffee & Tea, her favorite haunt in Tarzana, California. We hope that many get a chance to experience this extraordinary performer. You will want to listen and feel her Journey. As two recent reviewers stated, “Oh my, healing tears…” and “Her songs, her words, her music, her voice lifts, comforts and heals in infinite measure.”

No, we can’t leave out Canadian superstar Sarah McLachlan who has been such a positive influence in the music industry including her ongoing Lilith Fair tour, which starting in the late 1990s, showcases female musicians. Sarah believes in being involved and giving back totally, witness her many philanthropic activities which are well known beyond her home in Vancouver. Sarah is important to this piece not only because of her incredible talent, but also because she sings the Darke version of Midwinter – and incredibly so on her 2006 album, Wintersong. Amusingly and probably deliberately her title of Midwinter is “In a Bleak Midwinter” as opposed to "the". When you Google the two songs the only one that comes up "a" is McLachlan’s. Rosetti wrote the poem as “In the Bleak Midwinter”. Interesting as it’s either a gigantic screw up or a McLachlan gambit (probably the latter). Whatever the reason, no doubt that Sarah is an Angel.

Our Midwinter world tour takes us to New Zealand and then back to England for the performance of Midwinter by Dame Kiri Te Kanawa. Dame Kiri performed with incredible emotion and feeling with Michael George and the massed Choirs of Coventry and Lichfield Cathedrals in this superb 1994 UK concert. Dame Kiri is of Māori and European ancestry and raised in a Maori home. Her operatic career is legendary and her honors, “as lang’s me arm.”

With Aled Jones we engage yet another one of the Seven Nations – Wales. Jones is the former standout and world renowned treble from Bangor Cathedral who now as an adult though a natural lyric baritone he sings Midwinter as a tenor on BBC’s inspirational Songs of Praise on December 25, 2005. You can see Aled’s choral training in his enunciation and the clarity and honesty of his presentation. He’s all grown up though I can still see him as the Lead Soloist at Bangor Cathedral. Beautiful, aye. Well done.

Much to my dismay I had never heard of Danielle Vaughn before I started researching this post and that’s a loss for me. Now you know her and can appreciate her body of work including this amazing video of
In the Bleak Midwinter from Danielle's 2009 CD Noel. The song is the star and focus of attention in this video devoid of all modern video manipulation save its mere existence. She is a classically trained pianist, singer and songwriter who appears to listen to the beat of her own drummer after benefitting mightily from a multi cultural, non traditional upbringing. They can’t hide Danielle’s soulful and solitary interpretation of Midwinter. Part of the inspiration has to be those Utah mountains around Huntsville. Well done

Just when you thought that it couldn’t get any better, it does. We saved the best for last. We go back to Scandinavia and to my Norse Brethren. Sissel Kyrkjebø aka Sissel is the wonderful Norwegian soprano who contributed the haunting vocals for Titanic and sang the stirring Olympic Hymn for both the Opening and Closing Ceremonies of the 1994 Winter Olympic Games in Lillehammer, Norway. While Enya, Annie Lennox and the awesome and incredibly attractive Emiliana Torrini (Gollum’s Song) contributed to Lord of the Rings, it was Sissel who was invited to go on the 2004 world tour as featured soloist for a full orchestral performance with choirs all dedicated to the music from the The Lord of the Rings films. As the featured soloist Sissel performed
Midwinter with the Mormon Tabernacle Choir on the occasion of their 2006 Christmas concert which was aired in December 2007 on PBS. In Norway this song is called I En Steingrå Vinter and can be found on Sissel`s 2009 CD Strålande Jul. We of the Kingdome of Räknar and The Might of Right are well pleased as the King of Norway Knighted Sissel into the Order of St. Olav (1847) in 2006 for her contributions to music and as an ambassador for Norway (the youngest ever recipient of this revered honor). Sissel may very well be the best soprano in the world today…

So, which version do you prefer and what artist nails it for you? As I ponder Christmas 2009 Midwinter brings me back to that true meaning of this holiday whether it be celebrated in summer, fall, spring or Winter. I’m thinking of Family and Friends and how blessed I am to be able to celebrate life with them all to the strains of this beautiful carol. One year ago today beloved step mother Ellen passed to her great reward and we do miss her. The Might of Right dedicates this post to Ellen who loved Midwinter. Last night we participated in the “Greening of St. Matthews Cathedral” here in Dallas. We contributed to yet another great tradition and readied our house for the Christ Child. We hope you have a Merry Christmas!


Ned Buxton

Friday, December 18, 2009


This 2009 Christmas season I continue to note many sincere Christian folks of good will waxing teary-eyed and eloquent about the sacred traditions of Christmas and their two thousand year old pedigree? Many of those beliefs are born of ethnocentrism, an incredible leap of faith, ignorance of thousands of years of history, commercialism and what appears to be a continuing dumbing down of America. Given that most of us seem to be losing the real meaning of Christmas, I thought it appropriate to repeat and expand on my Christmas post of 2007 in my ever continuing effort to set the record straight. As one fellow writer once said, “Don't get your feathers in a ruffle.” This isn't a debate on whether the birth of Jesus really happened. It did. This is not an argument that Christmas is paganism wrapped in a bow. Whenever and wherever the birth of Jesus happened, it’s good news and offers hope for all Mankind…

Despite the fact that this topic has been long debated - even by the Ancients, when it was broached several years ago in more public forums on the Internet it was considered volatile in many quarters and at the least very controversial. With the ground now broken the debate and scholarship is beginning to be more widely accepted. The Internet is crammed with legitimate sites that appear sensitive to offering substantive information about the real origins of Christmas. The other day I heard an ad on KRLD radio in Dallas where Chip Davis of Mannheim Steamroller was waxing right on and eloquent on the real origins of Christmas traditions all the while selling his extraordinary
Mannheim Steamroller Christmas 25th Anniversary CD Collection.

Mind you, I don’t want to debunk Christmas - no Scrooge or Bah Humbug here. Rather I want to shine the light of day on the origins of the holiday and ultimately straighten our path. I love Christmas and its OK to continue where we are going, but let’s take a peek back at the real history.

In a great irony we have the formerly anti-Christian Romans to thank for the start of the evolution of December 25 as the celebration of the birth of Jesus aka Christmas. Despite the evolution of this holiday there remains significant pagan and secular symbolism. For starters we know (In the Bleak Midwinter aside) that Jesus wasn’t even born in December! No, there was no snow on the ground and modern Biblical scholars and historians who have done the math in an historical context using the Bible and other documentation estimate that Jesus was born anywhere from 4 BC to 2 BC maybe in September though no one really knows for sure. There are many sincere theories though no legitimate sources reflect December 25 as the Nativity.

Pagan cultures all over the world have traditionally celebrated the winter solstice as a feast day, the precursor of the beginning of deep winter and the rebirth of the Sun. Indeed, Bronze Age archaeological sites to include many stone circles/henges like Stonehenge in England, the Ring of Brodgar and the Stones of Stenness in the Orkneys in Scotland had their footprints aligned with the sun of the winter solstice.

The symbolism of the year as reborn fits nicely with the celebration of the birth of Jesus, The Son emanating from the rebirth of The Sun. It’s an easy segway that leads us to many other celebrations of new beginnings to include Hogmanay's Redding (cleaning) tradition in Scotland and the North Country.

Indeed, this correlation was not lost on several early Christian writers to include the former pagan and martyred Saint Cyprian of Carthage who connected the rebirth of the sun to the birth of Jesus in the mid third century when he wrote, "O, how wonderfully acted Providence that on that day on which that Sun was born . . . Christ should be born."

Roman Emperor Aurelian laid the foundation for the modern tradition of Christmas by establishing December 25, 274 A.D. as the Festival of the Sun God. Early Christians who were being ruthlessly persecuted reputedly used the festival to celebrate the birth of Christ without being detected. In many modern quarters Aurelian is known as “The Father of Christmas.”

Some agenda driven, intellectually bankrupt naysayers like William J. Tighe have tried to unsuccessfully convince us that Aurelian chose the date in an attempt to, “create a pagan alternative to a date that was already of some significance to Roman Christians” despite the fact that pagan cultures had reserved and celebrated that date for thousands of years based not on some incident of historical import but the winter equinox. Tighe’s suspect scholarship and use of “appears” and “was almost certainly” is no justification for his theory. Indeed, most scholars agree that it was the other way around; that the Christians lifted many elements of the Mithraic theology and incorporated it into their own ritual. To early Christians, the childhood or place and manner of the birth of Jesus was irrelevant as The Resurrection, the Kingdome of God, was at hand. That postponed, they had to build a complete history of their, "beginning." This is the stuff of a whole other treatise which I may engage at a later time.

Of course, we ultimately need to thank Roman Emperor Constantine I who after attributing his victory over Maxentius at the Tiber River in A.D. 312 to a Christian sign, “converted to Christianity”. Constantine then lifted sanctions against Christians, returned confiscated property, built many churches and may well be more of The Rock than Peter. It was Constantine who made Christianity the official state religion and convened the first Council of Nicaea in A.D. 325. Without his protection and patronage one wonders how Christianity might have evolved or whether it would have survived. Otherwise, we might all be worshipping Mithras? Even with his fervor, Constantine was a politician to the end, hedging his bets and playing both sides against the middle, not being baptized until he was on his deathbed.

Though Constantine worshipped the full pantheon of Roman gods and especially the Roman Sun God Sol, the symbolism noted earlier was not lost on him. Constantine was one sharp guy who saw great benefit in using Christianity to unify his empire by bringing it under the banner of one religion.

Constantine was intent on blending the existing pagan traditions with the new Christianity. He knew that he wouldn’t be favorably received if he took away two of the more popular Roman holidays – the Mardi Gras-like celebration of Saturnalia (December 17-24) and the Dies Natalis Solis Invicti, "the birthday of the invincible sun" and the inclusive celebration of the birth of Mithras, the Persian god of Light (December 25-Jan 1) which was embraced by many upper class Romans and especially, the Roman military.

A significant side note: In a not too surprising coincidence, December 25 was Mithras' birthday before it was Jesus’, Mithras healed the sick, made the lame walk, gave sight to the blind, raised the dead and before returning to heaven at the Spring Equinox, had a last supper with 12 disciples? Hmmmmmmm

The Mithraic and Christian cults were very similar both in appearance and in the character of their ritual. Indeed, the similarities between Mithraism and Christianity are so numerous that it cannot really be denied that the older cult influenced the more recent one. Early Christian priests alarmed with the similarities with their liturgy could offer no better explanation than to surmise that the Devil had gone back in time and planted the belief system so as to confuse the Christians of the day.

The initiates of Mithras, the sun-god, believed that he was born of a virgin in a cave on December 25, and was worshipped on Sunday, the day of the conquering sun. Mithras condemned evil, practiced baptism and consumed the sacraments of bread and wine. He was a savior-god who exceeded Jesus in popularity in ancient Rome. He died and was resurrected in order to become a messenger god, an intermediary between man and the good god of light, and the leader of the forces of good against the dark forces of the god of evil. Hmmmmmmmmmm…

The Mithraic Holy Father wore a red cap, robe, and a special ring, and carried a shepherd's staff. All Mithraic priests were called ‘Father’ not unlike Christian priests who adopted the same title. Mithra's bishops wore a mithra, or miter, as their badge of office. Christian bishops also adopted miters. The Mithraic mass involved the eating of a sun-shaped bun embossed with the sword of Mithra, which was a cross. The Catholic communion wafer continues this Mithraic tradition, and the structure of the old Catholic Latin Mass closely mirrors the Mithraic mass. And for you naysayers, this is not myth rather part of the documented historical record. Hmmmmmmmmm…

Back to the origins of Christmas - Saturnalia was a hedonistic celebration where normal Roman social order was turned upside down and Romans paraded in the streets wearing masks (and sometimes little more), costumes and animal skins and practiced ritual which continued later in Europe evolving into the Mummers tradition. Emperor Constantine merged these pagan festivities with the new Christmas holiday though many of the pagan celebratory traditions from these festivals continued unabated. They just had a new label. Gifts were exchanged and Families and Friends gathered to drink and feast – traditions that are resoundingly familiar to us today. By the 12th century the remnants of Saturnalia were formally incorporated into what we now know as the “Twelve Days of Christmas.”

In 350 CE, Pope Julius I reaffirmed that Christmas would be celebrated on December 25 and like Constantine I was sensitive to the still Roman pagan majority’s penchant for the debauched celebrations of their non-Christian past (a bitter pill goes down easier with a little sugar). The first mention of December 25 as the celebration of the date of Jesus' birth is found in an early Roman calendar from A.D. 336, well before Pope Julius’s proclamation. OK, so now we know that Christmas is a pagan-influenced holiday fraught with considerable political ramifications. The rest is a matter of history with many elements of our Christmas being incorporated from many cultures around the world.

Several hundred years before the birth of Christ, the Druids used mistletoe to decorate their homes and celebrate the coming of winter. The Druids believed the plant had special healing powers for everything from female infertility to poison ingestion while the Scandinavians thought of mistletoe as the plant of peace and harmony. The Norse associated mistletoe with their goddess of love, Frigga, who rode in her cat-drawn chariot (they were Norwegian Forest Cats) and whose tears became the white berries of the mistletoe. The custom of kissing under the mistletoe is believed to originate from this belief. Contrary to the end and not surprisingly, the early church aggressively banned the use of mistletoe for Christmas substituting the use of holly. That failed and we now have the tradition of the mistletoe and holly.

Remember the Yule Log? Yes, on the occasion of the winter festival called Yule they were lit to honor Thor, the God of Thunder, with the belief that, “each spark from the fire represented a new pig or calf that would be born during the coming year. Feasting would continue until the log burned out, which could take as many as twelve days. In pagan Germania (not to be confused with Germany), the equivalent holiday was the mid-winter night which was followed by 12 "wild nights", filled with eating, drinking and partying. As Northern Europe was the last part to Christianize, its pagan celebrations had a major influence on Christmas. Scandinavians still call Christmas Jul. In English, the Germanic word Yule is synonymous with Christmas, a usage first recorded in 900."

The early Christian Church strictly prohibited the decoration of their houses with evergreen boughs perceived then as “Pagan”. While the modern celebration of Christmas continues to incorporate the pagan symbols of the evergreen tree (the green symbol of the renewal of life), they have long been a pagan tradition dating back to prehistory.

While some might try and convince you otherwise, the ancient Romans may have had the distinction of having the first decorated “Christmas tree” as they decorated trees with small pieces of metal during Saturnalia through to its ultimate conversion to Christmas.

Technically, though, the modern Christmas tree originated in the Alsace region of western Germany in the 16th century. German Christians decorated fir trees with flowers, apples, candles and colored paper in celebration of Adam & Eve Day on December 24th. The decorated Christmas tree known to the Germans as Paradise Trees didn’t catch on throughout the rest of Europe and the United States until well into the mid-19th century. The great irony is that bastion of pagan ritual in some more politically correct towns and villages in the United States has now evolved into a Christian symbol and rejected as such on the basis of separation of church and state, surely amusing the spirits of our pagan ancestors and most assuredly our founding fathers who could have cared less about Christmas.

United States President Franklin Pierce arranged to have the first Christmas tree in the White House in 1856 while it was President Calvin Coolidge who started the National Christmas Tree Lighting Ceremony on the White House lawn in 1923.

Today, the Christmas tree has become accepted by Christians, by people of other faiths (many of my Jewish Friends have adopted Chanukah Bushes :), and even for those who do not follow an organized religion. It has become a popular late-December tradition and part of our present-day culture, commercially inspired or not.

Lastly, we tackle the image of today's Santa Claus, a folk figure with multicultural roots. Santa Claus, while not religious, has become an important symbol of Christmas throughout the world.

As a member of that eclectic group of folks known as The Kingdome of Räknar, a Scottish-Norse society (I do also celebrate my French-Norman-Viking) roots) I appreciate that Odin, the Norse God has been recorded, at the native Germanic holiday of Yule, as leading a great hunting party through the sky. There are many historical references to Odin to include Snorri Sturluson’s 1220 CE epic, Snorri’s Edda, an Icelandic collection of poems and stories from Norse mythology. In this saga Odin is described as riding an eight-legged horse name Sleipnir that could leap great distances giving us to immediately compare Sleipnir to Santa’s reindeer. It gets better, still. Odin's appearance was hauntingly similar to that of Saint Nicholas, usually being depicted as an old, enigmatic man with a long white beard and conical hat.

According to writer Phyllis Siefker, author of the wonderful book, Santa Claus, Last of the Wild Men: The Origins and Evolution of Saint Nicholas, Spanning 50,000 Years, “Children would place their boots, filled with carrots, straw or sugar, near the chimney for Odin's flying horse, Sleipnir, to eat. Odin would then reward those children for their kindness by replacing Sleipnir's food with gifts or candy. This practice survived in Germany, Belgium and the Netherlands after the adoption of Christianity and became associated with Saint Nicholas as a result of the process of Christianization and can be still seen in the modern practice of the hanging of stockings at the chimney in some homes. Children still place their straw filled shoes or stockings by the chimney every winter night, and are rewards with candy and gifts.” Hmmmmmmmm.

Despite this rather familiar and (to some) alarming reference to Odin as a Santa Claus figure, many historians give the original Santa Claus nod to St. Nicholas, the 4th century Turkish saint who was known for his generosity to the poor. Nicholas was imprisoned and tortured for his good works by the Romans and it was only the intervention of Emperor Constantine I that saved his life. Saint Nicholas’ persona ingratiates himself to the role as Santa Claus as the patron saint of children.

There were many other personalities whose characteristics and traits ended up in Santa Claus. Some of these personalities include Cronos, the Greek Father God who was worshipped at harvest time; the Holly King, an important deity in Celtic and Norse mythology; Freyr, the Norse fertility god who, "bestows peace and pleasure on mortals"; the Tomte/Nisse a shape shifter and small, elderly man (red elf) often with a full beard known for giving gifts to children at Christmas and, indirectly, Thor, the Norse god of thunder and sometimes benevolent protector of human kind who rides the sky in a chariot drawn by two goats, Tanngrisnir and Tanngnjóstr. Now enter Julbock or Julbukk, the Yule goat, from both Sweden and Norway, who derives from and had his beginnings as a carrier for the god Thor. Now he carries the Yule elf when he makes his rounds to deliver presents and receive his offering of porridge. Hmmmmmmm.

So we can see when Early Christians embraced the Yule holiday, they replaced the old gods with new characters like St. Nicholas but retaining many of the more magnanimous and supernatural characteristics of their personalities.

The Dutch, when they weren’t plugging holes in their dikes, kept the legend of St. Nicholas alive. With thanks to California State University at Northridge, “In 16th century Holland, Dutch children would place their wooden shoes by the hearth in hopes that they would be filled with a treat. The Dutch spelled St. Nicholas as Sint Nikolaas, which became corrupted to Sinterklaas, and finally, in Anglican, to Santa Claus. In 1822, Clement C. Moore composed his famous poem, ‘A Visit from St. Nicholas,’ which was later published as ‘Twas The Night Before Christmas.’ Moore is credited with creating the modern image of Santa Claus as a jolly fat man in a red suit.” While Moore’s authorship was lately controversial it now appears there is no controversy at all.

Who do we really thank for our “Christmas stockings hung with care”? We look to the Dutch again and to their former colony of New Amsterdam (now known as New York City) where the custom evolved from shoes to the hanging of socks or stockings at the fireplace.

Santa Claus as the fat, jolly man in his red and while suit and boots (wonder what his cholesterol numbers are?) is the image long maintained and reinforced by song, radio, television, and films. It would appear that the modern persona of Santa Claus survives from the Claus as portrayed by Clement Moore, illustrated by Thomas Nast of Harper's Weekly and later depicted in the Coca-Cola Company’s early 1930’s Christmas advertising.

The bottom line of all this is that Christmas is a collage of customs and traditions derived from cultures all over the world. The tradition has been distilled, synthesized and commercialized to its present form even to the degree that many of us have forgotten the real reason for the holiday. We sure can’t thank the very sour Plymouth Rock Pilgrims or the Puritans for the holiday as they did everything they could to suppress and crush it even to banning the holiday in Massachusetts. The holiday was suppressed in Scotland until the 1960’s, as a subversive “Catholic holiday.” I know Scots Families who didn’t start celebrating this holiday until the 1970’s! They made up for it with Hogmanay!

So what’s Christmas all about in 2009? In our over the top, ridiculously politically correct time it seems that we can’t say Merry Christmas any more, rather the more PC, Happy Holidays. I’m not one that wears my religion on my sleeve, so in my more private mode I do not choose to address that issue. I’m comfortable in my own skin with my own beliefs and faith. It’s OK by me if folks want to tread their own paths.

Some say, “Well, it’s all about the children.” I absolutely agree with that though I surely want them to learn the basis for our celebration; that it’s just not about presents. I experienced that sense of anticipation on Christmas Eve though I never lost sight of the real meaning of Christmas. My Mother, Brothers and I spent the greater part of Christmas Day in church; me singing in the choir (in many a Midnight Christmas Mass), John as an acolyte and Mother as the jack of all trades and eventually becoming Acolyte Mother at St. Martin’s Episcopal Church in Providence, Rhode Island. The true meaning of Christmas was already indelibly etched in our hearts and minds – and remains so.

As an adult, the ability to research and comment on the multicultural aspects of Christmas with the caution to not get too proprietary about a holiday that has seen contributions from non-Christian cultures all over the world, puts yet another slant on the holiday. Since we have apparently lost sight of the true meaning of Christmas, the great irony is that we need to get back to the basics and that includes the one-time pagan symbols that were so eagerly embraced by the early Christian church, disowned and then reinstated by them. Yes, these symbols remain in our domain to this day.

That will lead us back to greater truths and the reality of our faith. For me Faith (as can be validated by one Episcopalian priest) is not easy. I have to experience - to see, feel and touch every aspect of my beliefs. For me the pagan symbols and evolution of Christianity do not diminish my experience. I suspect that they all came from the same source and that they were the honest, righteous attempts by Man to explain the ultimate mysteries of Life in his environment. How can the symbols of hope, peace, harmony, mercy, the renewal of life, helping the poor and respecting children be bad especially during what is already a bleak winter? I know the Might of Right of it in my mind and soul and will always celebrate my rebirth by embracing the true meaning of the Christmas holiday.

Let this holiday to include embracing the Jolly Old Elf be the catalyst to further our efforts to enhance our commitments to our Families, Friends, Community, Country and the World by being the best that we can be. That means becoming one of those thousand points of light and allowing Christmas to be the occasion for renewal and the hope that better days lie ahead.

Merry Christmas!


Ned Buxton

PS: The art above was crafted by the very talented fellow Scot and member of the Kingdome of Raknar, Harry Blair of Greensboro, NC. Harry provided the drawings for Santa, Scotty and Christmas Eve Last penned by this writer many years ago featuring Rural Hill Farm in Huntersville, NC and as a tribute to the late Ralph Payne of Glasgow, Kentucky fame. Merry Christmas, Harry!

Friday, December 4, 2009


Once again WE THE PEOPLE are the focus of “major” stories – how we handle and manage the flow of information/news into our lives – and determine what is pertinent – and NOT. The revelation that Tiger Woods has been engaging one or more (accentuate more) relationships with other than his wife, his celebrity notwithstanding, is unfortunate and disheartening but, frankly none of our business. If some celebrity obsessed folks demand (usually glorying in the sound of their own voices) that Tiger because of his celebrity now has to do this and that and that they have a RIGHT to any and all details regarding his affairs or any other intimate details of his personal life, know them for who they are: voyeurs, holier than thous, wannabes or just plain primordial slime. Then there are those of us who are just plain curious. If anyone finds Tiger’s behaviors unacceptable and Tiger not worthy of forgiveness, they don’t have to follow his performance on the golf course, offer or retain him as a spokesperson, purchase the products he endorses or support his charitable causes. The piper will be paid...

The self righteous and faux indignant folks that constantly stir the pot and intrude into the personal lives of any citizen are generally motivated by money and profit, their own desire for celebrity, another self serving agenda or maybe for their own amusement? The tabloid “gutter” press that parses, suggests or misdirects, prints an ugly truth or just plain fabricates stories in order to sell news, or the TV networks that keep generating filler material for their morning and evening news are doing it because it sells. That’s how they make money.

Now WE make all that possible because they think that we want it (most do) and will therefore buy the products their advertisers manufacture and sell. Bottom Line: We have a choice in these matters. We can choose to ignore this poppycock or we can jump into the fray and further fan the flames. Too many of us are choosing the latter option as no doubt many folks would really like to know if wife Elin really whacked him and, really, how many? I hope that by offering my perspectives I don’t become part of the problem though with the number of ladies in TigerGate approaching "staggering" and the outer limits of obsession, that sentiment is apparently moot.

But, it kind of makes you wonder when his alleged and not so mathematically challenged and less than sincere and apparently obsessed, first woman scorned, mistress and former reality TV star conveniently surfaces and sells out her former lover with a voice mail and other incriminating evidence of their affair [“enjoying 20 sexual encounters - the final meeting taking place in San Diego, California in October (09)”]? Ca Ching! While I am not judging Tiger, it would appear that an incredibly naïve Woods never found any real refuge there (or anywhere else) and was totally deluding himself when he should have been home “taking care of business” and honoring his marital vows.

Might of Right was pleased with the usually poignant and right on perspectives of Tim Cowlishaw, the Dallas Morning News’ (DMN) lead sports columnist and regular panelist on the ESPN sports talk show Around the Horn. In his
Shame On Us column in yesterday’s DMN Cowlishaw offered to the world that Tiger doesn’t owe us any explanation, period.

Ed Willes, sports columnist with Canadian Canwest’s The Province in a sometimes tongue in cheek, gentler and kinder perspective,
Tiger Burning Not-So-Bright, asks more questions than he answers while also hitting the nail on the head by offering rightfully about Tiger and his brand that, ‘It's about the aura. It's about the mythology. It's also about the presumption he's a pretty-good guy.”

Seems that we are as equally delighted to bring someone down as we are quick to raise them up. Tiger is apparently just a man (like the rest of us – flawed) albeit one with an extraordinary, unique ability. Given his most recent admissions he may be more like us than not and maybe a reason why we should embrace him all the more.

While not a Metallica fan, I am reminded of the lyrics of their 1991 Holier Than Thou hit.

No more

The crap rolls out your mouth again

Haven't changed, your brain is still gelatin

Little whispers circle around your head

Why don't you worry about yourself instead?

Who are you? Where ya been? Where ya from?

Gossip burning on the tip of your tongue

You lie so much you believe yourself

Judge not lest ye be judged yourself

Holier than thou

You are

Holier than thou

You are

For all of his flaws and transgressions it does appear that Tiger is a “pretty-good guy”, witness his successful and dedicated efforts in raising millions of dollars for charity. He has a major if not herculean undertaking in recovering his marriage, learning from his mistakes and, hopefully, reasserting and regaining his role model status, especially with our Youth.

We will find out Tiger’s true mettle if and when he plays in his next tournament where millions of folks (many not fans) will be scrutinizing his each and every move. Let’s all allow him the opportunity to get out of this bunker and shoot yet another birdie. Whether or not Tiger recovers or ever plays golf again is the real story. The reality is that this also puts the PGA in a major quandry and tenuous situation. Hard to imagine the game of golf without Tiger Woods.
Good luck, Tiger.


Ned Buxton