Lisa's gift to Shelbyville
In 1948, when Morton Renegar brought his bride Lisa back to Tennessee from her native Germany, he wondered how she would be received -- after all, World War II had ended just three years earlier.
He needn't have worried; Lisa won people over, and within a few years was modeling clothes for two department stores owned by Jewish families.
At some point after the Renegars landed in Shelbyville, Lisa began giving presentations on Christmas traditions in her native land and across Europe. She gave them to schools, to civic clubs, and even in surrounding communities.
She gave the presentation so often that Bud Lytle, a friend, once saw the Renegars walk into a room and immediately said, "Oh, no, we're going to hear about Christmas in Germany again!"
Teasing aside, the program was quite popular. Germany is the source of some of our own Christmas traditions, brought here by immigrants over the years, but it also has traditions that didn't make the jump and which are still unique to Germany.
"Somebody insisted that she write all this down," said Morton.
She did. Lisa Renegar died in 2002, but her husband, a familiar face to many Shelbyville residents from civic involvement and his years operating Renegar's Drugs, recently ran across some of the papers from her Christmas presentations over the years. These included text of her presentations as well as notes and letters she received in response to her programs and appearances. Morton Renegar was kind enough to share them with us.
"Christmas customs in the U.S. and Europe are composed of threads from many countries," wrote Lisa Renegar. "The customs reflect a spiritual side to Christianity ... highlighting ... the commemoration of the birth of Christ -- and a pagan aspect, pointing to fun and merry-making. Christmas customs are an evolution from times that long antedated the Christian period. They came from seasonal, pagan, religious and national practices and they were tied with legends and traditions."
Christmas, as we know it, was born in northern Europe. As Christianity moved northward, it encountered areas where the winter solstice -- the shortest day of the year -- was the focus of various pagan festivals. To compete with this pagan observance, church leaders began celebrating the birth of Christ at about the same time of year, even though nobody knows the month or season in which the actual birth of Jesus took place.
Originally, Christmas was purely a religious observance, but it took on more festive trappings as time went on, some of them actually alterations of the old pagan festival traditions.
Saint Nicholas was a bishop in Asia Minor about 300 A.D. He was famous for his generosity, and people began to credit him when they received an unexpected gift. Worshippers in the Netherlands declared Saint Nicholas the patron saint of Christmas. The name "Santa Claus" comes from the Dutch "Sinter Klaas," a corruption of the pronunciation of "Saint Nicholas."
Who is Santa?
In Germany, Santa is known as Weihnachtsmann, and in France he is Pere Noel. Italians call him La Befana, and the Swiss know him as Christkindle.
Our American vision of Santa was shaped, in large part, by Clement C. Moore's 1823 poem "The Night Before Christmas." The idea of Santa entering homes through the chimney came from an old Norse legend, in which the goddess Hertha appeared in the fireplace to bring good luck to the home.
Germany's Santa Claus, Weihnachtsmann, carries a switch and emphasizes respect. The idea that only good children are rewarded is emphasized.
In Germany, the Netherlands, Belgium and Luxembourg, "Saint Nicholas Day" is observed, and shoes are filled with toys. In those countries, Saint Nicholas is seen as a different person from the fellow who brings toys on Christmas Eve or Christmas morning.
The tradition of toys in stockings ties in with the Saint Nicholas legend. Supposedly, Saint Nicholas saved a maiden from sin by providing her with a dowry so that she could marry. During the night, he tossed a bag of gold into her window and it landed in a stocking which had been hung by the chimney to dry.
Christmas trees, of course, are a very German part of the holiday tradition. The tree is thought to have originated in Germany in the Eighth Century. Accounts persist that Martin Luther introduced the idea of lighting the tree with candles.
When Lisa Renegar talked about the candle-illuminated trees of her German youth, one person in attendance was skeptical. Then, he read a Los Angeles Times story about a tragic, city-wide fire in Bonn caused by Germans who had placed candles in their Christmas trees. He wrote a note to Lisa saying he was sorry he ever doubted her. The note is signed "Dan," and Morton has no idea who it might have been.
Also included in the paperwork are notes from school children.
"Dear Mrs. Lisa," wrote one child in 1990, "Thank you for bringing the German things so we could see what German is like. I liked the German things.
"Your friend, Lauren."