I remember Christmas as a time of magic. There was something supernatural going on that you could never put your finger on. Flying reindeer, animals that talk at midnight, ghosts and Santa, a supernatural figure if there ever was one. To believe in Santa required faith, not unlike the kind of faith required to believe in a god or a messiah. You knew it sounded too good to be true, but you wanted to believe so bad.
I lost my Christmas spirit somewhere along the way, and to get it back has been an ongoing struggle to find the magic again.
I have two pet peeves about Christmas. First is the common theme among many Christmas movies and specials about having to save Christmas. The other is talk about who owns Christmas – what is the reason for the season. It’s an argument that stretches back centuries.
But the truth is, nobody owns Christmas. Everybody gets a little piece of it, and each person’s Christmas is completely personal. No matter if your traditions are secular or sacred, the reason for the season is whatever you want it to be.
Because Christmas is about joy. Christmas is and has always been, a reason to celebrate life, to help those that need our help, and if even for a little while, try to be a better person. Whether you do that because Jesus told you to love your neighbor, because you think it’s the right thing to do, or might be hoping from a visit from St. Nick, what counts is that you feel it, you get happy, and when you do, it rubs off on others.
So it irks me to no end to see people arguing over Christmas. Historically speaking, the festival held at the winter solstice stretches back to the realm of myth and legend.
Hanukkah predates Christmas, so why not “Yahweh is the reason for the season?” Jesus almost certainly would have celebrated Hanukkah, and the Jesus I know wouldn’t have approved of knocking a festival dedicated to the god he called his father, and which coincidently enough, involved giving gifts to little children.
With knowledge comes enlightenment. I’ve heard since childhood that using the abbreviation Xmas minimizes the importance of Jesus in the holiday. But X is the first letter of Christ in Greek, and X has been in use in wholly Christian contexts to refer to Jesus since the mid-16th century. It’s not disrespectful, it’s a purely Christian tradition. One of the few when it comes to Christmas.
The roots of Christmas are undoubtedly pagan. Nearly every civilization which was dependent on the weather for their survival celebrated around the winter solstice. It was the birth of the sun, the rebirth of the light of the world. So it’s only logical that when the Catholic church was trying to convert the western world, they would choose this date for the celebration of Jesus’ birth. The church was Roman, and the Romans celebrated the solstice with the Saturnalia, from December 17th through the 25th. There were no trials, and no one could be punished for destroying property or injuring others during the festival. There was human sacrifice, lots of intoxication, rampant sexuality and the opportunity for the less fortunate of society to be in many ways, equal to the upper classes. There was also caroling though it was often done drunk and naked, and the baking and consumption of human shaped biscuits, the source of today’s gingerbread men.
By contrast, the earliest celebrations of Christ’s birth were pretty solemn affairs. So to appease the masses, the early church allowed the Saturnalia to continue. Parts of it were Christianized, including bringing greenery into the home, a practice banned by the Old Testament. Some of the more extreme practices eventually died away, but the idea that Christmas was a time of excess in food and drink stuck with us, and was officially sanctioned by the church for over a thousand years.
Before the time of Christ, in the pagan, Germanic speaking countries of northern Europe, December found the celebration of Odin or Woden, and the celebration of Yul, which became Yuletide. Odin, one of the Norse gods, leads a hunting party through the sky, riding an eight legged horse. Children left their boots by the chimney, filled with straw, sugar or carrots for his horse, Sleipner. Odin would leave candy or gifts in the children’s boot as a reward. Other Yul traditions include the Yule log, and once again, carols. Since these Germanic countries were among the last to be converted to Christianity, their holiday traditions were absorbed into the Christian pantheon of customs, to make it more palatable to pagan sensibilities. Odin’s eight legged-horse became eight tiny reindeer, and Odin became Saint Nicholas.
The festival of Saint Nicholas was usually held on the fifth or sixth of December, and is practiced all over Europe, but most importantly for us, in the Netherlands. Had that date stuck in England and the United States, much of the conflict over secular versus religious celebrations could have been avoided. But the church thought it was a good idea to combine the two.
According to legend, Nicholas saved a poor man’s three daughters from a life of prostitution by providing them with dowries, so they could marry when they came of age. In order to spare the man’s pride, he had to do it anonymously, so according to one legend, he dropped the coins down the chimney, which landed in the girl’s stockings, which were hung there to dry.
Saint Nicholas rides through the air on an eight legged horse. Children left their boots by the chimney, filled with straw, sugar or carrots for it. Odin, I mean Nicholas would leave candy or gifts in the children’s boot as a reward. Bad children are put in a bag and taken to Spain. St. Nick, or Sinterklaas is helped with his gift giving by his helpers, who are dressed in Moorish costumes, which over time became elvish costumes.
In Greece and other eastern, Christian countries, it’s Saint Basil, who was born rich and gave his possessions to the poor, that delivers the gifts. Like Nicholas, Saint Basil was also known to minister to prostitutes. An echo of Jesus ministering to the woman accused of adultery in the earliest Christianized versions of Santa Claus?
Holly is thought to have come from the Druids of Ireland, but the Christians used it as protection against witches and other pagans, as the thorns were symbolic of Jesus’ crown of thorns, and the red berries his blood. Ivy symbolized Jesus because of its heart-shaped leaves, but Ivy and evergreen were already popular in pagan Rome, and also Jewish traditions. Kissing under the mistletoe comes to us from the Romans, as for them it was a fertility symbol. It’s also thought to be Druidic as well. To the Norse, Balder was killed from a twig of mistletoe, which when made Christian, became the wood which the cross was made from.
In the middle east during the time of the prophet Jeremiah, trees were cut down and brought inside, then decorated with figures of gods and goddesses, as well as metals. This infuriated Jeremiah to no end, and it was his belief that it infuriated Yahweh as well. European pagans found the concept of cutting down trees for such purposes abhorrent as it was a living thing, and so just cut branches for decoration. The Romans dressed up living trees and bushes with metal and figures of the god Bacchus during their Saturnalias. And by 230 A.D., Christian writers were already complaining about other Christians taking part in pagan festivals by decorating trees.
The Christmas tree also goes back to Germanic pagans, who sacrificed nine of every type of living things by hanging them on a tree in the name of Odin. Martin Luther brought back the custom, sans Nordic decorations and sacrifices, and German Hessian soldiers brought it to America during the War of Independence. It would be nearly a century later before it would find its way to Britain, in 1840 by Queen Victoria’s husband, the German-born Prince Albert.
As early as the middle ages, nearly all the modern characteristics of today’s Christmas celebrations were already in place. Caroling was a hit, and even though the participants were now dressed, it was attacked by the pious as lewd and a product of drunkenness and sexual promiscuity. That the holiday still carried over many of its Saturnalian practices is unquestionable. That is also was basically a vibrant celebration of life, charity and gift-giving is also undeniable. But for many, it’s the means as much as the end, and peace on Earth, goodwill toward men and all that rot was evil unless done for the right reasons.
So after the party came the hangover, which was in this case Puritan England.
The Puritans hated Christmas, saying it smacked of Catholicism and was just shy of worshipping the anti-christ. King Charles I of England commanded the landed gentry to continue with Christian charity at Christmas. The Puritans swept Parliament, Charles lost his head and Christmas was officially banned in 1647, except for fasting which was sanctioned. Riots broke out and conflicts over the banned holiday helped start the second Civil War in England, but the Puritans held firm for 23 years, when the restoration of the monarchy pushed the Puritans from power.
Over here, in Puritan New England, celebrating Christmas was a crime as well. The laws were finally loosened in the late 17th century, but it was the middle of the 19th century before it caught on in New England. Decoration with evergreens was strongly discouraged, those celebrating publicly were arrested for disturbing the peace. In 1870, schools were in session on Christmas Day in Boston.
Christmas had a tough time bouncing back. But in the middle of the 19th century, with the publication of books of the old pre-Cromwellian carols, customs, the first Christmas cards in 1843 and Prince Albert’s Christmas tree, the Victorian-era Brits started kicking the embers of Christmas tradition once more. Which also revived the old culture wars.
Enter Father Christmas to the rescue. A wholly fictional character frequently depicted debating Christmas naysayers in favor of the holiday, he bemoaned the thought that he, who represented the spirit of celebration and imbibing was being left out of the day which bore his name. “Why Gentlemen, doe you know what you doe? ha! would you ha’kept me out? Christmas, old Christmas” Father Christmas looked like Oden of old, but had nothing particular to do with children or giving gifts. Instead, he was the embodiment of good cheer, fellowship and love of celebrations.
But it took an American to bring the spirit back to England.
Washington Irving wrote extensively, sometimes factually, sometimes with tongue-in-cheek, about the practices of the old Dutch settlers in the Hudson River Valley and New York City, formerly New Amsterdam. His book, “The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon” told of the celebrations he had experienced earlier in England, which had mostly been abandoned as Christmas fell out of favor. But his recollections inspired another writer, England’s Charles Dickens, who began writing Christmas stories in hopes of bringing back customs which he held dear, those which helped the poor and downtrodden, causes which Dickens devoted much of his life to.
The end result was “A Christmas Carol,” published in 1843, the story of the salvation of Ebenezer Scrooge from miser to warm-hearted benefactor, brought about by the spirit of Christmas. As a result of this story, merriment and good cheer at Christmas once more became in fashion, in no small part due to the presence of the Ghost of Christmas Present, a thinly veiled Father Christmas. Another result was a tremendous uptick in charitable giving, something that happens more freely when the giver is in a generous, and possibly inebriated mood. And Christmas stopped being a solemn affair, held mainly in churches as a recognition of the birth of Jesus, and once more became a festival of giving, centered around the family, community and reaching out to the needy.
Enter Santa Claus. Washington Irving popularized tales of the celebration of Saint Nicholas, which in Dutch, according to legend, was mispronounced as Santa Claus. Clement Clark Moore’s “A Visit From Saint Nicholas” (Twas the night before Christmas …) pretty much gave us the description of the modern day Saint Nick, with one exception. Saint Nicholas in Clement’s poem was tiny, an elf.
“But a miniature sleigh, and eight tiny reindeer,
With a little old driver, so lively and quick,
I knew in a moment it must be Saint Nick.”
The gift-giver in Europe had become the Christ child, in German the Kristkindl, which when mispronounced by Americans became Kris Kringle. And in the process, firmly cemented the date of his visit in England and America as Christmas Eve. Thomas Nast, an artist from Bavaria in Germany, published more than 2,000 images based on Moore’s poem, as well as giving him a home at the North Pole, the naughty and nice list and an elf-filled workshop. Haddon Sundblom, a Swede made Santa into an adult-sized elf, gave him a red suit to match the colors of his patron, Coca Cola, and stuck a bottle of coke in his hand. The rest is pretty much history.
Of course by 1850, people were already bitching about Christmas again. Harriet Beecher Stowe, writing in “The First Christmas in New England” includes a character bemoaning the fact that Christmas was all about shopping. A charge which has only become more true in the past century or so.
Isn’t it time we stop fighting over Christmas? The arguments put forth by some Christians are just the same Puritans beliefs warmed over, and the last time society listened to them, Christmas disappeared for over a generation.
To the atheists out there – so you don’t believe the story of Jesus. That’s fine, but it doesn’t make you morally superior, so lay off those who do. To quote Ebeneezer Scrooge, “keep Christmas in your own way, and let me keep it in mine.”
To the Christians – Don’t take it as a personal affront because someone says “season’s greetings.” Just as it’s unfair to deny Christians the right to celebrate Christmas Day, it’s unfair to denigrate those who believe differently or in other traditions. The statement “Jesus is the reason for the season” negates their beliefs and well, you know. Pisses them off. The host of angels which appeared to the shepherds in the Bible proclaim “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.” Nearly all of the holidays and traditions in the season of the solstice brings happiness to others, and makes the world a better place. So let Jesus be the reason for your season, and be thankful that for whatever reason, much of the rest of the world is joining you in celebration.
I’m left with something I heard in the old television series, Northern Exposure. Christmas is like Santa’s bag. There’s a gift inside for everybody. Maybe if we stop being so damned grown-up and serious about it, maybe one day that gift will once again be magic.
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