The True Meaning of Christmas, Part II

By Thursday, December 18, 2014 0 4

If you haven’t read Part I, please do so now before continuing.  I’ll wait…

I left us last week when Christmas was a drunken Mardi Gras, opposed by many Christians, and barely resembled the holiday we celebrate today.  Before Christmas became something we would recognize, we must add the third element: Mr. Claus.

 

Here Comes Santa Claus, Here Comes Santa Claus

Saint Nicholas was a Greek bishop who lived in the 4th century in what is now Turkey.  He gave away a substantial inheritance to help the poor and sick, and he was widely revered for his generosity and piety.

Most famous was when he saved three sisters from being forced into prostitution.  He secretly paid their dowry by throwing bags of gold coins into their home — one went down the chimney and another landed in a pair of stockings hanging to dry.  This is where our chimney and stockings tradition comes from.  While gifts arriving via chimney was common for many pagan figures like trolls, fairies, and Norse gods; it was also part of St. Nicholas’ legacy.

During the Middle Ages, the anniversary of St. Nicholas’ death on December 6th was celebrated and children were given gifts in his honor.  In the 16th century, Martin Luther, whose Protestant reform work led to the Lutherans, wanted to increase children’s interest in Jesus, so he sought to change the custom of gifts coming from St. Nicholas to gifts coming from Jesus.  Then the transformation of St. Nick really started…

Over time, St. Nicholas morphed with England’s Father Christmas, a character symbolizing the spirit of Christmas joy, and he became known as Santa Claus (the name evolved from his Dutch nickname, Sinter Klaas).  Santa Claus also took on shades of Odin, the Norse god celebrated during the yule with a long white beard and an eight-legged horse he rode through the night sky delivering gifts.

The Santa Claus celebration moved to December 25th, and the gift tradition remnant from St. Nicholas and Odin was continued to remind people of the gifts the three magi brought baby Jesus.

All the pieces were now there: Yuletide/Winter Solstice + Jesus’ birth + Santa Claus.  We just had to revise.

 

It’s Beginning to Look a lot Like Christmas

In the 1800s, the upper class had had enough of Christmas.  Many Christmas traditions were pretty crappy for wealthy people as they involved mobs of drunk men prowling the streets, breaking things, and going door to door demanding food and alcohol.  Definitely doesn’t sound like a holiday families could get on board with.  “Children, gather ’round and look at the drunken throngs of dudes damaging property! A Merry Christmas to us all!” said no one ever.

A movement started to domesticate Christmas, to take it inside the home, to give it meaning, and to give it to children.  In 1843, Charles Dickens played a large role in revising Christmas when he wrote A Christmas Carol and the Christmas he described was an intimate family celebration of generosity and reflection.  Santa Claus fit right in with this Christmas revision and the New York elite latched onto him.

Santa further matured with the help of two New Yorkers:

  1. In 1822, Clement Clarke Moore, a professor, wrote The Night Before Christmas for his daughters and almost single-handily created a modern Santa and a secular Christmas (click here for the poem).  He added even more Odin to Santa when he took Odin’s eight-legged horse and changed it to eight reindeer (Rudolph was envisioned 100 years later by a Montgomery Ward employee as a marketing ploy).
  2. In 1863, Thomas Nast, a political cartoonist, was commissioned to illustrate Santa Claus for Harper’s Weekly.  Over the next decade, his Santa series changed Santa into a tall, plump man with a white beard.  He also gave us the North Pole, the workshop, the elves, Mrs. Claus, the letters from children, and the naughty and nice list.

Now we had our jolly Santa, and after a Coca-Cola ad in the 1930s where Santa wore a red suit with white trim, we had his outfit.

Christmas, Things They Forgot to Mention, blog, photo, Santa, Santa Claus, Coca-Cola

Although many churches were historically opposed to Christmas and the new Santa Claus, they found Santa, gift giving, the pagan traditions of the Christmas tree and caroling improved church attendance.  So, they adopted them full force.  According to the St. Nicholas Center, “in a strange twist of fate, the new ‘secular’ Santa Claus…helped return Christmas observance to churches.”

 

Silent Night, Holy Night

What I found so interesting in the history of Christmas was how single individuals had such large impacts, how many minds it took to craft this holiday, and how it reflects our culture throughout history.

But, in writing this story, I started to feel like Scrooge Mc(Lame)Duck.  I felt like I was taking something beautiful and trying to prove it wasn’t beautiful simply because it was made of stuff found on earth and not given to us from above.  This would not stand so I went back to the essence of Christmas and I found it unchanged.

Yes, we created Christmas from unrelated traditions, but that doesn’t mean it’s not powerful.  The things we create reflect the things we value, and with Christmas we value family, generosity, reflection, antiquity, and the high fashion in Wham’s Last Christmas.  After my research, Christmas reminded me even more of the people that came before me, of the light that is bigger than me.  The imaginations of our ancestors can be seen all over our traditions.  They are still there celebrating with us, reminding us to look up.

Do we lie to our children about Christmas? Yes.  Why? Because Christmas gives magic to them and that magic, while fleeting, stays with us for the rest of our lives.  We’ll always remember kneeling on our beds, whispering with our siblings, scanning the dark sky for Santa.  Christmas tells us there is beauty in our imaginations.  It tells us it’s ok to think beyond what is logical, to go beyond ourselves, to look into the dark for the light that is waiting.  That is what the yuletide and winter solstice revered.  That is what St. Nicholas sought.  That is Jesus’ birth.  And that, to me, is Christmas.

Christmas, Things They Forgot to Mention, blog, photo, yule, yuletide, tree

(Sources: I spent way too much time on Wikipedia, the History Channel website, and multitudes of religious websites for this information.  If you want backing, ask and ye shall receive.)

Things They Forgot to Mention:

Christmas was built from the minds of our ancestors and is a beautiful reflection of our cultures changing and melding throughout history.  It reminds us to keep imagining, searching for the unknowns out your window, and never forgetting to look up.

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The True Meaning of Christmas, Part I

By Thursday, December 11, 2014 0 6

Similar to Easter, Christmas causes me much confusion.  It seems to be a mishmash of several unrelated traditions all jammed into one that mostly revolves around buying things, eating chocolate, and lying to children.  I’ve always been confused about how Jesus, Santa Claus, and yule logs have anything to do with each other, so I did a little research.  I found out so much interesting information that this will be a two part series, to be finished next week.  And you can guarantee I’ll be doing the same research when Easter comes around.

I started by writing a list of questions I have about Christmas, which was a hilarious  process since it became quite clear that I don’t understand this holiday at all.  Who is this Santa Claus and why does he have so many aliases (St. Nick, Kris Kringle, Father Christmas, Sinterklaas)? What does he have to do with Jesus? Is it wrong that there is a globally sanctified lie we tell our children? When did the flying reindeer and elfin sweatshops come into play? Why is Santa the only person besides certain pimps that can say “ho ho ho”? Is Santa immortal? What is a “yule”?????

I feel I should disclose that I am no Scrooge.  My husband laughs at the magnitude of my Christmas joy.  I am literally listening to Christmas carols as I write this.  My ringtone is “Carol of Bells” this month.  Oh yes, I love Christmas.  Christmas to me is magical, intimate, and feels sacred and heavy with emotion.  It reminds me of the quiet found only in winter that seems ancient and aware.  There is something about this time of year that makes my cells ache for the line of humanity that made me, for the light that is bigger than me.  I love Christmas.  A lot.  Yet our traditions make no sense to me.

From my research, I learned that my Christmas confusion was warranted.  Christmas is essentially the merging of (at least) three separate celebrations with very different meanings:

  1. Yuletide/Winter Solstice
  2. Jesus’ birth
  3. Santa Claus

If you step back and delve deep into the traditions, they don’t seem to make sense combined together.  At first.  But when you look deeper, they have the same basic root: a celebration of life and light.

 

The Yule. The What? The Yule.

Let’s begin with the yuletide.  This is a pagan festival originating in Germany and Scandinavia that celebrated midwinter and winter solstice.  Heathens celebrated this, you guys, heathens!  The yuletide honored the sun and the lengthening of days that starts on winter solstice; it was a celebration of birth and the end of darkness.

The yuletide was celebrated for varying amounts of time between November and January, centered around the winter solstice, December 21.  There was a lot of ale drinking, sacrificing of animals, smearing of blood on walls/people, and supernatural activity.  There was also a focus on, uh how do I say this, female fertility, so…

During the yuletide, people brought evergreen trees indoors and hung evergreen boughs to remind them of the life that would grow when winter ended — the origin of our Christmas trees and wreaths.

Candles, fires, and yule logs were lit to push back the winter darkness — the origin of our Christmas lights and, obviously, yule logs.

The Norse god Odin was honored, who author Margaret Baker, described as: “the old blue-hooded, cloaked, white-bearded Giftbringer of the north, who rode the midwinter sky on his eight-footed steed Sleipnir, visiting his people with gifts.”  — remind you of anyone else?

This is also where we get mistletoe, caroling, and eating ham.  These are all pagan traditions that have been assimilated into Christmas and I was surprised to learn how many yule traditions we celebrate without realizing their origin.  The yuletide/winter solstice was a hugely important celebration across many cultures long before little baby Jesus.  Grocery stores and radiant floor heating didn’t exist.  Fireplaces weren’t just fun, crackle ‘n pop, winter accessories; winters were hard.  Celebrating the return of the sun was a significant moment and something that was revered globally by our non-equatorial ancestors.

 

And Then Little Baby Jesus Was Added

Right off I was surprised to learn that (1) Christians didn’t always celebrate Christmas, and (2) there is no mention of December 25th anywhere in the Bible.  No one actually knows the date of Jesus’ birth, although some religious historians believe there is evidence for him being born at other times of the year.

In the 3rd century, Pope Julius I chose December 25th as Jesus’ birthday, most likely since pagan and winter solstice festivals were already celebrated at that time.  By choosing the same time, church officials made it easier for people to embrace Christmas and they also assimilated many pagan traditions into Christmas to ease the transition.  For instance, they adopted the pagan tradition of evergreen trees but added a new Christian twist: they put apples in the trees to symbolize the Garden of Eden, and these apples became the ornaments we use today.

Christmas was not always as solemn, biblical, and family-oriented as it is today.  For a long time it was wildly pagan; it was still the yuletide and it was more like a drunken Mardi Gras celebrated in public, not celebrated privately as families.

There were so many pagan roots in Christmas traditions that it was opposed by many Christians (and still opposed by some today).  The Puritans in colonial New England banned Christmas and in 1644 the Massachusetts legislature fined anyone who celebrated Christmas 5 shillings (I tried to convert this into today’s dollars using my iPhone app but oddly it didn’t know the valuation).  The “war against Christmas” has been going on since like 1644, you guys.

Christmas, Things They Forgot to Mention, blog, photo, yule, yuletide, tree, ornament

To Be Continued in Part II…

I will end the post here and save the rest for Part II where we’ll discuss when Santa came into the picture, how Coca-Cola contributed to who he is, when the pagans finally lost, and how Christmas turned into a massive assembly line of gifts and harmless, little lies for our children.

(Sources: I spent way too much time on Wikipedia, the History Channel website, and multitudes of religious websites for this information.  If you want backing, ask and ye shall receive.)

 

Things They Forgot to Mention:

Christmas is our creation.  A wonderful creation of ancient traditions all mashed into one weird but beautiful celebration of life and light and the stuff bigger than us.  Also heathen stuff, lots of heathen stuff.

Click here for Part II

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