Sunday, November 29, 2009

The History of Christmas

Many of our traditions today are age-old and originated in Germanic and other Indo-European cultures.
This time of year has been celebrated for millennia because December 21, the winter solstice, marks the end of the shortening days. People knew that soon the days would grow longer, food would become plentiful again, and new plants would break through the ground. The holiday could have been called the return of light and often the gods were associated with light and the sun. Evergreen trees were revered as symbols of the renewal of life in the land.
Agrarian societies often slaughtered animals in the fall to eliminate the need for feeding them in the winter and to provide food that could be preserved for the humans. Also the wines and beers had sufficiently fermented. People had to stay inside because of the cold climate. Wine, beer, plentiful food, and a blazing fireplace naturally resulted in a festive atmosphere, humans being what they are.
Early Norwegians feasted for twelve days after the solstice. They believed that each spark of the fire log symbolized the birth of a pig or cow.
In Germany people believed that the god Oden (sometimes spelled Odin) flew through the sky, checking on them and deciding who would die and who would prosper. The image later transformed into St. Nicholas, honoring a third century Christian cleric. The legend says that he was born into wealth and gave all his money to the poor. Our modern Santa Claus also has a much kinder agenda, evolved from the Dutch version of Sinter Klass and the German Kris Kringle.
In Italy the Romans celebrated Saturnalia, the god of agriculture, through the month of December. A later version of the religion popular with Roman soldiers honored the god Mithra (sometimes spelled Mithras), revered in other cultures, including early Iranian. Born on Dec. 25 of a virgin mother, Mithra could take on the suffering of others and could intercede on their behalf with the supreme deity. Saturnalia often included boisterous public festivals with much drinking, dancing, and revelry.
The Catholic Church did not celebrate the birth of Jesus until about the fourth century. There is some discrepancy about the date of his birth. Some authorities say Dec. 5, some say January, some say March. In any event, Pope Julius chose Dec. 25 as the holiday, probably in the hope that the festivities surrounding winter solstice and the birth of Mithra would encourage people to turn the celebration to a Christian purpose. He succeeded very well since sixteen hundred years later many people believe the birth of Jesus is the only reason behind Christmas.
However much the purpose for the celebration has changed, the method of celebration became endlessly entangled with the other holidays. Throughout the Middle Ages the faithful attended church on Christmas but then indulged in raucous celebrations with the election of a lord of misrule, who led people in drinking, dancing, and playing tricks, in much the same style as at Mardi Gras.
The English Puritans who came to America were the complete opposite. They did not celebrate Christmas as a holiday and frowned on merry-making for any purpose. However the early German pioneers brought with them the practices of decorating fir trees, Christmas markets, gifts, and candy. Their traditions overcame the English traditions, thank goodness.
During the nineteenth century Christmas transformed into a family celebration with good deeds for the unfortunate in our midst. Social changes underpinned much of that thrust as the dispossessed in our country were rioting in some cities. Gang riots in New York City caused the creation of the police force along with more aid for those without means. The Sketchbook of Geoffrey Crayon, gent. by Washington Irving and A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens, works by two influential authors, helped visualize a more nostalgic holiday.
Mistletoe and caroling came from England, the Yule log from Sweden, poinsettias from Mexico. Father Christmas from England filled children’s stockings gifts under the tree from Germany. The United States has added greeting cards, Rudolph, and lamps in the shape of a woman’s leg, among other things. Our American melting pot has made Christmas a spectacular holiday.
Some writers suggest that the similarities with Mithra, and with Buddha, Krishna, and other deities diminish or malign the story of Jesus. I believe otherwise. I love the traditions because they connect us with our own past, thousands and thousands of years of it. Despite different details of stories and custom, the message is the same – of love, rebirth, and light in a world that sorely needs light even more so than when I penned these words in 2006.
Blessings on you and yours now and through 2010.