Thursday, December 10, 2009

Christmas – The Reality And The Myth.

I have such fond memories of Christmas, until, I think, about eleven or twelve years old. My parents always bought the best imported pine branches from Canada, and that pungent pine aroma filled our home to create “the scent of Christmas”. My mother and I always decorated the tree, but because we lived in the tropics it was gently sprayed with artificial, canned “snow”, with an angel placed at the apex, then sprinkled with tinsel and various ornaments. As the tree slightly (almost invisibly) deteriorated over days without root, by Christmas day and beyond the pine smell was strong, and the memory of it made Christmas. I’m glad my parents went to such a length to create this inerasable “scent-memory” I have tied to every childhood Christmas. One wouldn’t think that tropical 80 degree snow-less Christmases could be so memorable – but they were.

As I grew older the mystique of Christmas disappeared, first with the realisation that Santa wasn’t real (one benefit being he wasn’t observing my evil deeds either), and then turning myself over to the “true” meaning of Christmas; what we in Australia call “the silly season”. Or just another excuse for a party or to get drunk. I did a little research on the history of Christmas and came up with some interesting, if not palatable insights. While I hesitate to concede much to the Jehovah’s Witnesses, Christmas was originally a pagan festival, and its meshing with Christ and Christianity like an awkward combination of God and Mammon. It is, frankly, something I think Christ would never have approved of, at least not going on what is recorded in the gospels, and not that I’m about to deliver a sermon on the blog, but the thoroughly pagan roots of Christmas show that those calling for a “return” to “traditional ‘Christ centred’ Christmases” (and we hear them every year criticising the commercialisation of Christmas) have failed to realise that Christmas was never really Christian to begin with. That emphasis developed much later. Of course, it is also true that former Christmases may well have been more “Christ-centred”, if we ignore its pagan roots, and this odd couple mixture of God and Mammon.

For a start, scholars reject December 25th as the date of the birth of Jesus. December 25th was a Roman (pagan) festival celebrating the winter solstice and the lengthening of the days (here in Oz it’s the other way around for us, as our days begin to shorten, thank God, as I’m not a fan of daylight saving). According to one source:

Roman pagans first introduced the holiday of Saturnalia, a week long period of lawlessness celebrated between December 17-25. During this period, Roman courts were closed, and Roman law dictated that no one could be punished for damaging property or injuring people during the weeklong celebration. The festival began when Roman authorities chose “an enemy of the Roman people” to represent the “Lord of Misrule.” Each Roman community selected a victim whom they forced to indulge in food and other physical pleasures throughout the week. At the festival’s conclusion, December 25th, Roman authorities believed they were destroying the forces of darkness by brutally murdering this innocent man or woman.


Actually, it sounds a bit like what happens here in Oz, without the belief that the forces of darkness were being destroyed. It was in the 4th century that Christianity imported the Saturnalia festival (1). Not all Christians later agreed with this decision:

The Reverend Increase Mather of Boston observed in 1687 that “the early Christians who first observed the Nativity on December 25 did not do so thinking that Christ was born in that Month, but because the Heathens’ Saturnalia was at that time kept in Rome, and they were willing to have those Pagan Holidays metamorphosed into Christian ones.” Because of its known pagan origin, Christmas was banned by the Puritans and its observance was illegal in Massachusetts between 1659 and 1681. However, Christmas was and still is celebrated by most Christians.


Santa Claus, however, was initially based on a real person, St. Nicholas of Myra, the Greek Christian bishop of Myra.

Nicholas was famous for his generous gifts to the poor, in particular presenting the three impoverished daughters of a pious Christian with dowries so that they would not have to become prostitutes.
(2)

The tradition developed over the centuries, and the Christmas tree tradition is believed to have begun in Germany in the 18th century, and in Britain from 1841 onwards. By 1870 putting up a Christmas tree became common in America. Nativity scenes, however, were popular since the 10th century, and were popularised in Europe through Saint Francis of Assisi from 1223. The belief that Santa came down through the chimney goes back to the tale of Saint Nicholas tossing coins through windows when doors were locked. The word Christmas itself is a combination of Christ-Mass, derived from the Old English Cristes mæsse, and was first recorded in 1038. The objection by those who say that “Xmas” should not be used they might be interested to learn that in Greek the letter X (chi) is the first letter of Christ, and the Roman letter X has been used as an abbreviation for Christ since the mid-16th century. So for the overly religious – there’s nothing wrong with Xmas.

While it is true that Christmas has pagan origins, I won’t be a spoilsport, for who among us more fortunate ones doesn’t have pleasant Christmas memories? Some have argued that it’s wrong to teach children lies, but one of the most delightful and popular Christmas stories, in my opinion, comes out of America, when in 1897 eight year old Virginia O’Hanlon’s (3) friends put doubts into her mind about Santa Claus. She asked her father if Santa was real, and I suppose not wanting to shatter the little girl’s beliefs in one devastating shot, he suggested that she write to the New York Sun’s question and answer column. The letter ended up in the hands of one of the paper’s senior editors, Francis Church, who was a war correspondent at the time and saw the devastation, suffering, despair and lack of hope among many. Church was eventually to pen what was to become the most reprinted editorial ever to run in any newspaper in the English language.

"Dear Editor, I am 8 years old. Some of my little friends say there is no Santa Claus. Papa says, "If you see it in The Sun, it's so." Please tell me the truth, is there a Santa Claus?"

Virginia O'Hanlon


Virginia,

Your little friends are wrong. They have been affected by the skepticism of a skeptical age. They do not believe except they see. They think that nothing can be which is not comprehensible by their little minds. All minds, Virginia, whether they be men's or children's, are little. In this great universe of ours, man is a mere insect, an ant, in his intellect as compared with the boundless world about him, as measured by the intelligence capable of grasping the whole of truth and knowledge. Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus. He exists as certainly as love and generosity and devotion exist, and you know that they abound and give to your life its highest beauty and joy. Alas! how dreary would be the world if there were no Santa Claus! It would be as dreary as if there were no Virginias. There would be no childlike faith then, no poetry, no romance to make tolerable this existence. We should have no enjoyment, except in sense and sight. The eternal light with which childhood fills the world would be extinguished. Not believe in Santa Claus! You might as well not believe in fairies. You might get your papa to hire men to watch in all the chimneys on Christmas eve to catch Santa Claus, but even if you did not see Santa Claus coming down, what would that prove? Nobody sees Santa Claus, but that is no sign that there is no Santa Claus. The most real things in the world are those that neither children nor men can see. Did you ever see fairies dancing on the lawn? Of course not, but that's no proof that they are not there. Nobody can conceive or imagine all the wonders there are unseen and unseenable in the world. You tear apart the baby's rattle and see what makes the noise inside, but there is a veil covering the unseen world which not the strongest man, nor even the united strength of all the strongest men that ever lived could tear apart. Only faith, poetry, love, romance, can push aside that curtain and view and picture the supernal beauty and glory beyond. Is it all real? Ah, Virginia, in all this world there is nothing else real and abiding. No Santa Claus! Thank God! he lives and lives forever. A thousand years from now, Virginia, nay 10 times 10,000 years from now, he will continue to make glad the heart of childhood.




Merry Christmas.




(1) The Real Story of Christmas
(2) Santa Claus
(3) Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus

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