Everyone has holiday traditions. How many of these time-honored traditions do people really understand? It would seem everyone would pay much significance to incorporating these bits of the holiday into family custom; however, that is not necessarily the case. Christmas has become a mixed cocktail of trees, wreaths, food, parties, Santas, and a million other things loosely associated with the season. In this post, I attempt to shed a little light on some of these traditions of an American Christmas.
Christmas Celebration on December 25
Celebrating Christmas on December 25 is probably a carry-over from a Roman festival -- Saturnalia, honoring Saturn, the God of Agriculture. ("A True Christian Look at Non-Christian Christmas," firstfollowers.vision.org, December 21 2007)) The merriest feast of the year for Romans, they celebrated the "return of the sun." This Winter Solstice was celebrated many years before the birth of Christ. In January, they observed the Kalends of January, which represented the triumph of life over death. This whole season was called Dies Natalis Invicti Solis, the Birthday of the Unconquered Sun. (Jerry Wilson, "Over Coffee," December 15 2005)
Today, American sun worship is solely the religion of beach lovers, surfers, and bikini-clad bronzed hunks and babes. That is, if you don't consider those who seek the sun in devices known as tanning beds that emit ultraviolet radiation through fluorescent lamps to produce a cosmetic baking to be offering praise.
Jerry Wilson stated, "Actually, no one knows when Jesus was born, nor even where he was born. The Bible says that there was a census for the entire world, called by Emperor Caesar. In fact historically, there never was such a census, so it can’t be used to narrow down the date. Most historians believe he was born sometime between 7 and 1 BCE. And he was not born in December."
Since shepherds didn’t watch their flocks by night in the winter, Jesus was probably born sometime between April and October. The early church decided to hijack the pagan solstice celebration and Christianize it. (Jerry Wilson, "Over Coffee," December 15 2005) America has embraced this idea and the commercialism that starts on Black Friday runs unabated through December 24th. And in the background the elevator music sounds out another familiar melody of the season, "It's the most wonderful time of the year..." Cha-ching!
Considering that prior to the Civil War, Christmas was a rather obscure holiday in America, which was scantly celebrated and, at best, was considered a minor holiday, commercialism may have actually saved Christmas. Wilson stated, "After the war, commercial interests found that by hyping Christmas as a time of giving, decorating, and having fun, they could increase their profit margins substantially. So, far from being ruined by commercialism, the fact that Christmas is now by far the most celebrated season of the year is thanks to commercial interests." (Jerry Wilson, "Over Coffee," December 15 2005) Truly, this silver lining is a sterling boost to the dark clouds that forever hover above hungry merchants.
St. Nicholas and Santa Claus
Although numerous parallels have been drawn between Santa Claus and the figure of Odin, a major god among the Germanic peoples prior to their Christianization, the standard for the origin of a modern Santa Claus began in the 4th century with Saint Nicholas, the Bishop or Myra, in an area in present day Turkey.
Saint Nicholas was a generous man, particularly devoted to children. He was actually tall and slender although he did have a long white beard. That was about the only physical resemblance he had to the jolly, big-bellied Santa Claus of today. (Peter Boxall, www.isnare.com) After his death around 340 A.D. he was buried in Myra, but in 1087 Italian sailors purportedly stole his remains and removed them to Bari, Italy, greatly increasing St.Nicholas' popularity throughout Europe. (www.allthingschristmas.com)
St. Nicholas became the patron saint of Russia.In Greece, he is the patron saint of sailors, in France he is the patron of lawyers, and in Belgium the patron of children and travelers. Lawyers? Travelers? I always thought St. Johnny Cochran and St. Christopher laid claim to those titles. Around the 12th century an official church holiday was created in his honor. The Feast of St. Nicholas was celebrated December 6 and the day was marked by gift-giving and charity. (www.allthingschristmas.com)
After the Reformation, European followers of St. Nicholas dwindled, but in Holland the Dutch spelling of his name Sint Nikolaas was eventually transformed to Sinterklaas. Dutch children would leave their wooden shoes by the fireplace, and Sinterklaas would reward good children by placing treats in their shoes. Dutch colonists brought brought this tradition with them to America in the 17th century and here the Anglican name of Santa Claus emerged.
Martin Luther thought the belief in Saint Nicholas took away from the true meaning of Christmas, which was to celebrate the birth of Jesus. Therefore, he is credited with introducing the Christkindl to Germany and parts of Switzerland. (Lorri Brown, german-history.suite101.com, November 2 2007) Luther intended it to be a reference to the incarnation of Jesus as an infant. Few realize that Luther, who sparked the Christian Protestant Reformation, would prefer his followers would sacrifice Santa Claus for an angelic child.
The Christkindl, (literally "Christ child") usually portrayed by a young girl with a golden crown and wings, supposedly rode a mule and was believed to enter homes through keyholes. She became the main attraction at Christmas parties, as she passed out presents to the other children. During the 18th Century, German and Swiss immigrants, settling in Pennsylvania, brought the tradition of the Christkindl with them. Over time, as English settlers began to populate the area, the word Christkindl was simplified to Kriss Kringle, and became another name for Santa Claus. (bayberryfolkart.com)
But, Americans did not have a detailed description of a jolly, fat St. Nicholas until Washington Irving included a drawing of him in the 1809 publication A History of New York. (Publications International, christmas.howstuffworks.com)
Mistletoe was used by Druid priests in their winter celebrations 200 years before the birth of Christ. They especially revered the plant since it had no roots yet remained green during the cold months of winter.The ancient Celtics believed mistletoe had magical healing powers and used it as an antidote for poison, infertility, and to ward off evil spirits.The Celts ritual life was centered on the natural environment.
The plant was also seen as a symbol of peace, and it is said that among Romans, enemies who met under mistletoe would lay down their weapons and embrace. Picture, if you can, legions of Romans locked in loving hugs with tribes of Celts, that Roman history related went naked into battle, sounded weird discordant horns, shouted in chorus with deep and harsh voices, and beat their swords rhythmically against their shields. What a love fest!
Those rascals, the Scandinavians, are the romatic group that associated the plant with Frigga, their goddess of love, and it may be from this that the custom of kissing under the mistletoe was derived. Those who kissed under the mistletoe had the promise of happiness and good luck in the following year. Good luck, that is, unless the custom ignited romantic encounters with cheating married employees at their annual company Christmas parties.
This misunderstanding is actually very revealing and potentially embarrassing to many. Believing that it is an attempt by the secular world to "take Christ" and all aspects of Christianity out of the celebration of the season, most Christians of today despise the Xmas abbreviation for Christmas, The abbreviation is actually of Greek origin. The Greek word is Xristos meaning "Christ" or the "Messiah." The X in Xmas is from the Greek letter Chi, which is the first letter of Χριστός, Christ in Greek.
During the 16th century, Europeans began using the first initial of Christ's name, "X" in place of the word Christ
in Christmas as a shorthand form of the word. Although early Christians understood the X stood for Christ's name, later Christians who did not understand the Greek language mistook Xmas as a sign of disrespect. ("Xmas," wilstar.com)
While some see the spelling of Christmas as Xmas a threat, others see it as a way to honor the Christian martyrs who died on the cross. The use of X as an abbreviation for "cross" in modern abbreviated writing (e.g. "King's X" for "King's Cross") may have reinforced this assumption.
The Egyptians were part of a long line of cultures that treasured and worshipped evergreens. When the winter solstice arrive, they brought green date palm leaves into their homes to symbolize life's triumph over death. (www.christmas-tree.com) However, the tree is the one symbol that unites almost all the northern European winter solstices. Live evergreen trees were often brought into homes during the harsh winters as a reminder to inhabitants that soon their crops would grow again. Evergreen boughs were sometimes carried as totems of good luck and were often present at weddings, representing fertility. Could there be some truth in the old rhyme "Rock-a-bye baby in the treetop"?
Druids, "oak knowers" or members of the priestly and learned class active in pre-Christian Gaul and Celtic cultures, used the tree as a religious symbol, holding sacred ceremonies while surrounding and worshiping huge trees.
The traditional belief is that the modern tree custom originated in Germany in the 16th century. The story relates that Martin Luther, the Protestant reformer, was walking through snow-covered woods on Christmas Eve about the year 1500. He was struck by the beauty of a group of small evergreens. Their branches, dusted with snow, shimmered in the starlight. When he got home, he set up a little fir tree indoors so he could share this story with his children. He decorated it with taper candles, which he lighted in honor of Christ's birth. (Lorri Brown, german-history.suite101.com, November 2 2007) Soon after, the Germanic people decorated candle-lit fir trees, both inside and outside, with roses, apples and colored paper.