I was brought up in a Christian household with a father who was a minister so every Christmas was a big deal (and for the most part, it still is). We decorate an artificial tree, exchange gifts, have a huge dinner and spend quality time together that always involved the reading of the Christmas Story from the Bible. As an adult, however, I began questioning the things that didn’t make immediate sense that I’d never really gotten a clear explanation about-the tree, Santa Claus and the reindeer, and the actual date that is Christmas Day.
All around us are religious references mixed in with oodles of secular ones-the birth of Jesus Christ, the Nativity scene of a young couple, a baby and some animals amidst an evergreen tree with lights, colorful decorations, mistletoe and pastries, a round-bellied White man in a red, furry suit with a snow-white beard riding on a big carriage pulled by a group of trained reindeer, filled with toys. One of the reindeer even had a mystical glowing red ball for a nose! It could really be confusing if one takes into account all the images and concepts that make Christmas what it is to many of us in this country.
The ‘Christ’ in Christmas
Sure, it’s easy to associate the name for this winter holiday with a familiar name for the Christian deity, Jesus Christ. It’s all in the name, right?
Well, historically, the term ‘Christmas’ was derived from a Middle English contraction meaning ‘Christ’s mass.’ The abbreviation, Xmas, that seems to incite anger in many religious folk I know, is not actually meant to ‘take the Christ out of Christmas’ in a fit of sacrilege. The Greek letter X (chi) is the first letter of Xñéóôüò (pronounced KHREE-stos) as is the Roman letter X which was used as an abbreviation for Christ in the mid-sixteenth century.
What’s So Special about December 25th?
The reason Christmas is celebrated in December is not because of any specific events or declaration in the Christian Bible, but more symbolic of the pre-Christian winter festivals that took place in Rome, such as: Saturnalia, a festival that honored the god of Saturn that included the exchange of small gifts; Natalis Solis Invicti, celebrated on the 25th of December to honor the ‘birthday of the unconquered sun’; and in Scandinavia, Yule was a pagan winter festival held in late December-early January in which Yule logs were lit to honor Thor, the god of thunder. Each spark from the fire was believed to represent the birth of each new pig or calf in the following year.
Since some early Christian writers like Cyprian who proclaimed that the birthday of the sun should also be considered the birthday of Jesus, the celebration commences on The 25th of December.
“Mommy, Santa Claus IS Real!”
According to a Dutch folk tale, a Saint Nicholas (Sinterklaas) gave gifts the night before his feast day, December 6th. Not until the 19th century did he become associated with Christmas in America and took on the name Santa Claus with which Westerners are more familiar. This association came about after a poem written in 1822 by Clement Clarke Moore called ‘A Visit from Saint Nicholas’ in which the fantastical reindeer-driven sleigh was introduced. We can thank German-American cartoonist Thomas Nast for his first depiction of such characters in 1863 that have been popularized through the last century and into the current one. Although several generations have been brought up to believe that Santa Claus delivers presents in the wee hours of the morning via chimneys and windows, the whole phenomenon seems to be fading away as children become more precocious and adept about fantasy versus reality.
There’s a Tree In the House
We’ve all seen it-before we can eat the last of the Thanksgiving fowl or even before the Halloween candy is gone, people unpack their Christmas decorations and lights and buy evergreen trees. This seemingly disjointed part of the whole celebration comes from the Christianization of the pagan tradition and ritual enacted to observe the Winter Solstice that just so happened to incorporate evergreen limbs. The idea of a whole tree was first conceived in Germany around 1835 and was then introduced to England. Then, after acceptance by Queen Victoria, the United States would follow.
Bearing no divine significance, the tree could very well be considered a symbol of idolatry, which is expressly forbidden in the Christian Bible. Think about it-adorned with the most beautiful baubles and bells, tinsel and lights, it is placed strategically in front of a window for passersby to see and is the center of a gathering on Christmas day to open presents.
Non-Christians and the Yuletide Hoopla
Much to the dominant population’s chagrin, some people simply treat December 25th as another day. According to Humanists, “…Christmas is just a secular holiday.” Pagans have long been chastised by Christians for their celebrations, such as All Hallow’s Eve, for what is perceived as non-spiritual rituals even though the modern adaptation of Christmas is so deeply rooted in those very pagan rituals and beliefs. Jehovah’s Witnesses simply do not celebrate Christmas because they say there is no reference in the Bible connecting this day with Jesus’ birth.
Buddhists may not celebrate any Christmas-like tradition but are tolerant of the fervor that can be likened to sheer madness that goes on around them. Like their other non-Christian counterparts, many are concerned that the festivities at the end of every Roman calendar year have become more centered on irreverent shopping and decorations rather than unconditional gift-giving.
Agnostics and atheists, making up the 15% of the American population who are non-religious, are thought to be on a rampage to undermine Christmas for Christians. In response to the backlash roused by their refusal to promote insensitivity and intolerance of many Christmas supporters and Christmas-related activities forced upon them, many non-religious people argue that it is Protestantism itself that should be blamed for many of the spiritual eliminations from the celebration.
Other non-Christian people have religious celebrations around the same time in America. Muslims, although they believe that the man Christians regard as the savior of humankind was a great prophet and is the product of a miraculous birth, see December 25th as just another day. Making up only 5.2% of the non-Christian religious population in America, their religious celebration at the very end of December, Eid ul-Adha, commemorates the prophet Ibrahim’s good works and pilgrimage to Mecca.
Members of the Jewish faith who celebrate Hanukkah beginning on December 15th (this year) and for the next 8 days, commemorate rededication of a temple in Jerusalem after it was desecrated. Ironically, many of us have seen round, flat pieces of chocolate wrapped in golden foil given at Christmas time. This is a Hanukkah-inspired treat was borrowed from the tradition of giving coins and nuts to children during a game of dradle-spinning. Jews, Buddhists and Jehovah’s Witnesses are also part of the non-Christian 5.2% in this country.
Christmas CAN Be For Everyone
There are so many feuds around Christmas and the Christian notion of its significance. A Republican said that Democrats hate God, liberals have said that the religious right is too pro-Christian in a nation of diverse religious representation, veteran shoppers will advise you not to wait until the last minute to shop for presents because everything will be ‘picked over’ and Christmas trees can cause horrible fires if they’re allowed to dry out.
Above all random else, Christmas is unarguably a designated time when people are genuinely inspired or simply feel a moral obligation to do out-of-the-ordinary good deeds for other people. Many volunteer their time feeding the homeless, donating clothes, making amends with those who have hurt them or been hurt by them, and just eating good food and drinking nice wine and eggnog to stay warm. It seems that the true meaning and spirit of Christmas are not so Christian anyway-they’re human.