How to have a happy Christmas. Chapter 1
17th February, 20100 Comments
Ah Christmas. That time of year when good cheer and festive harmony is supposed to be plentiful. You either love it or hate it. Fact is though, over 400 million people around the world celebrate Christmas. That makes it the biggest party out of all the world’s religious and commercial festivities. Mind you, people the world over may be celebrating the same thing but not necessarily the same way or, believe it or not, at the same time. Some cultures prefer to stick to celebrating on the 6th December, which is the date allocated to St. Nicholas. I’ll be talking more about him later. Before we look deeply at the state of Christmas in the world today let’s look back at how Christmas came to be and what it consisted of in past years.
To start with the word “Christmas” comes from the old English “Cristes Maesses” meaning mass of Christ. The word “mass” in this context means mission. To go and do. “Mass” also means to celebrate the Eucharist or take communion.It is believed that Christ was born on the 25th although the actual month is unknown. December was chosen as the actual month so the Catholic church could compete with rival pagan rituals and the celebration of Yule. It is also the time when the Romans worshipped the god Saturnalia. This was originally held on the 17th December but it’s popularity extended it to the 23rd. The time of year, which is also the winter solstice, is a traditional time of celebration among many cultures such as the Jews and their festival of Hanukkah.
The Christmas story
Luke, Chapter Two
And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus, that all the world should be taxed. (And this taxing was first made when Cyrenius was governor of Syria.) And all went to be taxed, every one into his own city. And Joseph also went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth, into Judaea, unto the city of David, which is called Bethlehem; (because he was of the house and lineage of David:) To be taxed with Mary his espoused wife, being great with child. And so it was, that, while they were there, the days were accomplished that she should be delivered. And she brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger; because there was no room for them in the inn.
And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid. And the angel said unto them, "Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord. And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger." And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying, "Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men."
Now if I were to ask you to mention one thing that immediately comes to your mind about Christmas I bet a lot of you would say Father Christmas or Santa Claus. But who is this character that we so freely allow to climb into our homes and where does he come from? Well it is thought that he originates from St Nicholas of the 4th Century. He was a bishop in the area of Turkey known as Myra and was particularly devoted to children. He died around 340AD. In 1087 it is thought his remains were stolen and removed to Bari in northern Italy. Interestingly, as I write this the Turkish government are making noises to the Italians that they want there saint back as they are convinced he wanted to be buried where he had lived. At the time of his theft his popularity grew. He was famous for his kindness and generosity and he became the patron saint of Russia. It was then that he became famous for wearing a red cape and having a fluffy white beard. Such is his popularity that he has also become the patron saint of lawyers, children and travellers. Thousands of churches became dedicated to him and around the 12th century an official church holiday was created in his honour. This day is the 6th December and is still observed in the orthodox churches of eastern Europe. On this day, there is much gift giving and charity to mark it.
During the 16th century and the reformation, his popularity dwindled but the legend was kept alive in Holland where his name was transformed into Sinterklaas. Colonists later took the tradition to America in the 17th century which is where the English name of Santa Claus comes from.
Also in the 16th century in Germany, they were decorating fir trees both indoors and outside. They used apples and candles, roses and coloured paper. It is thought this represented the paradise tree from the Garden of Eden from a play that was about the creation and fall of man.
The person who made the act of putting lights into trees popular is thought to be Martin Luther. Rumour has it that he was looking at a tree at night and thought how lovely it looked as the stars shone through the bare branches. This is what inspired him to put lights up. In England, the tradition of the Christmas tree was brought over by Prince Albert, the consort of Queen Victoria. She was so admired that when word got out that she had this everyone started doing the same.
Hanging up stockings for presents comes from a story when St Nicholas is rumoured to have thrown bags of gold into stockings belonging to three young girls. Their faither had been rich but squandered their fortune and left nothing for their dowries without which it was unlikely they would attract a suitor or husband.
Not the only time stockings have been used in trying to attract attention that’s for sure.
As I mentioned before, celebrations at this time of year go back to pre Christian times. But despite the activity of the church to dominate festivities at this time of year the influence of pagan practices is still much in evidence in modern day traditions. Mistletoe, for example. It was used by druid priests as early as 200BC. They revered it as it had no roots yet remained green throughout the winter months. The Celts believed it had healing powers and the Romans thought that if enemies lay down their arms and embraced beneath it then there would be peace. This may be where the tradition of kissing under the mistletoe comes from or that could be due to the Scandinavians who associate it with Frigga the goddess of love.
Holly was also though to be magical since it stays green and tradition has it that it drives evil away if put over doors. It was also brought indoors to freshen the air and brighten the mood.
In 2009 it was estimated that the Royal Mail would handle 700 million Christmas cards. That’s a lot of cards. But when did they start being sent? Commercial cards didn’t appear until 1843. Sir Henry Cole who was the first director of the Victoria and Albert Museum in London found himself too busy to compose individual greetings. He commissioned the artist John Calcott Horsley to do an illustration. It was a picture containing three segments (see below). In the middles is the image of a family enjoying the festivities and the message was “a merry Christmas and a happy new year to you”.
Even 21st century Christmas isn’t without its changes. The website for the Evangelical Alliance http://www.eauk.org/resources/info/statistics/christmas-quotes-surveys-and-statistics.cfm comments on how many local governments, out of what they call the need to be politically correct, are removing the word “Christmas” from their event publicity. While they are thinking that it is out of respect to other faiths, these others do not, apparently agree. In a survey of 1000 people 84% disagreed that Christmas should be renamed out of respect of the multiculturalism of the UK.
So as you can see Christmas is steeped in tradition and originates from over 2,000 years ago. I remember as a child avidly looking forward to Christmas though I confess my feelings were more along the lines of “what am I going to get” than anything more sincere. I suspect it is the same for most children in the western world. So why is it that the thoughts and feelings of many adults change as they get older? Each year I am surprised by the number of people who say they will be glad when Christmas is over. Do they enjoy work that much that they would rather work than have time off partying? They certainly don’t express themselves that way when it comes to their summer holidays so why now?
(Chapter 2 will be here next week....I hope)
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