The idea of Christmas is buried deep within the human experience. If we didn’t celebrate the birth of Christ, we’d find cause to celebrate something else this time of year.
Historical evidence suggests we have always observed the winter solstice. The season calls for the use of bright candles and warm fires … and hope for the future.
Early Christians saw the metaphor, as several centuries after Christ’s birth it was decided Dec. 25 would be an appropriate date for a celebration … despite an omission of the precise dates in the Gospels.
Indeed, the holiday suggests collusion among Roman authorities, seeking to make the new religion more palatable for the non-Christian community, whose members observed their own peculiar celebration on Dec. 25.
Christmas was, and continues to be, many different things to many different people. The idea to use an evergreen tree, of Santa Claus, of giving gifts, and a host of other traditions all developed over the centuries as different cultures and peoples offered and contributed their own interpretation.
The ancient Saxons brought to Britain the tradition of the Yule log. Twelve days before the year’s longest night, an enormous log was dragged into the lord of the manor’s great hall and set aflame. It was kept burning for 12 days and nights, providing warmth and hope. The tradition was originally pagan, but is now part of the Christmas experience.
And what of Santa Claus? We have the story of St. Nicholas, a Turkish-born saint who offered support for poor orphans of his parish. But Coca Cola created and marketed its own version of Santa in the 1930s; their picture of a fat, white-bearded gentleman, dressed in red, has become the modern standard.
Tradition says it was Martin Luther who cut an evergreen, dragged it into his home and decorated it with candles to help illustrate the brilliance of Christmas. Prince Albert brought the custom to Britain, and the Victorians enthusiastically adopted the practice. So have we.
But Charles Dickens should get credit for much of what is accepted as Christmas tradition. His novel, A Christmas Carol, provided much of the language associated with the celebration, along with a Christmas Day menu millions of families still follow.
There is, perhaps, a danger of too many interpretations and too many traditions. But Christmas will always be what you make of it.
– Peter Epp