Christmas is upon us once again and everyone has been running around shopping, buying gifts, decorating their house, attending church services to commemorate Christian holy days and, generally, there is a lot of excitement and anticipation.
We seldom wonder where all these traditions come from. No one questions why we celebrate the way that we do this time of year.
For most people, myself included, it’s just a fun time of year during a very cold season. After all it feels good to look forward to something positive when it is cold and freezing outside.
As a child, I have many positive memories of being with my family and friends, warm and cozy in our home in Attawapiskat in the isolated north of James Bay. Mom and dad, two very Native traditional Cree people who had grown up on the land, were always excited at this time of year and did their best to have a modern tree.
Christmas day came with a turkey and goose dinner and plenty of presents for us children. Every year they recruited my two sisters Jackie and Janie to decorate our house with a big plastic tree with lights and hundreds of feet of tinsel, streamers, tassels and plastic ornaments. Dad and my older brothers added to the many feet of stringed lights that went outside our house windows.
As I got older and moved away from home, Christmases grew less and less ornamental for me and became quieter. Over the years, I had the opportunity to sit back and just wonder how and where all these traditions came from.
It is commonly believed by every Christian out there that Christmas commemorates the birth of Christ from the biblical stories from the New Testament. Many modern biblical scholars now agree that this is probably not factually possible due to many discrepancies concerning the four Gospels.
There are also many historical texts that note that early Christians spent the first 400 years not really knowing what time of year the birth of Christ took place. It was not until about the year 400 that Christian leaders decided on Dec. 25 as the date of this new Christian holiday. Partly it is believed that this date was set to displace the pagan Roman feast day of Saturnalia, which commemorated the winter solstice on Dec. 21 and was celebrated by pagan Romans with wild parties and gift giving.
Although earlier Christian leaders did their best to forget this pagan past, many of those old world Roman traditions of celebration and partying carried over into the new tradition of the Christian Christmas date of Dec. 25.
Another common image of the holiday was the idea of Santa Claus, the bright big red suited man from the north pole who travels around the globe on Christmas Eve to deliver presents to good boys and girls.
The original Santa Claus was known as St. Nicholas of Myra on the south coast of modern day Turkey on the Mediterranean. He was a revered Christian Bishop during the times of the Romans, who was known during his lifetime for giving secret gifts to the poor to save them from slavery, starvation and poverty.
He was commemorated throughout the Mediterranean and his image and legend spread to northern Europe where it was mixed with existing traditions and beliefs. The image of a southern Christian Bishop with long flowing red robes were mixed with the images of famed Norse gods with big flowing white beards and mythic imagery. A new image of St Nicholas was created in what is known to many northern Europeans as Sinterklaas.
Skip forward about a thousand years to the early 1800s when America was mostly filled with puritan Christians who followed a very sober and quiet commemoration of the Christian holiday of Christmas. At the time, many German immigrants began to fill the land and they brought with them their old traditions of Sinterklaas, gift giving and celebration.
They also brought with them the idea of the Christmas tree, an old tradition that is steeped in a long pagan history of celebrating the evergreen colours of a tree in the wintertime when everything should be cold and dead. These pagan rituals included the traditions of the mistletoe, wreaths and decorating one’s house with ever green colours. It symbolized fertility and life in the face of cold and death especially on the winter solstice, the longest night of the year.
It took many decades for these old northern European traditions to come together, but it was the work of one writer who welded them into our modern holiday. "Twas Night Before Christmas" was written in 1823 by Clement Clarke Moore and it is the first instance that brings together the ideas of a modern Santa Claus who flies around the world on Christmas Eve to deliver presents to boys and girls while drawn by eight magical reindeer.
About a century later in the 1930s, the modern Santa Claus was forever embedded in our traditions by the Coca-Cola Corporation, who helped through their advertising to establish the popular image of a jolly old white bearded man in a fanciful red suit.
So, have a Happy Holiday because our modern ideas of having a Merry Christmas has been a very long time coming.