Christmas has once again come and gone. Everyone was running around buying gifts, decorating their houses, attending church services to commemorate Christian holy days and generally enjoying a lot of excitement and anticipation. We seldom wonder where these traditions came from. No one questions why we celebrate the way that we do at this time of year.
For most people, Christmas is 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 isolated home in Attawapiskat.
Mom and dad, two 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 their children. Every year they recruited my sisters Jackie and Janie to decorate our house with a big plastic tree strung lights and hundreds of feet of gaudy tinsel, streamers, tassels and plastic ornaments. Dad and my older brothers added long outdoor strings of lights around the windows.
After I moved away from home and Christmas became quieter and less ornamental, I have often pondered how these traditions developed.
It is commonly believed that Christmas commemorates the birth of Christ. Modern biblical scholars now point to many discrepancies concerning the four Gospels. Historical texts also note that early Christians spent the first 400 years not really knowing when Jesus was actually born. It was not until about the year 400 A.D. that Church leaders chose December 25 as a new Christian holiday. It is believed that this date was set to displace the pagan Roman feast day of Saturnalia, which commemorated the winter solstice on December 21 and was celebrated with wild parties and gift giving. Many of those old-world Roman practices carried over into the new Christmas tradition.
Then there is Santa Claus, the red-suited man from the North Pole who flies his sleigh around the globe late on Christmas Eve to deliver presents to good girls and boys. The original Santa Claus was known as St. Nicholas of Myra, on the Mediterranean coast of modern-day Turkey. He was a revered Christian bishop during the times of the Romans, known for giving gifts to the poor to console their existence of slavery, starvation and poverty.
Saint Nick was commemorated throughout the Mediterranean and his image and legend spread to northern Europe, where it mixed with existing beliefs. The image of a southern Christian bishop in billowing red robes joined with the images of famed Norse gods with long white beards. Many northern Europeans knew him as Sinterklaas.
Skip forward about a millennium to the early 1800s, when America was filled with puritan Christians who conducted a very sober and quiet commemoration of Christmas. At that time, however, many recent German immigrants were importing their cultural traditions of Sinterklaas, gift giving and celebration.
They also brought the Christmas tree, steeped in the long pagan history of celebrating the evergreen tree in winter when the world is cold and dead. These pagan rituals included hanging mistletoe and wreaths, and decorating your house with evergreen colours. These all symbolized fertility and life in the face of the winter solstice, the longest night of the year.
It took decades – and the work of one writer – for these old European traditions to fully merge into the extravaganza we now know. Twas the Night Before Christmas, written in 1823 by Clement Clarke Moore, first popularized the notion of a Santa Claus flown around the world by eight magical reindeer on Christmas Eve to deliver presents to each household. A century later, in the 1930s, advertisements by the Coca-Cola Corporation forever cemented the image of a jolly old man with a white beard and a fanciful red suit in our popular culture.
So I hope you had a happy holiday, because our modern idea of a Merry Christmas was a very long time in coming.