Saturday, January 07, 2012

Goodbye Christmas



January 6, the twelfth night after Christmas is traditionally the time to put away the tinsel, the cards and the Christmas decorations. It was also the last night for “revelry, disguises and games” before the return to work and for many of us, that is still true.
While I was doing that I was thinking about the origin of the motley collection of customs and traditions we have and how adoption and adaption of customs are nothing new. Christians being as guilty of doing it as anyone, no -one should mind if I like  carol singing even though I am not necessarily a believer.

Carols as it turned out were originally a ring dance unrelated to Christianity and held at any time of year with people joining hands and singing. However, by the sixteenth century, they were restricted to Christmas and at one stage reserved only for the Bishop and clergy. This did not last long as people insisted on singing them in streets and public places although the emphasis on Christ remained.
The giving of gifts at this time of year originated with the Romans, but this custom was also Christianised.  The name Yuletide and the Yule Log also predate Christianity and refer to the Scandinavian Winter Festival of Juul. Mistletoe also dates from pagan times. It was revered by the Druids because it remained green in winter and was believed to enhance soil fertility and reproductive power (think ancient Viagra). Kissing under it was believed to increase offspring, farm animals and crops.
Although there are several legends about the fir tree, the oldest also refer to magical powers. Because it also remained green in winter, it was believed to symbolise the victory of light over darkness and ensure the return of vegetation. Christmas trees did not become popular in the English -speaking world until Prince Albert, Queen Victoria’s German-born husband, erected one in Windsor Castle.
Christmas itself– The Christ Mass, was celebrated at various times throughout the year since Christ’s exact birthdate was not known, but became fixed at December 25 by Pope Julius in 350 A.D. to counter the pagan festival of Saturn that took place at the same time of year.
The word ‘Xmas’ on the other hand, is not the commercial corruption of Christmas that I always took it to be. It refers to the Greek letter ‘X” referring to Christos and dates from times when Christ’s name could not be spoken.
Other customs are only very recent. Take the Christmas card for example. That’s only been around since 1843 when Sir Henry Cole produced the first ones for his friends.  The ancient Egyptians however, used to strike special medals for New Year wishing the Emperor Hadrian a “Happy and prosperous New Year” as far back as 2 A.D.  Sixteenth century woodcuts have also been found, bearing a similar message.
The image which we most frequently associate with Santa Claus, a jolly, rotund, bearded man dressed in red, was created by American cartoonist Thomas Nash for Harper’s Weekly in 1863. Originally he based his illustrations on a poem written by an eminent Professor Dr Clement  Clarke Moore for his daughters in 1822, but as he continued to draw for Harper’s for the next 20 years,  Santa gradually evolved to the one children recognise today. Dr Moore’s poem also mentioned Santa’s sleigh and named all the reindeer.  This inspired another artist to create the story of Rudolph the Red -Nosed Reindeer, for a children’s colouring book being given away by a Mail Order firm in Chicago in 1939. It became so popular that there were several reprints and the story was made into a song in 1949.
Most of this information comes from R. Brasch’s The Book of the Year (1993, Harper Collins) which includes the origin of many customs and traditions. I have only focused on some of the Christmas ones here, but there are many others - such as why we use candles and tinsel, and why we hang up our stockings by the fireplace.  
I wonder how many people watching Sydney’s $6 million New Year fireworks, know that having fun and making a noise at New Year was an ancient custom to keep away evil spirits? This was another pagan custom traditionally held on the vernal equinox to mark the coming of Spring. Because the newly elected Roman consuls took their places on January 1, this date became the start of the New Year from 153 BC onwards. At first Christians opposed New Year celebrations because of their pagan origin, but later they were given a Christian spin and turned into a religious festival commemorating Christ’s circumcision. The adoption of January 1 as the start of the year did not happen until Pope Gregory’s calendar reforms of 1582, and was not widely adopted outside the Catholic Church until many centuries later.  England, Wales and the American colonies did not adopt this date until 1752.
As we put away our Christmas toys, let us reflect on how irrational many of our customs are, but also how pleasant and interesting and how they do bring us together. Just before Christmas, there was a huge outcry when the Herald -Sun published a story about how a Preschool in Victoria was no longer putting on Nativity plays or placing the focus on Christianity because so many of its pupils were from non – Christian backgrounds. The general tone of the comments (remember this was talkback radio territory) was either “Well, if they don’t like our culture, they should go back to where they came from.” Or, “If people aren’t going to celebrate the birth of Christ, they shouldn’t be allowed to have holidays and should be forced to keep working over Christmas.”

What is clear from the above, is that people have always enjoyed festivals, regardless of the reason - reason doesn't have too much to do with it and we should celebrate however we see fit, all the more wonderful if many of us share the same spirit and tradition. Love, peace and tolerance are what Christ taught and I am all in favour of those if not generally enamoured of religion in its various forms, particularly those inclined towards oppression, persecution, repression etc. of others.

Lovely Chrissy card from my sister. At least with this one you can take the little
figure off the front and use it as a Christmas decoration.

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