There is something about Christmas beyond the smell of cinnamon in the air.
There is something about Christmas that does not reflect from the shiny ornaments on a tree.
There is something about Christmas which you can’t hear in the carols of joy.
There is something about Christmas which you won’t find in your stocking in the morning.
Because, my fellow merry-makers, Christmas is not just that.
It is really quite amazing how the developed non-christian world (and even parts of the Christian world) has adopted the American way of christmas as the standard way. Close your eyes, think of what christmas means to you, and 9 out of 10 people would think of a decked up tree with star on top, children huddled together in the snow singing carols under the light of a lantern, plum cake, gifts and stockings. I do, and I love it!
But at this time, it might be interesting to delve a bit deeper into what Christmas means to the world which isn’t driven by Hollywood or American commericalization. (Guess why Coke has the colors it has…;))
The common denominator for all Christmas celebrations seems to be scenes of the “nativity of Jesus” – depicting the birth of Christ in a manger. This is straight from the holy texts…and doesn’t stand for much misinterpretation. But apart from that – almost everything else is so varied…
To begin with contrary to what most of us are taught to believe – Christmas is not the “Birthday of Christ”. In fact both testaments do not have a date to the birth of Christ. In the middle ages, 25th of December was the Winter Solstice (which occurs at the instant when the Sun’s position in the sky is at its greatest angular distance on the other side of the equatorial plane from the observers hemisphere) – or the “start” of the demise of winter. According to some old texts Christ was conceived on the “Spring Equinox” which is March 25th… hence hinting at a date 9 months later. But yes, Christmas remains as the day when the birth of Jesus is honored – but has a larger context as celebration of the “nativity of Christ”.
The modern “Santa Claus” which the children of today associate as the primary symbol of Christmas is more or less a creation of 19th century media…the first imagery created by caricaturist Thomas Nast in 1855…as shown on the right. The inspiration behind Santa could be “Saint Nicholas of Myra” – a 4th century Greek Christian bishop in Turkey who was famous for his gifts to the impoverished including handsome “dowries” to the daughters of pious Christians so that they wouldn’t have to become prostitutes. The other, more congruent reference comes from the Germanic God Odin (bearing a distinct resemblance to the current Santa Claus) who traveled on a flying eight-legged horse called “Sleipnir”, came through the chimney and filed up boots left by children with gifts. This was brought to America with the first Dutch settlers in the 17th century – and slowly developed into the christmas traditions we see today. But Santa is not universal. In Northern Europe gifts are brought for children by the “Jultomte” – a house gnome which until recent times did not look anything like Santa. Today, the widely accepted imagery of Santa is being accepted here too – except that in Norway & Sweden he doesn’t come through the chimney but knocks on the front door to ask “Are there any good children here?”.
A lot of the Christmas celebrations and stories you know and see today were popularized by Charles Dickens’ seminal novella.. “A Christmas Carol” which talks about a curmudgeonly miser Ebenezer Scrooge being haunted by three spirits – The Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present and Yet to Come – and undergoes a transformation to become a generous and kindly man. More than 20 different interpretations have been made of this text, in songs, TV and theater… thus popularizing the modern images of Christmas that we have in our heads today. Even today television stations in many countries show an animated version of “A Christmas Carol” on Christmas Eve, and has become a part of family tradition. But what has today become popular folklore, is seldom looked at as a study of “inequality” and “poverty” in Dicken’s times…which is why he wrote the book!
In Mexico and other Latin American countries Christmas is unrecognizable. Even being predominantly heavy catholic countries, there is no Santa Clause, Christmas Trees, Carols or Puddings – and children get their gifts on “The All-Saints Day” or the “The feast of the epiphany” which is January 6th – when the three wise men are believed to have seen Baby Jesus and given him their gifts. January 6th is considered to be a bigger day than Christmas in some countries. Of course, commercialization has brought the tree and other western imagery here also..
The Christmas tree started with an old Germanic pagan tradition of “lighting” up the longest night of the year (21st December) by putting lamps and candles on coniferous tree. Though in later ages, the church opposed the popularization of the Christmas tree because of its pagan roots – it eventually merged into mainstream tradition in Western European countries, the British Commonwealth and North America. Many countries around the world still do not have a Christmas Tree as a part of their tradition. Christians in tropical countries, including India, decorate Banana and Coconut trees due to the lack of coniferous trees!
The true giving spirit of Christmas is celebrated in the British Isles (and some other parts of the world) as “Boxing Day”, on the 26th of December…where alms boxes are placed everywhere for people to donate to the needy. Surprisingly (or not) this doesn’t have the widespread acceptance that many other flashy christmas customs have.
Christmas today is much more than just a religious celebration. In most predominantly Christian countries it is the largest Annual economic stimulus. There is a lot of money to be made piggy-backing on the the customs of Christmas. Some economists have calculated something called a “Deadweight Loss”, which is the difference between the price that a gift giver pays and what the gift receiver would have paid if he/she would have bought the gift under normal market conditions. In 2004, the deadweight loss in the US alone was $4 Billion!
I love Christmas. Yesterday we decorated our Christmas tree, put out red and green lights on the balcony and put gifts under the tree… and Dhruv was so excited. But was he excited about the gifts or the concept of Christmas – I don’t know. I believe Christianity is the largest mass movement in the history of the earth… apart from the middle ages when the perpetrators of this movement waged religious wars and killed millions – modern day christianity has brought billions of people together, under one faith. More than any other religion. But in all the razzmatazz and the hype and the money – the true spirit of christianity, the one day to commemorate the birth of this movement, is sometimes forgotten.
There is something about Christmas which is deeper than what many of us see on TV and try to emulate. It is a time for reaffirming our faith in the goodness of humanity, a time to remember joy even on the darkest and coldest winter night, a time to give to the less fortunate and most of all a time to celebrate the birth of the singularly largest and most relevant human movement of all – Jesus Christ. Make sure you teach your children not just that they will get their gifts in their stockings…but what Christmas stands for.
Merry Christmas to all Grimescene Readers. God Bless you all!