Spent all day today contemplating Christmas. More than usual. More than most Christmas Eves. Presently at Christmas Eve church service. An annual tradition if you’re a practicing christian. (Attempting to inconspicuously type on my cell phone while everyone else is singing hymns around me.) Growing up we always went to Midnight Mass. If you’re Catholic, you’re all too familiar with this event. Over the last few years we’ve started to go to the earlier services at 7 or 8 in the evening instead. No matter what time you go, they’re beautiful experiences, regardless of how religious one is or isn’t. Mostly just everyone singing together by candlelight in a darkened sanctuary. We also take an extended period of time to just sit in silence to “be with God”, a rather progressive and not very common practice for traditional Christianity. There’s nothing terribly objectionable about these services, even if you’re a hardcore realist. I’ve always found them to be pleasant, for a variety of reasons; relaxing and comforting, warm and fuzzy.
Listened to a lot of Christmas music over the last few weeks this year. In the background all the time, from the radio or TV. It helps to bring in the Christmas spirit in the most perfect way, similar to how snow tends to do. Today the music got me thinking. Especially as I found myself inadvertently focused on the lyrics. We’ve amassed a rather large canon of holiday music over the last few hundred years in the West. Many classics. And plenty of newer ones are being added every year. While casually listening to song after song play in the background, I started pondering how strange this Christmas thing is. Just based on the lyrical content of these songs and what they convey. It’s really a bloody mess when you start to focus in on it. If we tried to explain what Christmas is to someone from a different culture, say someone who had never heard of it or celebrated it before, we would find it quite the challenge; to say the least.
Now if we’re born into it, even if we’re just born in the United States but not raised specifically christian, then for the most part it probably all tends to make sense. At least from afar. Until you get up close and start analyzing it that is. Then it becomes a confusing hodgepodge mix of only God knows what. I can only imagine how completely strange and surreal that this time of supposed celebration must appear to someone who didn’t grow up here or who isn’t accustomed to it.
From a distance Christmas seems more a season than just a one day event. It appears to start around Thanksgiving and end around January 2nd — some point after the New Year. The first glimpses of it appear in the form of people all over the country, from the smallest little backwoods towns to the largest metropolitan cities, plastering their yards and porches and the outside of their houses with thousands of bright colorful lights. No apparent utilitarian or evolutionary reason for this. Just a tradition. Big brightly lit snowmen or reindeer or sleighs are hoisted up on rooftops or propped up in front yards near the closest street. Whole neighborhoods bursting with light so bright that you can see them from a mile away. They resemble amusement parks. Blinding and gaudy. Sometimes breathtakingly beautiful. But usually just fuck all chaotic. Masses of lights are strewn about everywhere with an unspoken message that the more you display the more alleged “Christmas spirit” you have.
But what IS Christmas spirit? That’s the question. And that’s exactly when the confusion sets in, the moment we ask that question. As a society as a whole, Christmas seems to be primarily about shopping. Whether you’re engaged in a conversation with someone or listening to other people speaking, watching the TV or reading magazines and newspapers, even driving around looking at billboards and storefronts, you notice one thing more than anything else: Christmas is about shopping. It means that you and everyone you know is going to buy something for you and everyone else they know.
Overnight the attitude of the entire country becomes highly focused on, if not obsessed with, buying and selling things. Not that that’s too different than any other day in America or any capitalist society for that matter. But Christmas is different. Throughout the rest of year buying things is just one aspect of our day to day lives. Like eating or drinking or going to the movies or working out. Something we do now and then out of necessity or for fun. But during Christmas, buying things turns into the de facto reason for the holiday’s existence in the first place. It’s what the whole season is based around. What you’re going to buy and what you’re going to receive when other people buy you things.
Ask the average American kid what their favorite day of the year is and ten times out of ten their eyes are going to light up and they’re going to resoundingly exclaim “Christmas”!!!! with a great big smile on their face. When you ask them why, they wholeheartedly let out a big cheer and scream “presents!!!!!!” And that’s Christmas.
It’s as if the entire culture — black white brown in between, rich middle class or poor — takes a sharp turn towards this mass consciousness hypnotic compulsion to buy stuff, to shop, to consume. People even buy stuff for themselves. “Gifting yourself a little something” for Christmas has become quite a trend over the last ten years.
Of course this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. For every buyer there’s a seller. They’re has to be. Which means as one person is spending money, someone is making it. It means that the overall economy of the country is going to improve, even if just for a month or two. All the new buyers in the market means more business and more business means more jobs. So if only temporarily Christmas is great for the economy. We need to remember that next time we feel compelled to cast dispersions on how commercial the season has become or some of the other more questionable aspects of Christmas. If not for anything else, Christmas brings us a slightly healthier economy.
Christmas also entails the colors of the culture changing. Everything around us miraculously transforms into some form of red or green. Decorations pop up everywhere. In houses, outside of houses, in stores and restaurants, even hardcore staunch corporate offices tend to decorate to bring in the Christmas cheer. But we still don’t get any close to an understanding of what Christmas is. Just what it looks like. It’s actually hard to put your finger on, the meaning or the reason for the season. One thing we notice is that almost everyone tends to return home to visit their family. Perhaps more than anything else that is the single most ubiquitous aspect of the holiday known as Christmas, returning home to be with family.
But what about Santa Claus? And the reindeer? And the Grinch? And the Snowman? And that strange tradition of dragging a giant live tree into your house and covering it with colored lights and toys? As customary as all of these things seem to most of us, they’re difficult to bring together cohesively in order to explain the season to a stranger. To many, at least in the United States, Christmas is a celebration of the birth of a man named Jesus who lived and died thousands of years ago. He was a Jewish man who was born and died in a little country called Israel, though Jewish people don’t celebrate his birth and neither do Israelis. They tend to ignore him completely. And that’s a tough nut to crack. Christians on the other hand DO celebrate him. Though it’s common knowledge that he wasn’t born anywhere near the month of December. He was born in either March or September. Depending on which history you choose to follow. But that doesn’t stop most families from teaching their children that Jesus was born in a barn on December 25th about 2000 years ago. The part about him not being born in December is usually left out. And that’s really just the beginning of the contradictions associated with Christmas.
The story goes that during the time that the world decided to start celebrating “Christmas”, the little town of Rome ruled most of the civilized world. At least the parts that Europeans still associate with. In Rome at the time they were already used to celebrating the most popular holiday of the year — Saturnalia — a celebration of a Goddess (what else?) and that holiday was always celebrated on December 25th. Everyone would be allowed to have that day off from their job, usually the whole week, in order to return home and visit their families. So rather than start yet another new holiday — Rome had over 300 annual holidays already at that time — they decided to just change December 25th from being about celebrating the Goddess and turn it into celebrating this Jewish man called Jesus. In fact they turned it into a law, and if you didn’t celebrate December 25th as a day to worship this Jewish man named Jesus you would be tortured imprisoned or put to death. So over a period of hundreds of years, everyone just got very used to pretending that they celebrated this Jewish character named Jesus on December 25th, if for no other reason than to just keep themselves and their loved ones alive. Back then you really didn’t have a choice. Public hangings and beheadings were a common practice and if you were smart you wanted to stay far away from being the focus and instead part of the audience on such events. Since most people were already used to taking the week off to go visit family anyway, Christmas wasn’t that big or a stretch. Just throw in the “born in a manger” narrative to your kids and boom, you were safe from harm.
But how did Santa Claus and Christmas trees and those flying reindeer get tied into it? Well evidently Jesus’s parents were very poor. Hence his being born in a barn. From what we know, a jolly old fat man from the North dressed in a red jump suit happened upon Jesus’s parents Mary and Joseph there at the barn and gave their new baby Jesus a bunch of presents that he had with him. The fat man’s name was Nicholas. This is a true story. He was known for passing out presents to poor children to cheer them up. This was his thing. Eventually Rome, the same “Rome” we were discussing earlier, ordained him “a saint”. This doesn’t actually “mean” anything. It’s just something Rome loved to do. Rome loved ordaining people with titles as much as they loved inventing holidays. A saint is a term they invented to mean “more magical powers than a human but less magical powers than an angel”. Thus Saint Nicholas. Saint Nick was wearing a red suit that night so he could be seen better and not get run over by other travelers. Street lights hadn’t been invented yet.
The legend of Saint Nicholas became an instant hit with children all over the world. They prayed to the spirit of the jolly fat man in the red jump suit who brought presents to the baby Jesus all year long; or whenever they wanted something and their parents wouldn’t buy it for them. A lot of kids couldn’t pronounce the word Nicholas, for the word was long and complicated, especially for little kids. So they called him Claus for short. Santa Claus was easier to say than Saint Nicholas. The tradition stuck.
Now another well known but ignored fact of the story is that Saint Nicholas was actually traveling by way of camel that night that he happened upon Mary and Joseph in the barn, as most people in the desert did at that time. There were plenty of reindeer there in the barn that night that Jesus was born; this is true. People used to breed them in order to drink their milk and eat their meat. Somehow through the years, the camel become confused with the reindeer and pretty soon they had Santa Claus traveling by way of reindeer. No one at the time thought it was that big of a deal. Camel, reindeer. What did it matter? The important part was that this jolly fat man in the red jumpsuit bothered to take the time to stop at the barn and see Mary and Joseph and Jesus in the first place. Best of all he brought presents. Of course not everyone believed the whole “Saint Nicholas traveled all the way down from Northern Europe to the Middle Eastern desert” story, because it would have taken him weeks, perhaps even months to get there. This is when the whole “well those reindeer could fly actually… so it didn’t take him weeks to get there, it took him only a few hours” story came about. Saint Nick, as some people called him, was traveling all over the desert that evening delivering presents to poor kids and he accomplished this feat by using flying reindeer. Or flying camels. Depending on which version of the story you believe.
Now, besides presents, the jolly fat man in the red jump suit also brought Mary and Joseph a giant tree that evening. He had cut it down from a forest somewhere in northern Europe on his way to the desert and dragged it all the way to Israel behind his camels. His plan was to populate the desert with forests by planting this tree somewhere so the people of that region wouldn’t always be so hot and thirsty. It turns out though that Mary and Joseph and their new little baby Jesus were cold that night. Being in a bard and such. The jolly old fat man thought long and hard about the tree he had towing behind his camel and just out of good old fashioned compassion he went outside and grabbed it and yanked it into the barn so Joseph could chop it up and use it for firewood to warm up his tired wife and new born baby. Because they lived in the desert, they had never seen a real tree before. Once Santa Clause showed them how warm one could get from burning up a tree, the tradition really caught on fast with other people. Pretty soon everyone was dragging a big tree into their house, or barn, to chop up and burn to keep warm during the Winter.
Eventually burning these large trees was replaced by burning coal of course, which was much less expensive and more portable. But only by the poor who couldn’t afford to chop down big trees. The wealthy would still chop down trees because it made them feel more spiritual through being closer in spirit to the original story of the baby Jesus and Saint Nicholas. Human beings have always been prone to believing that they can buy their way into higher spiritual realms or into the good graces of God or the Goddess. This is where the whole “coal in your stocking if you’re naughty” tradition came from. The wealthy had wood from Christmas trees. The poor had coal. As is often the case the wealthy became associated with being “good” or “nice” and the poor became associated with being “naughty”. Go figure. Some things never change.
Now of course we use electricity to keep warm. But many people still chop big trees down and drag them into their home just to keep the spirit of the original story alive. And though the little Jewish baby Jesus AND the jolly old fat man from the North have both passed away many thousands of years ago, people still worship them. Jesus for his part grew into quite a saintly person himself. Some say he was even nicer and more magical than Saint Nicholas. So during Christmas most people tend to honor both of them equally. Kids lean towards the jolly old fat man come bearing gifts, because of the whole presents aspect of the story, and older people tend to like the baby Jesus more because what old person doesn’t just love babies after all. Because the visual of Saint Nicholas giving the little baby in the barn a pile of presents is such a beautiful and cheerful one, to this day people buy each other presents every year around this time in honor of the story.
Now I know what you’re thinking. This is all clearly a myth. A collection of myths and legends brought together from various sources over hundreds and thousands of years. We can’t possibly believe all this to be true. But maybe that’s not the point of it. Whether it’s all true or not. Maybe the point of it all is the meaning behind the various traditions, the intentions.
As diluted, occluded, contradictory and convoluted as it all is, the whole shebang sets up quite nicely to still be quite the grand symbol. Hope, grace, peace, compassion, family, benevolence, kindness, forgiveness and most of all love all come to mind when we think about Christmas. And we need as much of these ideals as we can muster. These traditions, despite how true or untrue they may be, help remind us of the best we have in us. No real harm is done. It’s all in good fun. And in the end, everyone is just a wee bit nicer and kinder to each other during this time of year. That certainly can’t be a bad thing. Next up we’ll discuss how many years later in the story Jesus and Saint Nick reunited to save the Jewish people from some evil desert dwelling Grinch-like creatures using very sharp Chinese six-pointed throwing stars and fire from their menorahs. But that’s a whole other story. Best saved for another post. In the meantime, Merry Christmas.