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Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Christmas Traditions -- a Fantasy?



Recently, I have taken the reader on a journey back to the genesis of policing (‘Peelers and Bobbies’) and ‘The Kerner Report Re-visited’.  It is my belief that looking at historical origins sometimes provides a perspective that has been misplaced or lost. 
Today, I thought we should take a brief look at Christmas celebrations, mainly to make this point: historically, Christmas was not celebrated as we do it now in our country, and in much of the world.  In fact, it is instructive to remember that the word itself tells us much about what the celebration had at its core in the more distant past:  the Christ Mass.  The name 'Christmas' comes from the Mass of Christ. A Mass service (sometimes called Communion or Eucharist) is where Christians remember that Jesus died as an atonement for human sin and then was resurrected to a new life. The 'Christ-Mass' service was the only one that was allowed to take place after sunset (and before sunrise the next day), so people had it at Midnight! So we get the name Christ-Mass, shortened to Christmas. (Christmas Customs and Traditions at Why Christmas.org).
WhyChristmas.org, Wikipedia, and other sources (such as historymedren.about.com, themiddleages.net, science e20.com, whychristmas.com, history.com, etc.) helped to summarize the nativity celebration and are used extensively in what follows. 

The first recorded date of Christmas being celebrated on December 25th was in 336 AD, during the time of the Roman Emperor Constantine (the first Christian Roman Emperor). Just a few years later in 350, Pope Julius I declared December 25th as the official day for celebration of the birth of Jesus.  There being no scientific or historic data to enable the Church to name that day as the actual birth day of the Christ child, it is postulated that the Church chose to do so for several possible reasons:  
(1) the 25th of December corresponded with a nine month interval between the Annunciation (the angel’s announcement to Mary that she would bear the Christ child – celebrated on March 25th);
(2) it also corresponded with the day (or several days) when one or more polytheistic (pagan) rituals or celebrations occurred, some connected to the Roman winter solstice;
(3) in the Chronology of 354 AD (a 4th-century illuminated manuscript, which was produced in 354 AD for a wealthy Roman Christian named Valentinus), there was some evidence of a Christian liturgical celebration of the birth of Jesus in Rome (in the Eastern Church, the birth was already being celebrated on Jan. 6th, the feast of the Epiphany).  Even in the West, the January 6 celebration of the nativity of Jesus seems to have continued until after 380.  Epiphany, or Twelfth Night, was much more popular and festive than Christmas in the early middle ages, and was a time for the bestowal of gifts in the tradition of the three Wise Men -- a custom that survives to this day; and finally,
(4) The Jewish festival of Lights, Hanukkah, starts on the 25th of Kislev (the month in the Jewish calendar that occurs at about the same time as December). Hanukkah celebrates when the Jewish people were able to re-dedicate and worship in their Temple in Jerusalem following many years of not being allowed to practice their religion.  Since Jesus was a Jew, this could be another reason that helped the early Church choose December the 25th for the date of Christmas!
“The celebratory customs associated in various countries with Christmas have a mix of pre-Christian, Christian, and secular themes and origins.  Popular modern customs of the holiday include gift giving, completing an Advent calendar or Advent wreath, Christmas music and caroling, an exchange of Christmas cards, church services, a special meal, and the display of various Christmas decorations, including Christmas trees, Christmas lights, nativity scenes, garlands, wreaths, mistletoe, and holly. In addition, several closely related and often interchangeable figures, known as Santa Claus, Father Christmas, Saint Nicholas, and Christkind, are associated with bringing gifts to children during the Christmas season and have their own body of traditions and lore.
Many popular customs associated with Christmas developed independently of the commemoration of Jesus' birth, with certain elements having origins in pre-Christian festivals that were celebrated around the winter solstice by pagan populations who were later converted to Christianity. These elements, including the Yule log from Norway and gift giving from Saturnalia, became syncretized into Christmas over the centuries. The prevailing atmosphere of Christmas has also continually evolved since the holiday's inception, ranging from a sometimes raucous, drunken, carnival-like state in the Middle Ages, to a much tamer family-oriented and children-centered theme introduced in a 19th-century reformation.  Additionally, the celebration of Christmas was banned on more than one occasion within certain Protestant groups, such as the Puritans, due to concerns that it was too pagan or unbiblical.”
Until the late Middle Ages, the celebration of Christmas Day actually ranked fairly low among the major festivals of the Christian world. Twelfth Night celebrations far surpassed the rather solemn, low key observance of the birth of Christ, while more festive Yule celebrations (originally a pagan observance) persisted into the Christian era.
Beginning with the rise of the cult of the Virgin Mary in the twelfth century, a trend can be discerned away from the importance of local saints and towards emphasis on the major figures of the Church, especially on the Holy Family. The fourteenth and fifteenth century cycle plays, presented in English towns by local guilds on or about Corpus Christi day (a movable feast sometime between May 21 and June 24) were one result of this trend. These plays focused on the life of Christ and sometimes included elaborate staging of the nativity. The first Christmas carols were also connected to the performance of these plays. We don't normally think of Christmas as a midsummer tradition, but this, indeed, was at its roots.
Slowly, the emphasis on the nativity in the cycle plays led to a rise in interest in Christmas itself. Yule became synonymous with Christmas, and customs such the Yule log and decorating with evergreens, despite their non-Christian origins, became associated with this holiday
Other customs developed as part of Christian belief. For example, Mince Pies (so called because they contained shredded or minced meat) were baked in oblong casings to represent Jesus' crib, and it was important to add three spices (cinnamon, cloves and nutmeg) for the three gifts given to the Christ child by the Magi. The pies were not very large, and it was thought lucky to eat one mince pie on each of the twelve days of Christmas (ending with Epiphany, the 6th of January).
The ever-present threat of hunger was triumphantly overcome with a feast, and all manner of food would be served at Christmas. The most popular main course was goose, but many other meats were also served. Turkey was first brought to Europe from the Americas around 1520 (its earliest known consumption in England is 1541), and because it was inexpensive and quick to fatten, it rose in popularity as a Christmas feast food.
The Christmas pudding of Victorian and modern times evolved from the medieval dish of frumenty -- a spicy, wheat-based dessert. Many other desserts were made as welcome treats for children and adults alike.
The tree was an important symbol to every Pagan culture.  Evergreens, which in ancient Rome were thought to have special powers and were used for decoration, symbolized the promised return of life in the spring and came to symbolize eternal life for Christians. In the middle ages, the Church would decorate trees with apples on Christmas Eve, which they called "Adam and Eve Day." However, the trees remained outdoors. In sixteenth-century Germany, it was the custom for a fir tree decorated with paper flowers to be carried through the streets on Christmas Eve to the town square, where, after a great feast and celebration that included dancing around the tree, it would be ceremonially burned.
Holly, ivy, and mistletoe were all important plants to the Druids. It was believed that good spirits lived in the branches of holly. Christians believed that the berries had been white before they were turned red by Christ's blood when he was made to wear the crown of thorns. Ivy was associated with the Roman god Bacchus and was not allowed by the Church as decoration until later in the middle ages, when a superstition that it could help recognize witches and protect against plague arose.  Christmas may owe its popularity in medieval times to liturgical dramas and mysteries presented in the church. The most popular subject for such dramas and tropes was the Holy Family, particularly the Nativity. As interest in the Nativity grew, so did Christmas as a holiday.
Carols, though very popular in the later middle ages, were at first frowned on by the Church. But, as with most popular entertainment, they eventually evolved to a suitable format, and the Church relented. The Twelve Days of Christmas may have been a game set to music. One person would sing a stanza, and another would add his own lines to the song, repeating the first person's verse. Another version states it was a Catholic "catechism memory song" that helped oppressed Catholics in England during the Reformation remember facts about God and Jesus.
Pantomimes and mumming were another form of popular Christmas entertainment, particularly in England. These casual plays without words usually involved dressing up as a member of the opposite gender and acting out comic stories.  A popular custom was mumming, in which revelers put on masks or the clothes of the opposite sex and, accompanied by minstrels and musicians, traveled from house to house.
In some countries such as Italy and Malta, and many South American countries, the crib is the most important Christmas decoration. The city of Naples, in Italy, has used cribs to decorate houses and Churches since the 1020s! Naples is also the home to the world’s largest nativity crib scene. It's in the 'Museo Nazionale di S. Martino' and has 162 people, 80 animals, angels, and about 450 other smaller objects.  In the past, it was common for live animals including an ox and donkey and other farm animals to be used in the plays. Sometimes they still are, but it is now more common for children to dress up as the animals in costumes or to have animal props.

The first Nativity Play was performed in a cave by Monks in Italy! St. Francis of Assisi and his followers acted in the first play in 1223 to remind the local population that Jesus was born for them, as he was born into a poor family like theirs and not to a rich family.  St. Francis played the part of each character in the story himself using wooden figures in the play. After a couple of years, the play had become so popular that real people played the parts of the characters in the story. Songs were sung by the people taking part and they became what we call Christmas carols today! Now cribs or crèches are used in Churches all over the world and even in some homes.

It's hard to imagine now, but at the beginning of the 19th century Christmas was hardly celebrated. Many businesses did not even consider it a holiday. However by the end of the century it had become the biggest annual celebration and took on the form that we recognize today.  The transformation happened quickly, and came from all sectors of society.

Many attribute the change to Queen Victoria, and her marriage to the German-born Prince Albert who introduced some of the most prominent aspects of Christmas. In 1848 the Illustrated London News published a drawing of the royal family celebrating around a decorated Christmas tree, a tradition that was reminiscent of Prince Albert's childhood in Germany. Soon every home in Britain had a tree bedecked with candles, sweets, fruit, homemade decorations and small gifts.
In 1843 Henry Cole commissioned an artist to design a card for Christmas. The illustration showed a group of people around a dinner table and a Christmas message. At one shilling each, these were pricey for ordinary Victorians and so were not immediately accessible. However the sentiment caught on and many children - Queen Victoria's included – were encouraged to make their own Christmas cards. In that age of industrialization, color printing technology quickly became more advanced, causing the price of card production to drop significantly. Together with the introduction of the halfpenny postage rate, the Christmas card industry took off. By the 1880s the sending of cards had become hugely popular, creating a lucrative industry that produced 11.5 million cards in 1880 alone.
Decorating the home at Christmas also became a more elaborate affair. The medieval tradition of using evergreens continued, however the style and placement of these decorations became more important. The old custom of simply decking walls and windows with sprigs and twigs was not enough.  Uniformity, order and elegance were encouraged. There were even instructions books on how to make elaborate synthetic decorations for those residing in towns.

Gift-giving had moved from Epiphany in January as Christmas became more important to the Victorians. Initially gifts were rather modest following earlier medieval tradition– fruit, nuts, sweets and small handmade trinkets. These were usually hung on the Christmas tree. However, as gift giving became more central to the festival, and the gifts became bigger and store-bought, they moved under the tree.

The Christmas feast has its roots from before the middle ages, but it's during the Victorian period that the dinner we now associate with Christmas began to take shape. Examination of early Victorian recipes shows that mince pies were initially made from meat, a tradition dating back to Tudor times. However, during the 19th century there was a revolution in the composition of this festive dish. Mixes without meat began to gain popularity within some of the higher echelons of society and became the mince pies we know today.
The roast turkey also had its beginnings in Victorian Britain. Previously other forms of roasted meat such as beef and goose were the centerpiece of the Christmas dinner. The turkey was added to this by the more wealthy sections of the community in the 19th century, but its perfect size for a middle class family gathering meant it became the dominant dish by the beginning of the 20th century.
While carols were not new to the Victorians, it was a medieval tradition that they actively revived and popularized as Victorians considered carols to be a delightful form of musical entertainment, and a pleasure well worth cultivating. Old words were put to new tunes and the first significant collection of carols was published in 1833 for all to enjoy.
The Victorians also transformed the idea of Christmas so that it became centered on the family. The preparation and eating of the feast, decorations and gift giving, entertainments and parlor games - all were essential to the celebration of the festival and were shared by the whole family.
While Charles Dickens did not invent the Victorian Christmas, his ‘A Christmas Carol’ is credited with helping to popularize and spread the traditions of the festival. Its themes of family, charity, goodwill, peace and happiness encapsulate the spirit of the Victorian Christmas, and are very much a part of the Christmas we celebrate today.
Of course, it is probably the book written by a theological school professor that stands out the most for Americans.   In 1823 the famous poem 'A Visit from St. Nicholas' or 'T'was the Night before Christmas', was published.  Dr. Clement Clarke Moore claimed that he had written it for his children. The poem describes eight reindeer and gives them their names (check out my Blog from December of last year for his story as it relates to the commercialization of Christmas in this and other nations).

The  second point I want to make with all of this is that Christmas is a totality of a lot of history, an abundance of traditions and celebrations from many lands and customs.  However, Christmas has emerged as a shopping spree, complete with a Black Friday, Cyber Mondays, and various and sundry sales.  There is hardly a Christmas tradition left that hasn’t been commercialized by a retail corporation or some enterprise.  Christmas in these United States has regressed to what used to exist in the medieval fairs connected to Christmas – a bunch of merchants selling their wares.  That doesn’t mean that we don’t have families and individuals who are maintaining some of the original meaning and traditions of Christmas – not at all. 
It simply means that Christmas has been captured and used – as so many of our great traditions and holy days (holidays) have been – by people who believe that profit is above all else.  “Use a holiday to bring in the customers” seems to be their mantra. 
In answer, perhaps those who believe that the meaning of an event like Christmas ought to be respected, admired, protected and promoted in quite a different way, should:
 (1) Cut back on the number and expense of gifts and go back to a simpler form of gift-giving;
(2) Attend the worship service that celebrates the religious meaning of this Day;
(3) Boycott the Black Fridays, the Cyber Mondays and the big retailers that promote them while simultaneously paying their employees less than a living wage and either denying or reducing their pensions;

(4) Shop at small local businesses whenever possible;

(5) Do away with gaudy lights and plastic figurines that give off a message of ostentation, not of sacrifice (huge, overwhelming and complicated light display competitions are an abomination);
(6) It’s time to put St. Nicholas back to his day of Dec. 6th and not patronize him on any other day; Santa and his reindeer are not appropriate symbols of the Christ as much as they are of the celebration and capture by our capitalist system of this Holy Day for the sheer commercialization of it.
(7) Revive some of the traditions and more meaningful practices of the past and enjoy a revitalization of this Holy day.  Try joining a caroling group; or, bake a mince pie; or, participate in a Christmas Pageant or crèche scene. 
(8) Instead of a light display, how about a display of a nativity scene with some lights just for illumination.
(9) Invite someone less fortunate to enjoy your dinner or perhaps to enjoy some delicious left-overs
(10) Why not go a little farther and celebrate Christmas traditions on Dec. 25th and then move gift-giving and sharing to January 6th.  (Just think of the after-Christmas sales of which you can take full advantage even though you are cutting back and patronizing smaller businesses).
Too bad all of these suggestions are little more than fantasy.  They would simply constitute a return to symbolism and activity that might more appropriately represent the message of the Day.  However, we are so mired in commercialism and meaningless traditions (like Santa Claus, Rudolph and the other reindeer) that undertaking even a small change in our habits and made-up modern traditions presents incredible difficulty.  It is hard to go against a rip tide.  We are captured and arrested by forces greater than ourselves and dare not move in another direction, even though such moves are hardly revolutionary (not unlike our political situation). 
So forget I said anything and have a Merry Christmas!