I grew up with a Christmas experience that I think will be familiar to many in one way or another. I was raised Catholic, so for the first 18 years of my life I did attend mass; this was usually on Christmas Eve, and it was very exciting to me as a child because the church lights would be turned off as the priest walked down the aisle, swinging a thurible filled with smoky incense. It seemed very exotic, not the regular day at church. We would hear the story of the birth of Christ and the three wise men, sing songs, and depending on which mass we were at, there would be a children’s pageant. After, we would go home and have a meal together, and my sister and I would head to bed while my parents stayed up a little longer. In the morning, we would be led from our rooms to the kitchen, eyes covered so that we couldn’t peek at the presents under the tree. Only after breakfast were we allowed to go open the presents; one person was designated to pass out the gifts, and they were opened one at a time. In this way, a good hour or two was spent opening presents and watching others do the same, eventually covering our living room floor with colored paper.
As a kid, I distinctly remember thinking that I would never get tired of getting presents, I would always want them, lots of them, unlike some of the older kids and parents who seemed to not find them necessary. Once I was older, though, I eventually arrived at that place. Not only that, but I wondered what on earth the whole Christmas holiday was really about. Of course, I was disabused of the idea of Santa at some point before my teen years. This might have been around the same time I started to question what I’d learned in church; I don’t know if these two things are related, sort of a belief tit-for-tat. In college, I took a lot of religious studies classes, attempting to throw intellectual shade on my upbringing and traditions related to it, including holidays. Discussing with my mother the idea that Christ wasn’t born on December 25, and even if he was, I don’t think he would have been into the rampant consumerism, might not have been the best way to start a holiday: I concede that now. I’m still curious, though: how did Christmas come about, how did it get to be what it is?
Bruce David Forbes has a thorough and elegant explanation in his book America’s Favorite Holidays: Candid Histories. According to him, the Christian church did not really celebrate the birth of Christ for a couple centuries after his death; it was instead focused more on his death and rising, and the holiday of Easter. This sentiment might have been more appealing and meaningful during those first years, when Christianity was not a dominant religion and followers were persecuted; suffering and death were imminent, but there would be salvation and reward. Once it had gained a foothold, though, acknowledgment and celebration of the birth became more common, and then widespread. The first surviving record of the western church celebrating Christ’s birth is from the period of years corresponding to 336-354, in Rome. The date of the celebration was on December 25. The date falls amidst three very prominent non-Christian, Roman celebrations: Saturnalia, focusing on the late harvest and abundance, in mid-December; Kalends, the start of the new year, on January 1; and the winter solstice and birthday of the Roman sun god, Sol Invictus, on December 25.
So, what about all the presents? The twinkly lights, the trees, the big dinners, the drinking…the overall festive, often party-like atmosphere of the holiday? Turns out that much of that also has its roots in pre-Christian traditions. Many cultures had a midwinter festival or celebration, the Roman Saturnalia and Germanic Yule being two examples. Winter is the time of year when the cold and dark set in, plants die, animals disappear to hibernate. The crops have all been harvested, and they have to last for months. People stay indoors. There is isolation and, at least hundreds of years ago, real fear of the winter months and the threat the environment can bring. What better way, then, to acknowledge that time of year when the days finally begin to get longer than by having a celebration. Getting together with neighbors, sharing food and drink, having bonfires, decorating with evergreen, holly, and mistletoe (all of which stay green during the winter), giving simple gifts to one another. The celebration gave people something to look forward to in the dreariest months, provided a means of getting rid of anxiety and fear, and reminded them that the spring was on its way.
Our Christmas today may, at times and for some, seem like an overblown version of a midwinter celebration. A whole lot of shopping and frantic tearing-open of presents, and a ridiculously large amount of food. It pleases me, though, to see where those particular traditions come from, and actually makes the holiday feel a little more genuine for me. A way to beat back the dark, celebrate the good that comes from family and community, to give and receive in a time of natural scarcity. I don’t know about you, but that is a holiday I can believe in.