It comes every year, whether we’re ready or not. We rush around, decorating, buying gifts, partying, bulging and dazed from excessive eating and drinking. We whine to each other about how tired we are, at least women do. What’s up?
Christmas, as most know, is a celebration created by man. The date is the same as the date of the pagan festival Saturnalia, or the winter solstice, the celebration of the return of the sun.
Pre-Christmas celebrations were marked by drinking, eating, carousing, and fornicating. (Sounds familiar.) A state of extreme revelry characterized the last two weeks of December in pre-Christian Rome.
The Roman Catholic Church, the one and only Christian church of the time, imposed the celebration of Christ’s birth on the date of the pagan festival in order to replace it, although bawdy partying was tacitly accepted by the church, and persisted for centuries.
Scholars agree that Christ was more likely born at the end of the harvest, maybe in late September, when travel was possible and census-taking likely. One astronomer even suggested a date of September 20, determined from the position of the stars described at the time.
Any connection between Christ and the date of December 25 would lie in the possibility that He was conceived near the end of December, that “the Light of the world” was placed in Mary’s womb at that time.
Christmas or Saturnalia, the annual celebration remained completely raucous and unseemly for centuries, so much so that it was outlawed in Puritan America.
Only in the early 19th century did Christmas begin to take on its’ present form. Clement Moore, with his poem “The Night Before Christmas” written in 1822, was the first to describe the jolly, pleasant guy that we know today in the United States as Santa Claus.
Queen Victoria, with her adoption of the Christmas tree and indoor decoration with greenery (also an early Roman custom), contributed to the evolution, and so did 19th century churches. We moved toward a more family-centered celebration, with a tree, indoor decoration, food, gifts and church services.
Both the world and Christmas were simpler for most people in both the 19th and much of the 20th centuries. For all but the rich, Christmas meant one or two gifts, a stocking with an orange, nuts and maybe a piece or two of candy. Sometimes there were community butcherings with the meat included in the Christmas meal. Moms started acquiring the ingredients for special treats, such as homemade puddings, in the fall, as well as hiding little packages and saving pennies for special foods, according to old stories.
My own farm grandmother made a crib for my mom out of pieces of an orange crate painted blue, and crocheted a doll dress for her out of the strings that held together the feed sacks she used to make shirts for her husband and sons.
I wonder, as I think about the stress of today’s celebrations, how those parents from the past felt as they scraped up the money to purchase those oranges and added making homemade gifts to their list of daily chores. Were they stressed, too?
Was my mom’s wonder at the sight of that doll in her beautiful dress as great as that of my grandchildren when they open their piles of gifts?
From the perspective of our noisy, shrieking world, Christmas in the distant past sounds peaceful and relaxing, maybe even meaningful. As far as we’re concerned, we, racing around in traffic, being yelled at in parking lots, slightly sick from too many parties, are the overburdened ones, and the people from history had it easier.
I know, for me, every thought I ever had about my own inadequacy, jumps out to haunt me at this time of year. Does the house look good enough? Are the gifts right? Have I done and remembered everything I should have? Is there anyone important to me that I haven’t contacted? It goes on and on.
The thing is, though, having a big party just as the days begin to grow longer sounds like a great idea. Sharing a big meal with family and friends, celebrating that there is food again this winter, sounds like a lot of fun, and so does giving some gifts and cards to loved ones. Parties are great. I love sparkling clothes. Last but not least, I can’t imagine anyone minding the celebration of the birth, or even the conception of Jesus Christ, with His amazing example of true goodness and caring, and of the generosity of God.
It doesn’t make sense that this celebration should cause such stress. Is it our competitiveness? “If my parents made Christmas truly magic for me, must I do better?” Must my Christmas decorations be as nice, and maybe just a little more original than by neighbors? Must my child’s eyes light up more brightly when opening my gift than any other? Must each Christmas be better than the last?
It actually should be fun. Maybe if we moved it to January when it’s been cold even longer, or maybe we should call it Winter Break….
Have a merry and blessed one.