“Christmas starts with CHRIST”, a religious billboard seeks to remind us. Yet it conveniently forgets that the winter solstice festival didn’t actually start with Christ. Besides, we should be forgiven for not remembering, as nobody – not even the most devout of worshippers – bothers to pronounces it as the somewhat odd-sounding, ‘Christ’s Mass’ anymore. So is it any great surprise that along with the name, the ‘meaning’ of the festival has been constantly evolving too?
The true origins of Christmas are numerous and geographically varied, hence its burgeoning bough of collective symbolism. Many ancient cultures celebrated the 25th December as Winter Solstice – the day when the Sun’s maximum position in the sky is at its lowest. On this day, some ancient tribes would drag tall trees from the forest in order to build burning pyres to remind the sun of it’s crucial role – hence our tradition to ‘light up’ a tree in our homes during this period.
The Romans celebrated the festival of Saturnalia – a week long cavalcade of merry-making and gifts, culminating in the feast of Sol Invictus, or the ‘birthday of the unconquered sun’, on the 25th December. Interestingly, the Roman sun-god was seemingly nicknamed Christos Helios, or ‘Christ-The-True-Sun’ – which perhaps answers the question of why Jesus is always depicted as having a yellow orb floating around his head.
It is claimed that the festive decoration of holly represents Jesus’ ‘crown of thorns’, and ivy god’s ‘eternal life’. The original reason is that these were incorporated to appease pagans who had long been decorating their homes during this festival with this renewable, evergreen source. Mistletoe meanwhile, was also a pagan fertility symbol. Rumour has it, that it’s because the creamy-white berries contain a very reminiscent liquid…
This heavy adoption of pagan symbolism into Christianity seems to be the decision of the somewhat less divine, Council of Nicea in AD325, convened by the Roman Emperor Constantine. This emergency council of leading politicians and religious leaders sought to defuse the dangerous divide of old paganism and new Christianity that was threatening the stability of the whole Empire. They voted to create a new hybrid religion, with the ‘best of both’, trumping Hovis by over a millennia. It was this council that arbitrarily chose the feast of Sol Invictus as the day to celebrate Jesus’ birthday – as the Bible contains no actual date for Jesus’ birth.
However, it seemed that this joyous festival still needed another ‘more-satisfying’ figure than the ascetic Jesus. As legend has it, in the 4th century, a devout Byzantine bishop, ‘Saint Nicholas of Myra‘, became famous for his generous gift-giving. Over time, it seems his legend has been synergistically fused with various other deities;
- Holly King ; A mythical pagan figure who ruled from midsummer to midwinter, while the ‘Oak King’ would rule the other six months. The Holly King was reputed to ride around the woods in a sleigh being pulled by 8 reindeers, while incidentally giving out presents.
- Odin ; the Germanic chief-god who sported a long white beard and rode a 8-legged horse through the sky in the festival of ‘Yule’.
- Kris Kringle ; the Austrian christ-child who bought presents for children who had been good, but would disappear if the child tried to see him.
- Father Christmas – a British folklore character who displayed mirth and good cheer, but was never associated with gift-giving.
The traditional figure of Father Christmas generally sported bright green robe. Coca-Cola has since been blamed for converting his robes red in order to sell more of their product through festive association. Although this seems very plausible given Coke’s generally relentless marketing agenda, it seems they more jumped on an advertising bandwagon, as the American cartoonist, Thomas Nast, had been drawing red Santa’s for many decades before. Whilst one company, White Rock Beverages has already adopted the ‘red Santa’ image to sell their own drinks.
But what of all this?
Well, as this time of year we are all routinely drilled with various shrill messages telling us just what exactly we should be doing to uphold ‘tradition’. Be it solemnly praying to a ascetic religious hybrid, buying super-sized turkeys to feed the clan (approx 10 million in the UK every Christmas), sending Christmas cards to relatives not seen in years (150 million a year), buying ‘Christmas singles’, and other forms of shopping, shopping, and more shopping…
Now, the argument is often made – quite rightly – that the festival has evolved to become too commercial. But are Christians the right people to be moaning? As after all, in their own story, three ‘wise men’ turn up bearing such premium gifts as gold, frankincense and mere. We mortals can only dream of such showings.
Anyhow, I’m not totally against a good, healthy dose of morality and ethics at this time of the year; I am, after all, a big fan of Star Wars. I just oppose one that has so many odious distortions intertwined within its ‘saintly’ message.
One of those messages has been the detachment of human culture from its pagan ‘mother earth’, towards ‘our dominion’ – cue the consumer culture. So with our planet’s finite resources being stretched, it seems that ‘traditions’ aside, we should continue to evolve the meaning of arguably our most important holiday. Here are a few of my quick-fire adaptations (though it maybe be a little too late with only a day to go – bar last-minute shoppers – so perhaps in preparation for next year?);
- Buy second-hand goods – DVDs/CDs/Book – I buy them for my family and friends. No-one notices the difference and you save a few quid!
- Buy immaterial presents – vouchers, theatre tickets, audio-books, a free massage and so on. The list is endless and will probably be a real surprise that will actually be used – rather than added to a pile of other plasticrap or lavender bath sets.
- Make hand-made presents – more personal, so will probably be appreciated more than something generic.
- Use recycled wrapping paper – this can be hard to find, so perhaps try recycled brown paper which can be found at Post Offices or stationers. Also an opportunity for more customisation. You’ll be surprised how much fun can be had with cut and stick jobs.
- Buy local or even organic food and drink – as well as supporting local businesses, it’ll probably taste better. And as gifts, as long as the person doesn’t have an allergy to what you’ve bought them, the chances are it’ll go down better than some sickly sweet box of chocolates again.
- Use LED lights – for the Christmas tree, and definitely for outside lights! Use less energy, cheaper to replace, last longer, and less garish.
- Only send Christmas cards to people you like – seems obvious, but somewhat like Facebook friends, the back-and-forth exchange of cards usually turns into a social point-scoring game.
- If buying a real tree – admittedly a rare practice these days – buy from a local sustainable source, and give it back to the council via recycling scheme.
Ultimately our actions now will define the continuing growth of this festive period. It’s time to take the power back. As much as some would like to claim, it is no longer solely a religious festival, but a social and cultural one – and has been for quite a while now. So, with these simple points in mind and a few, better ones of your own, we can celebrate a leaner, greener (perhaps happier?) Chrismuss – as one Steiner school in Brighton has already decided. Which after is, is what Chris would have wanted.