And so this is Christmas! Merry Christmas and goodwill to all.
Christmas is certainly our most interesting holiday. It's a fascinating mixture of pre-Christian, religious, and secular elements...and the secular elements are both folklorish and commercial. Yet none of these elements, somehow, manage to diminish the others.
The holiday is more ancient than Jesus, harking back past the Saturnalia of the Romans to various ancient Midwinter folk festivals among the pagans, perhaps all the way back to solstice worship at the dawn of recorded history. The solstice would have been noticed earliest by Northern peoples, who would have been most aware of the lengthening of the night and grateful for the season when the long nights began to recede again.
The Christian church—perhaps originally to co-opt a persistent celebration it couldn't eradicate—consecrated today as the birthday of Jesus. The nativity of Jesus is a story full of mystery and beauty that counterbalances the dramatic story of his betrayal and death. It's a foundation-stone of the now-ancient New Testament, appearing in two of the four gospels, Luke and Matthew. It bears a strong resemblance to earlier mythical origin stories, especially the birth of Mithras, a mythical god who anchored a populist folk religion in Roman times; the nativity story's infolding of myth and legend infuse it with power and piteousness. The exquisite loveliness of its symbolism is celebrated with nativity scenes large and small across the Christian world. Together, the stories of the birth and death of Jesus sum up, for many Christians, the beauty and drama, the tragedy and hopefulness of their own lives and the lives of those they love.
Christmas is also secular. It drives revelers to an orgy, sometimes literally a frenzy, of shopping and acquisitiveness. As a secular event it's so broadly a part of our culture that it's celebrated by many non-Christians too. Even many Christians seem most comfortable with the secular nature of Christmas: traditionally it was a hallmark of the "lazy Christian" to go to church only on Christmas or Easter, but many Christmas-loving Christians forego even that observance.
Christmas can seem overpoweringly commercial if you're not careful—the economic fortunes of retailers and the changing annual fashions among shoppers are news every year, and Christmas marketing saturates us. But many of the holiday's most beloved elements continue to have a strong folklorish character. The Christmas tree and boughs of holly, Sinterklaas or Old Saint Nick, spiked eggnog and mistletoe, stockings hung at the mantel, the many beloved poems, tales, movies and songs—and many ethnic variations on those and many other elements, even practices and traditions specific to particular families—all combine to create a mood of midwinter magic that for many people embody the best aspects of family life, of childhood and the nostalgia for childhood.
It might seem that these folk elements must be ancient, but many of them are relatively recent: I love it that Washington Irving, the author of Rip Van Winkle, invented the idea of Santa's flying reindeer like Edward Hibberd Johnson invented electric Christmas-tree lights. Like a great many of our favorite folkloric Christmas notions, both of those date from the 19th century. A few even come from the 20th. Christmas is capacious and welcoming that way—the melting-pot of holidays, you might say. In America, even football has been allowed into the overflowing horn-o'-plenty of the day's traditions.
So Christmas is simultaneously a mysterious and very ancient holiday and a crassly modern one, a folk festival as well as a religious holy day.
It's wise to remember that not every Christmas is a happy one in every life. In the traditional Polish vigil dinner of Wigilia, on Christmas Eve, it's customary to set an extra place at the table of the feast for the wayward traveler who might knock at the door. Thus is symbolized a welcoming spirit for the "odd man out." The itinerant traveler, after all, might once have been the Nazarene carpenter Himself, out wandering from hamlet to hamlet spreading His news; who knows? Have a thought for the lonely today, whose loneliness might be accentuated in this season; don't be miserly with acts of kindness that might make a difference to another.
For underlying this great merry amalgam of a holiday like a soft warm bed is the shared sense that this day called Christmas is a day to get in better touch with our better natures. It's a day to set differences aside, to be a good neighbor to our neighbors, to remember our children and to delight them, to attend church, to raise our voices in song or listen to others sing, to say a kind word, to reaffirm family ties and call to mind old friendships and dear loved ones departed; to raise a glass and eat well and help others eat well. It invites us to feel without stinting the goodwill and the compassion for others that the story of God and the sojourn of His Christ-child on Earth has kindled in so many hearts over so many centuries. It's a day to lift our moods and our spirits, whether individually or together, however we might find ourselves on this day, on our own sojourns here, in this season of this year.
A Merry Christmas to you.
Penn Yan, New York
Christmas Day 2016
Copyright 2016 by Michael C. Johnston. All Rights Reserved.
Please don't take my work, but I don't mind if you point others to it!
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The illustrations are public-domain images from Karen at thegraphicsfairy.com.
(To see all the comments, click on the "Comments" link below.)
Featured Comments from:
Henry Richardson: "Merry Christmas! I read this interesting article concerning Christmas yesterday: 'The Geopolitics of Christmas.'"
Mike replies: That is interesting, Henry, thanks. An ambitious article, too. I didn't realize that the "decorated pine tree" was a 19th century custom, or that the phrase "Merry Christmas" itself became the standard Christmas greeting due to Dickens' A Christmas Carol in 1843.
Speaking of which, did you know that Dickens originally set out to write a new Christmas novella every year? He wrote five of them, of which A Christmas Carol is the first. None achieved nearly the acclaim or popularity of the first (or were as good), so he eventually gave up the project.