Although Andy Williams’s dulcet tenor claims that “It’s the most wonderful time of the year,” some of us wonder. Still, there’s something sweet and beautiful about Christmas flowing all around us. It would be a shame to get to January and find we’ve missed the whole thing.
But what is Christmas, really?
In mainstream, Christianized culture, Christmas is a celebration of the birth of Jesus. But it’s really so much more than that. Over the last two millennia a flood of cultural appropriations have added their unique flavors to the stew. And it continues to evolve. Our modern Christmas is a family tree with roots in Greek, Roman, Germanic, and Norse mythologies, as well as Turkish, Greek, Jewish, Dutch, British, and American culture. Even capitalism and commercialism left their indelible mark on this mutt of a holiday. If it's purity you’re after, better look elsewhere.
We don’t know when Jesus was born, but it wasn’t December 25. Most scholars place it in summer because that’s when shepherds were “watching their flocks by night,” as the Gospel of Luke claims. When Christianity became Romanized in the fourth century, the celebration of Jesus’ birth was placed on December 25 to align with the birth of Mithra, another popular savior in the Roman mélange. Mithra was a Persian god who, like Jesus, was born miraculously, had twelve disciples, healed people, raised the dead, then died and resurrected. To the Romans, Jesus and Mithra were a perfect pair.
Christianity had been illegal in the Roman Empire until 312 when Emperor Constantine issued the Edict of Milan legalizing it. For the first time, Christians could worship in the open. They made up for lost time. Within a hundred years the Bible was finalized, ritual and liturgy were codified, and a holiday calendar took shape. But Roman Christians didn’t celebrate Christmas the way we do, if at all, even though many of the pieces of what would become Christmas were laying all around in plain sight.
In honor of the god Saturn, Romans set aside the last seven days of the year for the Festival of Saturnalia. Norms and laws were suspended, the courts were closed, and ribald mayhem ensued. Everyday Romans decorated their homes with lanterns and evergreen boughs, held lavish drunken parties, increased charitable donations to the poor, went singing door to door, and closed out the week with a gift exchange. Sound familiar? Early Christians found these pagan practices so repugnant that they avoided them for years. But by the 6th century, they had adopted them all.
Then Christmas moved north.
Many of the elements of our modern Christmas celebration come from Norse and Germanic paganism. The now ubiquitous Christmas tree was adopted from pre-Christian Germanic nature worship, then popularized in Victorian England. As the obelisks of ancient Egpyt (and the Washington Monument) represent the earth god Geb’s longing for his sky goddess wife Nut, the Yule tree represents Odin’s, um, shall we say, perpetual readiness. And Santa Claus with his flowing white beard seems a lot like the Norse god Odin who soared through the sky on his eight-legged horse. The eight reindeer would come later.
In Dutch culture, an obscure Turkish or maybe Greek saint called Nicholas was raised into prominence as Sinterklass. Known for his love of children and his generosity to the poor, Sinterklass was a gift-giving god of sorts, dressed in red and accompanied by his Moorish attendant Zwarte Piet or Black Peter. As Sinterklass spread abroad to the UK as Father Christmas and America as Santa Claus, his black “attendant” was ditched. Um, awkward.
But it was from the mind of an American poet that the rest of the Santa Claus legend took shape. Clement Clark Moore was the son of Benjamin Moore, the bishop who presided over the inauguration of George Washington. The younger Moore penned a poem in 1823 that would blend and concretize all of the details swirling around the story of Santa Claus. “T’was the Night Before Christmas” established a number of elements we now take for granted: the sleigh, the eight reindeer (complete with names), and the bit about Santa landing his sleigh on the roof and sliding down the chimney. This was new. And we loved it.
In a 1931 ad campaign Coca Cola papered over America with its new corporate mascot – a jolly old Santa Claus with rosy cheeks, a generous smile, and an irrepressible twinkle in his eye. The image of the American Santa Claus was fixed forevermore.
In 1939 ad writer Robert May was working on a coloring book insert for the Montgomery Ward catalog. Thinking back to the exclusion and bullying of his own lonely childhood May created a ninth reindeer named Rudolf whose oddity, an illumined red nose, would turn out to be a tremendous asset to the boss in a pinch. Then May’s brother-in-law Johnny Marks wrote a song called “Rudolf the Red Nosed Reindeer.” When the singing cowboy Gene Autry recorded it in 1949 it went to number one, and remained the best-selling record of all time until 1980. From bullied nerd to celebrated hero – an archetypal tale of the emergence of our latent excellence through the cracks of our imperfection. It is because of our uniqueness that we are best able to serve.
From the very beginning, Christmas belonged to all of us. It is not the sole property of any one religion or culture. Christmas is a metaphor for the international diversity of our messy human family – bits and pieces from everywhere blended into one glorious celebration. Christmas is collaborative community theater and the world is our stage. We all make Christmas. It’s folk art and no one’s in charge. It’s an alchemy of high-brow and low-brow, sacred and profane, silly and sublime, elegant and tacky. In our modern Christmas celebration there is room at the table for everyone – Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, atheists, agnostics, pagans – anyone willing to wear an ugly sweater, lift a cup, break bread, and celebrate the coming of the light into the darkness. Santa Claus is the embodiment of the abundance of the universe, and every time you wrap a present you participate in the ritual of generosity and embody the truth that love is always hidden right beneath the surface of everything.
Let’s make Christmas a holiday for everyone, not yet another opportunity to divide our human family into warring tribes. Jesus, Joseph, and Mary were aliens in a strange city. There was no room at the inn. From the humblest of people, and in the humblest of places, the light still comes into this darkening world. That’s the real meaning of Christmas – that the Divine Light shows up as the most vulnerable of creatures, an infant, and draws us into the one love that emanates from every heart, heals every wound, and lifts all eyes to the brightening days ahead. At this darkest time of the year, may we be a light to one another.
Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to go hang my Saturnalia lights and erect the Odin tree.