Today, I spoke to a friend who is Jewish. I wished him a Happy Hanukah, and I got a small earful of comments I found I pretty much agree with. He said that Hanukah by traditional standards was not a religious but an historical occasion, and there was even some disputes about exactly what it commemorated. Was it the stretch of oil in the temple to an eight day supply? Or something else. What he disliked, he said, was how the festival seemed to have been torqued to become a substitute for Christmas for Jews with all the commercialization of it and the gift giving; this is a guy who is big in retail!
What he said got me thinking about Christmas. I realized that what we think of as enduring Christmas traditions are pretty recent things. Although St. Nicholas Day is celebrated in much of Europe on December 6, his feast day, Santa Claus was first popularized by Clement Clarke Moore in 1822. He was an Episcopal minister who wrote “The Night Before Christmas” as a poem for his daughters. Our modern image of Santa Claus arose from that.
Christmas trees are even newer as home decorations and traditions. Although trees were brought into homes in Germany as far back as the 1500s, they were considered as odd by most Americans well into the 1800s. However, in 1846, Queen Victoria and Prince Albert were shown with their children in an illustration in a London newspaper around a Christmas tree. They suddenly were all the rage.
Gift giving was long a tradition for St. Nicholas Day. The actual saint was considered a pious and devout man who looked after children and the poor. Giving was done in his honor. Now of course, gift giving is as much a part of Christmas as Black Friday. You get the picture.
But what about Christmas itself? Easter was a sacred religious holiday from the time of Christ, but it wasn’t until Pope Julius I set Christmas to be celebrated on December 25th that it was more than just another day. Even then, it took centuries for it to become a universal celebration. Oliver Cromwell wanted to ban it as a pagan festival, and from 1659 to 1681, it was banned in Boston in the Pilgrim colony there. And certainly December did coincide with many pagan rituals somewhat clustered around the solstice on December 20 or 21.
Back to my Jewish friend and his comments about gift giving. His real point was that when you give someone a gift for their birthday, anniversary, or as a thank you for some kindness, it is a sincere acknowledgement of your relationship with them. To give a hoard of people gifts because you work with them, belong to the same book club, that they teach or coach your kids or hail you cabs demeans the idea of giving. He claims, and being in retail probably knows better than the rest of us, that getting a wide swath of gifts can produce anxiety: did I spend as much on them as they did on me, will they like it, what if they don’t get me one in return?
I think he has a point. As a family, we have decided this year to give presents only to the youngest kids among us. For each other, we will do experiential things during the year, like get togethers, travel, maybe make something for no good reason. Also, more donations to needy families and charitable organizations that do social good. That seems like the real spirit of giving.
I suggest you do a bit of research into the history of some of what we call treasured traditions to see what is really behind them, and Christmas seemed like a natural place to start. Most of us have enduring childhood and family memories about this time of year, and those feelings run deep. They seem to suggest things have always been the way they are. TV, movies, ads and everything else done to propel us to retail outlets at this time of year only reinforces that feeling.
Before I conclude, I wanted to address salutations and wishes at this time of year. Much has been been made by some about a “war on Christmas” because some people say “happy holidays” even if they also say “Merry Christmas.” My personal perspective is, well, not worth putting in the vernacular that I am thinking of. I am an atheist in that I believe in no deity, but that doesn’t mean I don’t respect those who are religious or those who are not. I gladly wish people Merry Christmas, as I would gladly wish them Happy Hanukah, or in other times of the year, glad greetings for whatever they might celebrate that I do not. If someone wishes me Merry Christmas or anything else pleasant, I gladly accept it in the spirit and hopefully love with which it was given.
Now that I know a bit more about what we have come to know as Christmas, how it has not been a straight line back to the birth of Christ, it seems even more important that if you believe in Him, that you would think of the reasons why you believe he was born: to bring love and salvation to mankind. Not to make us wary of one another and doubt us as neighbors because we might be a bit different in what we believe and do.
So have a Merry Christmas, a Happy Hanukah, and all of the other wonderful days in the year ahead.