Health And Family

Christmas is whatever we make it

KINDERGARTEN DAD - Tony Montemayor -

My wife and I had to take our son and daughter to the grocery separately the other day as they wanted to buy simple treats for their school bus’ Kris Kringle. Neither of them wanted the other to have a clue as to who their “baby” is and so wanted to keep their purchases a secret from each other. I wanted to tell them that it was no big deal until I remembered one memorable Kris Kringle experience I had in college when I cheated in the drawing of lots so that I could get the girl I was eyeing then. Kris Kringle (or Secret Santa to some) is but one of the many traditions that we enjoy during the Christmas season. Believe it or not, however, there was a time when gift-giving and other holiday practices were actually banned during Christmas! Pope Pius I, who declared in 350 A.D. December 25 as Christmas Day, tried to abolish them because of their links to pagan traditions. One of the most popular festivals of the Ancient Romans was Saturnalia, which was held in honor of the god Saturn. It was celebrated from December 17-24 and was characterized by “feasts, revelry, decoration of houses with greenery, candle-lighting, and gift-giving.” Many people in the Roman Empire also worshipped Mithras, the sun god, whom they believed to have been born on December 25. As Christianity became the state religion of Rome, church officials obviously wanted to eliminate these pagan festivals and rituals. The early Christians also wanted to celebrate the birth of Christ in a solemn manner and were not comfortable with the merriment of the pagan Saturnalia. They soon found out, however, that it was an impossible task. Even the infamous Emperor Caligula during his time tried to limit the Saturnalia celebrations but had to back off when it caused a massive uproar among the Roman citizens. The church soon decided to redirect and incorporate the customs into Christianity instead. After all, it seemed like a perfect fit with the story of the Three Kings bearing gifts to the infant Jesus and with the concept that Christ was a gift from God for man’s redemption. And so while the focus of worship was transferred to Jesus, many of the elements of Saturnalia remained. This festive kind of Christmas celebration soon spread all over Europe. By the Middle Ages, it had largely replaced Saturnalia and other pagan festivals that were celebrated during the winter solstice. 

Over time, several of the original pagan practices evolved into some of the Christmas traditions that we know today. The very first carols, for example, were not Christmas carols but rather pagan songs that were sung during winter carnivals such as the Saturnalia. Because of this, they were at first barred from religious services. However, Nativity carols that were mostly simple folk songs soon emerged and became popular. Wandering minstrels traveled along the countryside and performed them. Village watchmen called “waits” also started singing carols during the Christmas season as they patrolled the streets. From the evergreen boughs that the Romans decorated their houses with later sprang forth the Christmas tree. The Germans are said to have been the first to start using decorated trees in their homes in the 16th century. According to Christmas lore, the Protestant reformer, Martin Luther, was the first person to have added lighted candles to the Christmas tree. The story goes that as he walked home one winter evening, he became mesmerized by the brilliance of the stars that twinkled over the trees in the forest. He sought to recapture the scene by putting lighted candles on the branches of the Christmas tree inside his home. The people of Ancient Rome and other parts of Europe gave each other small presents as part of their year-end celebrations. This practice developed a more Christian character as the legend of Saint Nicholas, who was well known for his charity, became widely known. One of the more popular stories about Saint Nicholas is how he once saved three poor sisters from lives of slavery by secretly tossing gifts of gold coins inside their house. On one occasion, the coins went down the chimney and ended up inside a pair of shoes. On another instance, the coins landed on a pair of stockings left hanging by the fire to dry. Even as these new and more “Christianized” practices emerged, however, a backlash during the Reformation Age resulted in Christmas gifts and celebrations (other than Church service) once more being outlawed in England and in several of its colonies in America. Many European Christians during this time found the practices to be too pagan for comfort and inconsistent with Christian beliefs and morals. Interest in Christmas subsequently waned and it would not gain popularity again until the Victorian Era during the 1800s. The people of this era brought about a kinder and gentler Christmas, one that was characterized by “peace, family, and nostalgia.” This was idealized in the series of Christmas stories of Washington Irving and in the famous novel A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens which greatly influenced the American Christmas. For better or for worse, America also tweaked the St. Nicholas story and added a roly poly-white bearded-red suit to our Christmas traditions: Santa Claus. 

Today, Christmas is celebrated around the world even by non-Christians. And while the early Church worried about the roots of some of its practices to pagan traditions, the concern nowadays is about the over-commercialization and secularization of Christmas. Amid the shopping frenzy and endless parties, it is so easy to forget what all the fuss is for and to gloss over the central purpose of Christmas — the birth of our Savior and His message of love and peace. But while it may be impossible for Christmas to be immune from modern consumer culture, I think that it is very much in the power of parents to show our children that a good balance can be achieved. Christmas is whatever we make it and it is up to each family to determine what kind of Christmas traditions they want to foster for themselves. 

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Acknowledgements: History and Evolution of Christmas Traditions and Practices (Kelli Mahoney); Gift-Giving Tradition (Maggie Parent); and The History of Christmas (Reasons to Believe.com)

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Please e-mail your reactions to kindergartendad@yahoo.com.

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