Last week we unpacked that even though the Holidays are a festive time of the year filled with parties, celebrations, family and social gatherings, balancing the demands of the Holiday’s – including this year’s current pandemic – may very well contribute to feelings of being overwhelmed and increased stress.
Now with Thanksgiving in the rearview mirror, and the leftovers nearly gone, Christmas decorations are making their way from the attic. Trees are being set in just the right spot. And the Charlie Brown Christmas album rings in the season. But, before we all start another verse of “Christmastime is Here” – let’s pause and take a look at just when Christmas became oh so Wonderful? And just how did the Christmas holiday really get its start?
Christmas is traditionally celebrated on December 25th and is both a sacred religious holiday and a worldwide cultural and commercial phenomenon. For over two millennia, people around the world have been observing it with traditions and practices that are both religious and secular in nature. Christians celebrate Christmas Day as the anniversary of the birth of Jesus. With many popular Christmas traditions including exchanging of gifts, decorating Christmas trees, attending church, sharing meals with family and friends and, of course, waiting for Santa Claus to arrive.¹
I grew up in the Church, so let’s first take a closer look at the Christmas story and its ties to the faith tradition. In the early years of Christian tradition, Easter was the main holiday; the birth of Jesus wasn’t universally celebrated. In the fourth century, early church leaders decided to institute the birth of Jesus as a Sacred holiday. Pope Julius I chose December 25th, as the celebration was first called the Feast of the Nativity; a series of four-week Masses that led up to Christmas. The season of Advent and Christmas are closely linked, with many cultural customs applying to both seasons.²
But how about some of my favorite things about Christmas? Let’s explore the history of the Christmas Tree, Christmas Carols and let’s not forget the Legend of Santa Claus.
The Christmas tree. The “dead of winter” as we say, invokes images of fallow fields, barren trees and snow falling on hard ground. History records the peoples of northern Europe decorating their dwellings in midwinter with evergreens such as holly, ivy, laurel and yew. The decorated Christmas tree derives from this ancient tradition. The custom flourished in Germany as far back as the fifteen-hundreds (Martin Luther is said to have decorated a tree indoors). Interestingly enough, Christmas trees may have reached Revolutionary America by way of German settlers even before they appeared in England! And the star upon the top of that Christmas tree – the Christmas Star symbolizes the Star of Bethlehem, which according to the Biblical story, guided the three kings, or wise men, to the baby Jesus. The Star is also the heavenly sign of a prophecy fulfilled long ago and the shining hope for humanity.²
Christmas Carols. The first known Christmas hymns may be traced to 4th-century Rome. Latin hymns such as Veni redemptor gentium, written by Ambrose, Archbishop of Milan, were austere statements of the theological doctrine of the Incarnation. In the 13th century, in France, Germany, and particularly, Italy, under the influence of Francis of Assisi a strong tradition of popular Christmas songs in regional native languages developed. Carols gained in popularity after the Reformation in the countries where Protestant churches gained prominence (as well-known Reformers like Martin Luther authored carols and encouraged their use in worship). Today carols are regularly sung at not only Christmas services, but you may hear them at Malls, Groceries and wherever people are shopping. I love what present-day pastor and writer, Charles Swindoll says, “Christmas is the one time-of-the-year when the whole world is singing our songs.”
The Legend of Santa Claus. The legend of Santa Claus can be traced back to a monk, St. Nicholas, who was born in Turkey around 280 A.D. St. Nicholas gave away all of his inherited wealth and traveled the countryside helping the poor and sick, becoming known as the protector of children. St. Nicholas first entered American popular culture in the late 18th century in New York, when Dutch families gathered to honor the anniversary of the death of “Sint Nikolas” or “Sinter Klas” for short. “Santa Claus” draws his name from this abbreviation. In 1822, Episcopal minister Clement Clarke Moore wrote a Christmas poem called “An Account of a Visit from St. Nicholas,” more popularly known today by its first line: “Twas The Night Before Christmas.” The poem depicted Santa Claus as a jolly man who flies from home to home on a sled driven by reindeer to deliver toys. The iconic version of Santa Claus as a jolly man in red with a white beard and a sack of toys was immortalized in 1881, when political cartoonist Thomas Nast drew on Moore's poem to create the image of Old Saint Nick we know today.¹
Well, if this isn’t enough to ‘get you into the Christmas spirit’, what about Christmas celebrations around the world? How does the rest-of-the planet celebrate Christmas? Let’s take a look – whether you’re celebrating a religious festival, or a more secular occasion, the following celebrations could be considered loud, proud and full of festive fun.
Philippines: The Giant Lantern Festival is held each year on the Saturday before Christmas Eve in the city of San Fernando – the “Christmas Capital of the Philippines.” The festival attracts spectators from all over the country and across the globe. Eleven barangays (villages) take part in the festival and competition is fierce as everyone pitches in trying to build the most elaborate lantern. Today, the lanterns are made from a variety of materials and have grown to around six meters in size. They are illuminated by electric bulbs that sparkle in a kaleidoscope of patterns.
Norway: Perhaps one of the most unorthodox Christmas Eve traditions can be found in Norway, where people hide their brooms. It’s a tradition that dates back centuries to when people believed that witches and evil spirits came out on Christmas Eve looking for brooms to ride on. To this day, many people still hide their brooms in the safest place in the house to stop them from being stolen.
Venezuela: Love Christmas, but think it could be improved by a spot of roller-skating? If the answer is yes, visit Caracas, Venezuela this year. Every Christmas Eve, the city’s residents head to church in the early morning – so far, so normal – but, for reasons known only to them, they do so on roller skates. This unique tradition is so popular that roads across the city are closed to cars so that people can skate to church in safety, before heading home for the less-than-traditional Christmas dinner of Tamales.
Washington, DC: The Jewish holiday of Hanukkah is celebrated with much fanfare across the United States with one of the most elaborate events taking place in our nation’s capital. Since 1979, a giant nine-meter Menorah has been raised on the White House grounds for the eight days and nights of Hanukkah. The ceremony is marked with speeches, music, activities for kids, and, of course, the lighting of the Menorah. The lighting of the first candle at the White House takes place at 4pm, rain or shine, and an additional candle is lit each successive night.³
Well, I hope you’ve enjoyed our little trek around all that goes into making this season the Most Wonderful. I saved one of my favorite things for last. Every November, I warm up to the full-on Christmas Season with the classic album A Charlie Brown Christmas (Soundtrack). It’s based on the 1965 animated television special, featuring the characters from the comic strip Peanuts, by Charles M. Schulz.
In the TV classic, Charlie Brown finds himself depressed despite the onset of the cheerful holiday season. Lucy suggests he direct a neighborhood Christmas play, but his best efforts are ignored and mocked by his peers. And leave it up to Linus to tell Charlie Brown about the true meaning of Christmas; in less than one minute and thirty seconds, Linus unpacks the real meaning of Christmas.⁴ See the YouTube link below to watch⁵:
At Conizo, we believe that wisdom is the art of living skillfully in whatever season we find ourselves. During the Holidays, this art of skillful living may require us to look deeper than our current Christmas décor, to the real meaning of the season. Like the Star shining brightly from atop the Christmas tree, may the street lamps along the intersection of wisdom and hope remind us that at the heart of living well, is the all light, love and peace this season offers.
Thanks for stopping by – and enjoy the season!
History, www.history.com/topics/christmas/history-of-christmas, November 30, 2020
Gross, Bobby, Living The Christian Year, copyright 2009, InterVarsity Press.
Momondo Travel, https://www.momondo.com/discover/christmas-traditions-around-the-world, October 25, 2017.
A Charlie Brown Christmas (Soundtrack), Label/Fantasy, December 1965.
A Charlie Brown Christmas (Movie), by Charles M. Schultz, Directed by Bill Melendez, CBS, aired December 9, 1965.