Old and cherished folklore or public relations gimmicks?
Most of us seem to hold one of two views of the trappings of Christmas, things like Santa Claus, Christmas trees, caroling, and miniature replicas of Christ's nativity scene. We either sentimentally revere them as long-standing, perhaps ancient, traditions rooted in religion and family values or we sneer at them as manipulative commercialism foisted on us by greedy merchants pushing us to buy gifts for one another. Personally, I try not to fall for either extreme. That's because I'm a bit of a traditionalist but also enough of a realist to recognize when public relations tactics are being used to persuade me of something.
There are, however, some elements of Christmas we can all be sure of:
Right? -- No. Wrong on all counts.
- December 25th has always been celebrated as Christmas, the birth of Christ.
- Christmas trees (or "tannenbaum" in German) sprang directly from ancient Druid custom of tree-worship.
- Santa Claus is based on Saint Nicholas, a bishop in Turkey during the 4th century, who gave gifts to "good little girls and boys."
December 25 -- was the day pagans worshipped Mithra, the sun-god, long before Christ was born. It wasn't until the 4th century that the Catholic Church started calling December 25 "Christmas" to honor of the birth of Jesus Christ, the son of God. It was a direct attack on Mithraism intended to discourage worship of the sun-god.
Christmas trees -- were not mentioned in any published documents until 1820. They did, however, become wildly popular in the U.S. and many European countries in the 1830s, but they weren't linked to Druidism at that time. In fact, existing drawings and descriptions of the Druid practice of using evergreen boughs to decorate their homes and places of worship indicate that branches were used, not complete trees. And, there is no indication these branches were ever decorated with candles, ornaments, or garlands.
Santa Claus -- may somewhat evoke Saint Nicholas, but it's not an ancient tradition. Santa first appeared in the 1820s and in the United States. Washington Irving's tongue-in-cheek history of Dutch settlers in New York included tales of St. Nicholas driving a wagon "over the trees and across the sky" to deliver presents, and Clement Moore's immortal poem Twas the Night before Christmas described Saint Nick as "a right jolly old elf" who came down the chimney with a bag of presents on Christmas Eve. They were the first links between Saint Nicholas and Christmas. Before then, Saint Nicholas was the patron saint of children and, in many European countries, his saint's day on December 6 was a day for children to receive presents, but it had nothing to do with Christmas. Nor did Saint Nicholas keep a list of "who's been naughty and nice;" that idea came in a 1934 song "Santa Claus Is Coming to Town" written by Haven Gillespie and John Coots.
So, the bottom line is: our Christmas traditions are neither as ancient nor as deeply rooted in folklore and religion as many of us were led to believe. And, there can be no doubt they have sometimes been commercially exploited for public relations and advertising purposes. -- But that's a story for another time. -- For now, have a delightful December.
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