Spots of Time

December 23, 2003

The Evolution Of Christmas

The newspaper showed a picture of a man swimming underwater and feeding sharks in an aquarium in Beijing, China. What struck me most was the man's dress - he was decked out head to toe in a bright red and white Santa suit. The caption said that as China continues to open its doors and embrace westernization, western holidays such as Christmas are more frequently celebrated.

Walking around downtown Bangkok a few days ago, I noticed an abundance of Christmas lights and decorations. All the shopping malls had Christmas carols playing over the loudspeakers, the outside gardens were decorated with Christmas angels, trees and signs - signs that wished people "Happy Holidays" - in English.
Even here, on the island of Ko Pha Ngan, where my brother and I plan to spend our Christmas, a quick walk around town shows shop fronts with Christmas garland, ornaments, New Years hats and noisemakers, and other western tchotchkes that seen unusual and out of place

Is Christianity spreading to Asia? No, it is not. But Christmas is coming, full force.

Every year, on December 25th, American Christians celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ. While not the most important of Christian festivals (that is reserved for Easter, the celebration of Christ's resurrection), it is the most colorfully and lavishly celebrated. No longer the simple celebration of a famous birth, the American commercialization of Christmas has taken the holiday to a place early Christians could never have imagined.

If you live in the United States, you can't get away from it. When I was little, the first signs of Christmas showed themselves the day after Thanksgiving - with department stores decorated to the nines and pre-Christmas shopping sales. Christmas carols started playing on the radio, families began to put up outdoor Christmas lights, and vendors selling pine trees took up shop in abandoned lots and outside grocery stores.

As I got older, the arrival of these splashy accents arrived sooner and sooner. The past few years I remember seeing Christmas decorations in stores immediately after Halloween - nearly two months early!

None of these events has anything to do with the birth of Jesus Christ - but then Christmas itself doesn't either. While Buddhist monks tolerate spirits houses and Baci ceremonies in Thailand and Laos, ceremonies and traditions that have nothing to do with Buddhism, most current Christian traditions are really nothing more than the evolutionary absorption of earlier pagan celebrations with some uniquely European and American touches.

No one actually knows when Jesus was born - the Bible lists no date. Some say September, some October, some July. Why then do Christians celebrate his birth on December 25? Why not July 8 or April 15 or September 25?

December 25th is the date of the winter solstice - and Pope Julius I chose that date as the "official" celebration of Jesus Christ's birthday. It is commonly believed that he chose this date to adopt and absorb the traditions of the pagan celebration of Saturnalia, a mid-winter celebration originating in Rome to honor Saturn, the god of agriculture. The timing of the celebration - around the winter solstice, was a time of excessive drinking, dancing, and a general feeling of festivity. The early Christians were smart - by decreeing that Jesus Christ was born around the time of the winter solstice, they nearly guaranteed popular adoption of the celebration of Christmas. Why not? In addition to Saturnalia, early Romans also celebrated the birth of the Mithra, the god of the sun, as well as Juvenalia, a celebration of children. Adding the birth of a man named Jesus was just icing on the cake - the more the merrier!

it is important to note that Christianity, in the early days, was not the force it is today. It was a struggling neophyte religion, and the first missionaries had a hard time getting the people to let go of their religions and adopt a new one. By incorporating pagan beliefs into the new religion, missionaries made it easier for the people to agree to "convert."

A great example comes from my own religious upbringing. Being of Serbian decent, I was raised in the Serbian Orthodox religion - considered to be one of the two "oldest" Christian religions (along with Catholocism). The Slavs, originally a polytheistic people, were not quite ready to give up on their "gods" - despite what early missionaries told them about Jesus. So, the missionaries, masters of "religious spin," allowed the Serbs to keep their "gods" but they called them "saints."

Today, in the Serbian Orthodox religion, each family has a patron saint whose special day (called "Slava") they celebrate each year. The celebration is a time of food and drink, family and celebration - as well some readings from the Bible. Few realize that "Slava" is really a celebration whose roots have nothing to do with Christianity, Serbian or otherwise.

The decorated Christmas tree, another symbol of modern day Christmas, has its current roots in German culture. However, evergreens were long seen as important symbols of life and immortality - the Vikings, the Celtic Druids, and even the early Romans believed this. All of these cultures used evergreen boughs, brought into homes, to ward off evil spirits.

The list goes on - from the tradition of giving gifts to the creation of Santa Claus and the reindeer - Christmas as a holiday is a fusion of religious and secular beliefs that together has created one of the most celebrated holidays in the world.

Today, the spread of Christmas to Asian nations has little to do with Christianity and more to do with the popularity and pervasiveness of western culture and traditions. The holiday, in Asia as well as in the rest of the world, has become more about having a party, getting gifts, and celebrating with friends and family, than about the birth of a man thought by the Christian world to be the Son of God.

So, is this a bad thing? Is this spreading of a secular Christmas to non-Christian nations damaging to the original intent? Is it ok to sing Christmas carols and give presents when you don't believe in Jesus or even in one god?

It is said that Christmas as we Americans celebrate it today was born out of the Victorian era. That we as a nation took the holiday from its pagan roots of a time of gluttony, indulgence and raucous behavoir and elevated it to focus on the ideas of charity and kindness, peace on earth and goodwill toward man. If that is true, then we also have the power to distance it from its current over exposure of spending sprees and commercialization.

When I was a little girl, I believed in Santa Claus, reindeer and baking Christmas cookies. I believed in Christmas vacation, snowmen and red and green paper chains counting down the days until I would run downstairs and see a decorated pine tree with colorfully wrapped presents underneath. I gave money to the Salvation army, bought toys for kids who didn't have any, and ate Christmas dinner surrounded by my family.

None of these things had anything to do with the birth of Jesus Christ, yet I don't think that partaking in any of these traditions was wrong. Even if I hadn't been taught "the true meaning of Christmas," (in the Christian sense) I still new Christmas was a time of love, a time of giving, and a time of kindness. And if that is the message being passed around the world, then what harm is there in that?

I love Christmas. I love the Bible story of Jesus in the manger, the visit of the three wise men, and the star of Bethlahem guiding the way. I love the carol about the little shepard with nothing to give, getting Christmas cards in the mail, decorating Christmas trees and baking Christmas cookies. And, I don't think there is anything wrong with it, provided there is some understanding of the roots of the tradition.

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For more information about the pagan roots of Christmas, check out the historychannel.com, one of the main sources I used for this column. Really facinating stuff!

History Channel: World Christmas

Happy Holidays!