Christmas stands out as a festival with universal appeal that leaves few corners of the earth untouched. Holidaying in Hong Kong one Christmas season, it was startling to encounter the sombre Christian symbol of death and suffering, the cross had been integrated into merry Yuletide decorations. The attractiveness of Christmas across cultures probably lies in the charm and colour of symbols like Christmas trees and Santa Claus. A shared mythology of stars and angels that converges with other spiritual traditions gives it an added resonance.
Between The Narrative’s Lines
The Christmas narrative has long exercised those with an analytical bent of mind . Historians who go strictly by facts do not find the required correlation with recorded events. For example, the census said to have been ordered by Emperor Augustus is not documented in Roman history, but there is evidence of a small local census at the relevant time. “The Wise Men” of the East were presumably literate and scholarly but left no accounts to record a momentous trip to Bethlehem. In all likelihood, their appearance in subsequent writings was intended to give weight to Old Testament prophecies of Isaiah; their names of Gaspar, Melchior and Balthazar came to be given only in the 6th century. It is also surmised that the traditional story bears little correlation to the hearty spirit of hospitality prevalent even to this day in the Middle East, that would surely have been on offer from kinsmen presumably living in the area to visiting members of the same clan sharing royal descent, especially with the poignantly contingent condition of a pregnant woman.
One might surmise that scriptural accounts would have presented the birth of Christ creatively to appeal to the psychological needs of the people for a super-human figure. This process built on existing popular beliefs, often from mythologies of other traditions. Shepherds who figure prominently in the Christmas story were also present at the birth of Mithras- a deity with a large cult following in the pagan world of the time. The attendance of angels and a virgin birth were in currency to celebrate the prior figure of Gautam Buddha. A colony of Buddhist monks residing in Alexandria at the time are said to have exerted significant influence in the evolving thought process of the region.
A discrepancy is noted in alignment of the Christmas story with the life span of Jewish King Herod who is said to have ordered the massacre of male children in order to eliminate the future leadership threat posed by the Christ Child. Mythologically, however, a parallel exists in Hinduism with the killing of Krishna’s older brothers at birth by the demon Kamsa. Vasudeva took the newborn Krishna to the safety of Gokul, while the ‘holy family’ fled into the sanctuary of Egypt.
Whether it lies in truth or myth, the Christmas story is one of exquisite beauty that has stirred the creative spirit in art, music and literature, so much so that the boundary between beliefs and imagination can effectively blur. The collective vision of the nativity scene in Bethlehem has been formed by exposure to innumerable masterpieces of Renaissance art, often reproduced on Christmas cards. Christmas carols of singing angels, watchful shepherds, shining star and the like tend to complete the pretty picture that people seek for an important annual celebration.
Origins of Revelry
The date of 25th December is at best approximate, since there is no precise record of the date of Christ’s birth. The early Church celebrated Easter, Pentecost and the Epiphany, but celebrating the birth of Christ was a decided afterthought. Light, symbolizing the illumination of the soul through the genesis of a new faith was central to the concept of this new festival. At first, the Church Fathers sought to link it with Chanukkah, the Jewish festival of lights, but by the Fourth Century A.D., Christianity had markedly distanced itself from Judaism preferring instead the adoption of pre- Christian pagan tradition as a practical strategy to integrate the growing ranks of converts. The date was adopted in adaptation of the Roman festival of Natalis Invinci, the winter solstice when the Sun is at its weakest, and needs to be revived with bonfires. It came to represent Jesus Christ, the Sun of Resurrection.
The earliest Christmas celebrations were probably very simple. Perhaps men and women sat at different tables after a reading of scripture and shared bread and wine. Austerity in course of time gave way to the tradition of revelry derived from memories of the frenzied celebrations of the Roman Saturnalia, which lasted from seventeenth to twenty third December and the Kalends of January, symbolizing the first three days of the New Year. The Saturnalia was typically a feast that broke down class barriers, and in its new evolution significantly unified the geographically diverse members of a growing group, while maintaining continuity with the past.
The earliest Christmas trees were small blossom trees of hawthorn and blackthorn potted and brought indoors as symbolic of a fruitful year. When these delicate plants failed to flower as was often the case, the household perceived itself as being under a dark omen. The evergreen trees of Germany furnished a sturdy alternative that suggested immortality, gaining a wider popularity when Prince Albert, consort of Queen Victoria carried the tradition to England in the 19th century. The holly and mistletoe of Christmas decoration have a significance as steadfast fruit bearers amidst the barrenness of winter; their boughs were hitherto sliced by the Arch- Druid with a gold- handled knife at the winter solstice for their many remarkable botanical qualities.
The origin of the Chocolate Yule log lies in the burning logs of the Norse festival of Yule. Flaming plum puddings and the game of snapdragon- snatching raisins from a dish of flaming brandy bespeak the legacy of seasonal bonfire revels. Little masks of Bacchus, the Roman god of wine hung at the Roman Saturnalia, merged with Christ’s miracle of water turned into wine at Cana for copious drinking of mulled wine and hot punch from immense wassail bowls of silver and pewter.
In short, much of what is now considered integral to the faithful celebration of Christmas in terms of diet, decoration and the like is the overflow of popular tradition rather than scriptural prescription. It is interesting to note that in the 17th century, the Puritan Protestants who colonized America followed a strict version of Christianity that for a long while outlawed Christmas as a ‘feast’ day on the grounds that it constituted worship of the pagan God Saturn, and proclaimed it a ‘fast’ day.
No Christmas is complete without the robust cheer of Santa Claus. He is identified with Saint Nicolas, a kindly Bishop of the Fourth Century. His actual origin goes back to the Norse God Odin, driving his sleigh through the snows of winter, to bring gifts of wheat and corn in spring. The American writer Washington Irving reinvented the sedate figure of Saint Nicholas into a pipe smoking, red coated Santa with white fur trimmings. The imagery went further with Clement C. Moore’s poem ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas’ portraying him as round and jolly, with a cherry-like nose in a sleigh pulled by eight reindeer. The poem enormously impacted children’s expectations of presents on the day after Christmas Eve and firmed up associations with the gift giver’s signature red outfit. Norman Rockwell painted him thus for the Saturday Evening Post. In 1931, Santa Claus appeared in a beverage advertisement brandishing Coca Cola instead of a pipe. This gives us an interesting instance of how legends and popular traditions evolve, to be appropriated symbolically to fit in with the interests of religion and retail.
I regard myself a spiritual explorer, guided primarily by compassionate attitude and practice for all life forms, rather than tied to a specific belief- system. What I do appreciate about the Christmas story is its cosmopolitan character. The Wise Men of the East symbolically pre-figure later Christianity that would spread beyond Palestine and the restricted Hebrew identity with its insistence on being a “ Chosen People.” Christmas is thus an opportunity for enhancing universal bonds, with a focus on commonality rather than divergence.
Living in a secular country like India has bestowed one with an implicit breadth of spirit in the celebration of festivals. We look forward to our Public Holidays irrespective of the religion of their origin. Festivals have a socio-cultural dimension which make their appeal collective- Diwali fireworks and Christmas gifts evoke a common clamour in children much as a Diwali Mela and a Christmas Ball are enlivened by the same set of revellers. The growing power of organized Retail in India has made festivals a decidedly universal phenomenon- an occasion for consumer indulgence in festive collections and special offers that keep the malls overflowing and cash registers jingling.
My Redefined Christmas
John Grisham’s novel, “ Skipping Christmas” humorously explores disruptions in the social and economic fabric of a small American town from a couple opting out of a traditional celebration for an overseas cruise. The celebrations around any festival have an implicit socio-economic function that over time have ensured a livelihood to long chains of goods’ and service providers. Equally, festivals have been useful to jog the memory for those excluded from the beneficial momentum of productive cycles. Pro-activity in helping out with whatever causes we relate to should ideally be a continuing exercise, but a festival might recreate the mood that awakens kind sentiments.
Christmas has been about “ Peace on Earth and Goodwill to all men.” A worthy thought, but limited, because we have planetary survival at stake. Among other things, the foremost teaching of Christianity is to love one’s neighbour. This ought to be a much broader conception than the person next door, encompassing any fellow inhabitant of the earth likely to be affected by the natural disasters attendant on global warming and the carelessly indulgent lifestyles that precede this fearsome phenomenon. I am encouraged to observe and synergize with pro-active groups and individuals who have put the environment and animal welfare firmly on the agenda in the season of giving and goodwill. It is something of a paradox that Christmas trees and their accessories end up in landfills. I myself have circulated the thought that these verdant symbols should remind one to be green in attitudes and practices on a more enduring basis than the mood of a passing holiday season.
Christmas indulgences as we now know them had their origin in Europe’s weather. The cattle could not go to pasture in the snow, and had to be slaughtered to make way for lavish feasts. These dietary practices that spread to non-European societies through colonial forces are not the real flavour of the Christmas story, especially as expressed in a touching carol that praises the role of the various animals present at Christ’s birth, such as the oxen in the manger whose breath kept the place warm, the sheep accompanying shepherds, the donkeys and camels who furnished transportation at various points in the story. The Christmas tale in its innocent spirit of living beings in harmony with a cosmic order endorses me in my chosen vegan diet and lifestyle, however disconnected from the social staples of a carnivorous festival menu. As such, my Christmas lunch would represent a stimulating exercise of expanded imagination and a true prayer from the heart for all the earth’s sentient creatures.
The Christ Child has been hailed in popular thought as “The Prince of Peace, of whose government there would be no end.” The sad reality is a world where blood and carnage have historically been a fact of life. Christmas could be a time of identifying with the broader ‘cosmos’. Its renaissance of spirit ought to expand frontiers of consciousness and deepen reserves of sensitivity to all living beings for a true season of Peace and Goodwill.
– Giselle Mehta