Christmas Traditions: America Steals From the Best



SLIGHTLY OFF THE MARK

            This being Christmastime, I thought it might be a good time to discuss Christmas. Yes, my mind does sometimes flow in logical, if obvious, directions.

            Christmas is, again obviously, a celebration of the birth of Christ. Or maybe not so obviously. In fact, that might be one of the single most forgotten facts of the Christmas season, and in today’s politically correct world we’re often encouraged not to mention Jesus while marking Jesus’ birthday.

It’s kind of like celebrating Independence Day without mentioning Independence, or America, or powdered wigs. It’s a known fact that we beat the British army because that powder kept getting in their eyes.

On the other hand, experts say Jesus wasn’t born on December 25th at all: He was most likely born in the spring, which kind of fits the whole rebirth theme better, anyway. There were sheep being tended in the fields, for instance, which happens in the spring. In December, the sheep and shepherds tend to stay inside and sleep together. For warmth, I mean. That being the case, if Mary and Joseph had arrived in Bethlehem in December, the inns would have space but there would be no room in the mangers.

Also, early paintings of Jesus’ birth show the Wise Men holding Easter baskets, so there you go.

If Christmas is being stolen for secular purposes, I suppose it’s ironic: Early Christians stole late December for their purposes to begin with. Many Europeans celebrated around the time of the winter solstice. I usually mourn the first day of winter, but they had a point: After that, the days would start to get longer, and the Sun would return.

The Norse celebrated Yule, by setting fire to logs so large they would take as many as twelve days to burn. If the logs went out early, they would burn drummers, dancers, and pipers, thus ending that annoyance. Then they would feast on geese, calling birds, and turtle doves. So you see, the origins of that song are much darker than you knew. It also didn’t end well for the maids a’ milking, who would lose their jobs when it came time for the beef roast.

On that note, the end of December was the time when Europeans had a supply of fresh meat (remember those cows? They couldn’t afford to feed them all winter.) It was also a time when wine and beer finished fermenting and could be drunk. If you lived in northern Europe pre-central heating, what better way to spend winter than fat and drunk?

On another related note, down in Rome they partied through the winter solstice and on for a whole month, and when Roman’s partied, they partied. Many of them also celebrated the birthday of Mithra, the god of the sun, on December 25th. Apparently they’d party ‘till Mithra came home.

Then the Pope came along. He didn’t like partying. He sure as heck didn’t like other gods. Also, although he lived there, he probably didn’t think much of the Romans as a whole, what with the whole feeding lions thing and all. Since he had no idea when Jesus was actually born, he decided to trump the pagans and go with December 25th. Why not?

It worked, too. The Pope spoke, and within just four hundred years the Feast of the Nativity had spread across most of Europe. I realize “just” is a relative term, when speaking in centuries. I got gray hairs after just twenty years of child rearing.

But people kept partying, so eventually England did something many of us now say as a joke on bad days: They cancelled Christmas. The same thing happened in parts of America, too. Eventually it came back, but after the Revolution Americans decided Christmas was an English custom, so they dumped that along with tea.

Christmas wasn’t declared a federal holiday until 1870, when workers started looking for another long break. They turned the hard partying holiday into something more family oriented, which I suspect is a little closer to what the Pope had in mind to begin with.

That’s about the time we Americans did what we do best: We stole from other countries, taking this and that from here and there to develop our own Christmas traditions. We tell ourselves we’re following long tradition, but as in so many other areas, Christmas in America is a mutt.

Stockings hung by the chimney came from Nordic countries, for instance. Their stockings got wet in all that snow, so they hung them up to dry. Hopefully the tradition of putting gifts in there arrived at about the same time as the tradition of regular laundering.

It was the Roman celebrations honoring Saturn and Mithras that brought us singing, candle lighting, and gift giving. You had to get a Roman pretty drunk before they started giving away their stuff.

            The early Christian church gave us the word Xmas: In Greek, “X” is the first letter of Christ’s name. In Bethlehem, X marks the spot where Jesus was born. I’m making that part up.

            Germans brought the Christmas tree to America. Not literally – they used trees already here, let’s not get silly. In medieval Germany, a popular play about Adam and Eve featured an evergreen decorated with apples, which I assume Eve would then eat. The apples, not the evergreen.

Poinsettias come from Mexico, but were named after the American ambassador to that country, Dr. Joel Poinsett. Just think, we could be displaying Joela’s every Christmas.

The first Christmas card was created by an English illustrator, who later changed his name to Hallmark.

So you see, we’ve stolen from the best, including our uniquely American tradition of going out the day after Christmas to embarrass ourselves by getting caught returning gifts from relatives, by those relatives, who are returning gifts from us.
 
By the way, I just took a trivia test involving facts about Christmas traditions, and scored 100%. When it comes to holiday trivia, clearly I’m full of it.