True spirit of the holiday

Love it or hate it, most folks have no trouble comprehending the massive commercial enterprise that Christmas has become. Few, however, understand all the origins of the holiday. While the non-retail genesis of Christmas is a Christian celebration of the birth of  Jesus Christ, many of the traditions and practices we associate with the holiday originated in rituals practiced by other cultures, including tribes in pagan Europe, and during the time of the Romans, many centuries ago.

The practice of gift-giving at this time of year is believed to have begun during the Roman festival of Saturnalia when children were given dolls and tree boughs. During the 4th century, the original St. Nicolas was known for his charity towards children, often leaving gifts of food and clothing for the most destitute. Scholars believe the tradition of hanging a stocking by the fire originated in the desire of St. Nicholas to place those gifts where children could easily find them.

With roots in multiple cultures, the Christmas tree first appeared in the Middle Ages when an evergreen was decorated with wafers and apples in holiday plays to represent the Tree of Forbidden Fruit in Adam and Eve’s Garden of Eden. European druids and pagans also used trees in their worship of Mother Nature. During the Renaissance, German craftsmen began placing decorative ornaments on Christmas trees. Victorians took it the next level.

One only can imagine what folks in the Middle Ages might think if they could see a modern Christmas tree, resplendent with shining glass ornaments and glittering with hundreds of colored lights and tinsel.

Christmas cards got their start in the late 1830s when Englishman John Calcott Horsley began producing festive postal cards with holiday images and pre-written messages. Americans this year are expected to mail more than 1.4 billion holiday cards.

Although their origins go back centuries earlier, the first reference to Christmas carols in English dates back to 1426 when an English chaplain published a list of 25 “Caroles of Cristemas,” sung by a group going house to house.

Nog was an American colonial term for rum. Captain John Smith of Jamestown fame is credited with making the first eggnog in the United States in 1607.

Further substantiation that the holiday adapted to fluctuating aims over the years can be found in the fact that the date when Christmas is celebrated has changed multiple times. The Bible does not contain an exact date when Jesus was born. For a time, his birthday was observed on Jan. 6.

Some say the December date was chosen by officials in the early church who calculated nine months from March 25, Annunciation Day, when Mother Mary was told by the Angel Gabriel that she would be having a special child.

The earliest record of Christmas being observed on Dec. 25 was in 336 during the reign of Constantine, the first Christian ruler of the Roman Empire. Several years later, the date was declared official by Pope Julius I. The late December date coincides with holidays held by numerous other religious sects and occurs very near the Solstice, which marks the furthest retreat of the sun. The arrival of Jesus is seen in Christianity as the coming of God’s light to the world. Other traditions also celebrate light at the darkest time of year. Early church leaders saw an advantage in allowing folks to keep their traditional seasons of holiday and treasured symbols as they sought to win additional converts.

While the exact date for the first coining of the phrase “Merry Christmas” is lost to history, an English admiral included it in his holiday message in 1699. The song “We Wish You a Merry Christmas” was written in the 1700s, and Charles Dickens used the phrase in “The Christmas Carol” in 1843, the same year it appeared on the first mass-produced Christmas card.

While many folks believe the term “Xmas” to be an uncouth affectation, it isn’t some modern shorthand designed to take Christ out of the holiday. Quite the contrary; it has been in use since the 16th century. X stands for the Greek letter Chi, the first letter in Christ. In early writings and memorials, XP was used as a revered abbreviation for Jesus.

The folding of so many traditions into the amalgam that is the reality of Christmas in the 21st century may, to some, run the risk of diluting its fundamental meaning. For the ultra-orthodox, there is no doubt that too many aspects of the holiday, specifically its commercialism, have gone too far.

But in practice, the opposite effect can be seen. Over centuries, through the sage incorporation of other treasured rituals and symbols, the holiday has broadened its meaning to an ever larger constituency. That, in turn, helps nurture the basic meaning of Christmas – a time of peace, a time for giving, a time of love.

The elevation and celebration of those lofty human aspirations are what really matter in this season. With the embrace of family and loved ones, they are the true light that transcends all decorations, all presents, all merriment.

Merry Christmas to you and yours from all of us here at the Mount Desert Islander.

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