I am a week away from my sixty sixth Christmas, and though I and many of my peers have become somewhat jaded over the commercialization and exploitation that has come to dominate the holiday season, I still look forward to it, though for different reasons than when I was a kid those many years ago.
Back then Christmas was a time of magic with an overwhelming and continuous stream of traditions, symbols and events. There were Christmas trees, elaborate mangers and nativity scenes, St. Nicholas, midnight mass, Christmas carolers, fruit cake, elaborate twelve course Christmas Eve dinners, candy canes and cookies. There was lots of visiting, parties and family get-togethers. And, of course, there were presents, lots of presents. As Ukrainian Canadians, we also not only had St. Nicholas but also Santa Claus. Christmas was certainly the highlight of the year when I was kid.
As I grew older, my perspective and understanding of Christmas changed as I acquired more background and knowledge on the history of Christmas and what it really represented. St. Nicholas became more than just the nice, bearded and funnily dressed elderly man that brought us presents on his feast day of Dec. 19. It was a little disconcerting to eventually find out that he had actually been a real person, a Greek named Nikolaos of Myra, born in 270 AD, who lived in a small town on the southern coast of Turkey. He eventually became Bishop of Myra, and was persecuted and imprisoned by the Roman Emperor Diocletian. He was released when Constantine became emperor and the Roman Empire became officially Christian.
He was renowned for his faith, generosity and miracles, and became the patron saint not only of children, but also sailors, students, merchants, brewers and even pawnbrokers. Although he was accepted as a saint by most Christian denominations, he became particularly popular with the Orthodox Church, and is one of the most beloved saints in Slavic countries.
Of course, Christmas started out as being the Christian celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ. Curiously, most experts, biblical and historical, are in agreement that it is highly unlikely that Jesus was born on the 25th of December. In fact, most clues from both biblical and other historical sources, point to September as being the most likely birth month. Further, his birth was not in 0 AD, but more likely 6 or 4 BC. It was not until three or four centuries later that Christmas as we recognize it, began being celebrated in the Christian world on December 25th. Many historians speculate that this was done to supplant long-standing pagan celebrations of the winter solstice that fell near this date.
It is not surprising that many pagan traditions were assimilated or “borrowed” when Christmas celebrations became popular. The Romans celebrated the week-long festival of “Saturnalia” around the winter solstice which was characterized by eating, drinking, partying and giving presents. The use of holly and ivy was an established Roman tradition related to the Roman gods Saturn and Bacchus. Carols were originally pagan songs sung in celebration of the winter solstice. The venerable Christmas tree has origins in both Roman and Teutonic pagan traditions.
There are many more examples including many distinctively Ukrainian ones. The symbolism behind the “didukh” (wheat sheaf), the honey and wheat “kutia” dish, the celebration of the “Malanka” new year’s eve, all have origins that preceded the Christianization of Ukraine.
Interestingly, the celebration of Christmas has not been a continuous experience over the centuries. In fact, during the Protestant reformation, the celebration of Christmas rapidly fell out of favour in many countries. The Puritans in Britain, under Oliver Cromwell, banned it outright, considering it a pagan heresy.
Historical origins and debates aside, one thing about Christmas that does not seem to change is the fact that most people find great value and comfort in having a holiday in the heart of winter that brings family and friends together. The symbolic celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ who is perceived by Christians to be the savior of mankind, brings a much-needed sense of hope and optimism, in a world that often seems beset by the “sins” and weaknesses of fallible humankind. We all need hope and inspiration particularly during a season when nature has gone into hibernation and we are beset by cold and a lack of sun.
Christmas is all about hope and warmth and peace and joy and goodwill towards all men and women, something we could all certainly use more of. Merry Christmas to all!