Thoughts on the Season Part One
I’ve been watching people make comments on Facebook, blogs, and elsewhere regarding which way the wind is blowing in the whole “Merry Christmas” issue. A year or two back, it seems, retailers were instructing their staffs not to use that phrase but to wish customers a “Happy Holiday” instead. This way, those who celebrate the season but no the birth of Jesus Christ won’t be offended and vice versa.
The outcry from the religiously devout was pretty loud, noting the entire period from Thanksgiving to January 6 wouldn’t exist if Jesus had not been born.
This year, it seems, being politically correct has been dropped in favor of a “whatever” attitude so you hear a mix of messages.
As Kris Kringle says in my favorite holiday film, Miracle on 34th Street, “Oh, Christmas isn’t just a day, it’s a frame of mind… and that’s what’s been changing.” People have been railing against the commercialization of Christmas pretty much since the celebration became codified in the 19th Century. In fact, one of the earliest complaints about the non-religious fervor was from Harriet Beecher Stowe, whose The First Christmas in New England has a character complain that the shopping was cheapening the religious event. So, the arguments are far from new.
After all, no one can say with authority when Jesus was born and the actual date of the celebration has moved over the centuries. As it is, the current date has more to do with the Catholic Church competing with pagan celebrations based on the winter solstice than any other reason – an argument first put forth by Isaac Newton, no less. Another argument has it that December 25 was picked because it fell about nine months after the Annunciation, as outlined in Genesis.
Clement of Alexandria wrote, circa 200 AD, that Christ was born on a date that corresponds with May 20. About twenty years later, though, Sextus Julius Africanus, first proposed that Christ was conceived on the spring equinox, hence benign born in December. From some quick research, it seems December 25 was first used around the 4th century, long after any witnesses were around to record the actual event. And as the Church fractured over the years, the Eastern Orthodox still celebrate according to the Julian calendar, so their chosen date of the birth falls on January 7 according to the current Gregorian calendar.
And of course, the twelve days of Christmas end on January 6 with the arrival of the three kings (none of whom brought a partridge, let alone a pear tree, according to the Bible).
As with so many events written about in the Bible, there’s no real data to tell us what really happened and if it happened at all, when and where. So, over time, the celebrations solidified around December 25. And as Christianity spread across Europe then the rest of the world, cultures found ways to assimilate it with their own customs and celebrations. So many of the traditions we ascribe to this time of year didn’t really form until the 18th Century. For example, the carols we’ve come to know and love began with English reformer Charles Wesley, who wrote several, notably “Hark! the Herald Angels Sing”. Many of the ones sung at the time were collected in an 1833 book which became the primer to inspire all that followed.
Tomorrow, I’ll take a look at some of those customs with a nod towards comic book fans.