Friday, December 22, 2006

Christmyth Time

OK, as mentioned numerous times, I are a devout Christian. That said, this does not mean that I’m not aware of the machinations of politics that lead to Christianity as we know it today. This is especially true when it come to the celebration of holidays, and probably nowhere more than around Christmas.

Perhaps the first controversy that comes to mind is the day itself, December 25th. Historically, there’s no indication whatsoever that Christ was born on this day, of course. The current date of Christmas was supplanted from earlier faiths, without a doubt – Many peoples and cultures celebrated winter solstice, and in the 4th century, the early Christian church snagged the holiday to knock down Mithras and all them other Pagan upstarts.

Interestingly enough, Christmas didn’t take hold right away in America - Our forefathers, the Puritans, disdained the common celebration of Christmas as "the heathen traditions," and railed against all things Yule log, holly, mistletoe, etc. The late, great Oliver Cromwell preached against Christmas carols, decorated trees and any joyful expression that desecrated "that sacred event." The celebration itself was briefly illegal in my birthplace, the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.

Ok, so how about this Xmas thing? I can’t count how many Christians have expressed disdain at this, “Modern bastardization of the Christian holiday.” How wrong y'all are, eggnog breath! Xmas actually derives from the Greek word for Christ, Xristos. So, the fact is, it was waaaay back in the 16th century when Europeans began using that first initial of Christ's Greek name in place of the word Christ as a shorthand expression of the holiday. UNfortunately, somewhere between then and now the dark ages erased knowledge of Greek and the origins of this shorthand, and "Modern Christians" now mistake Xmas as a sign of disrespect...

Next come trees - Christmas trees, that is. In the last 24 hours, on NPR, I have heard a Christian conservative knock them because they’re “Clearly a Pagan symbol,” and a Rabbi do the same because they’re, “Blatant Christian symbolisms.” - So, who’s right? Well, potentially both, or neither, actually… Fact is, the Pagans did not cut down trees, drag them into the house, and decorate them: They revered nature, and doing the tree thing would have been antithesis to their reverence. They would, however, decorate trees with metal and such, and put boughs in their homes during winter solstice as homage to the gods and a celebration of all things living. Now, in the Middle East, centuries before Christ, trees were cut down, carved into images of the Gods, and gilded and such. Such habits things mightily pissed off the prophet Jeremiah, as he attests herein:
"Thus saith the LORD, Learn not the way of the heathen, and be not dismayed at the signs of heaven; for the heathen are dismayed at them. For the customs of the people are vain: for one cutteth a tree out of the forest, the work of the hands of the workman, with the axe. They deck it with silver and with gold; they fasten it with nails and with hammers, that it move not."
Jeremiah 10:2-4
The fact is, Christmas trees as we know them didn’t really come into vogue until the 19th century, around 1850, which also happens also to be the point in American history wherein the first White House Christmas tree appeared, courtesy of President Franklin Pierce, (President Who? Don’t feel bad, nobody else remembers him either – Suffice it to say that for a bunch of reasons, he is generally considered one of the worst presidents in our history – Right there with Millard Fillmore – But I digress…). Fat boy Calvin Coolidge performed the first National Christmas Tree Lighting Ceremony in 1923.

Oh by gosh by golly, it’s time for mistletoe and holly, which are indeed blatant rip offs from Paganism - Centuries before the birth of Christ, Druids used mistletoe to celebrate the coming of winter. Scandahoovrians dug it as a plant of peace and harmony associated with their goddess of love, Frigga: The kissing under the mistletoe thing most likely came there from. And Holly, you ask? Well, it's those pesky early Christians again: They banned the use of mistletoe for the reasons detailed above, and suggested holly as an appropriate substitute greenery.

So, how about Poinsettias? Well, like good Tequila, they’re native to Mexico. The plant was named in honor of America's first ambassador to our southern neighbor, Joel Poinsett, who brought ‘em back north with him in 1828, (No, I ain’t makin’ this up - He was an avid amateur botanist!) The Mexicans of that age, (Having been forcibly converted to Catholicism by the gentle hand of the Conquistadores), thought the plants were symbolic of the Star of Bethlehem, and there you have your Christmas connection. By the way – The flowers of said plant ain’t big and red or white – they’re small and yellow – The big red and white things are leaves surrounding Mr. flower, not petals.

And candy canes? Well, frankly, this here candy has been around for centuries, but it wasn't until around 1900 that they were decorated with red stripes and bent into the shape of a cane. They were sometimes handed out during church services to keep the brats quiet. One story often told about the origin of the candy cane, this deal about a 17th century Indiana candy maker who wanted to express the meaning of Christmas through a symbol made of candy, blah, blah, blah – Whatever…

Okay, best for last – Sandy Claws: Ok, fact, as we know it – Around 270 ad, St. Nicholas was born in Turkey. He devoted his life to Christianity and became widely known for his generosity to the poor. He is especially noted for his love of children and for his generosity. In 16th century Holland, Dutch children would place their wooden shoes by the hearth in hopes that they would be filled with a treat. The Dutch spelled St. Nicholas as Sint Nikolaas, which became corrupted to Sinterklaas, and finally, in Anglican, to Santa Claus. In 1822, Clement C. Moore composed his famous poem, "A Visit from St. Nick," (Which transmogrified into "The Night Before Christmas.") Moore is generally credited with creating the modern image of Santa Claus; the jolly fat man in a red suit. There is some consensus that the first department store Santa in this country appeared in the 1840’s in Brockton, Massachusetts. R.H. Macy began creating his famous window displays in the early 1870’s, and in 1873, Louis Prang made the first American Santa Christmas card. Norman Rockwell followed suit in 1922, and in 1931, Coca Cola ran their first Santa ad campaign. The rest is history...

So there you go – Ho Ho Ho!

1 comment:

David C. said...

Eben,

Great commentary! One small correction: Calvin Coolidge was the silent President. The fat one was Grover Cleveland, only President to serve two nonconsecutive terms and the first to be married in the White House. He also had secret surgery performed for a cancer of his hard palate during this second term.

I heard a comedian say that putting up a Christmas tree sounds like something a drunk guy would do: "Look honey, I cut down this tree and put it in our living room!"

Merry Xmas,

David