Don’t get me wrong. I’m not the Grinch who stole Christmas. I don’t even say “Bah! Humbug!” in the manner of Old Man Scrooge in “A Christmas Carol”. But standing in that check-out line and later, stuck in never-ending traffic, I contemplated emigrating to China. Or to Saudi Arabia, Iran, North Korea or Algeria. Because they don’t have any Christmas holidays. (On second thoughts, emigrating there may not be a good idea. Reports indicate that ignoring Christmas is just part of their policy statement about “peace on earth and goodwill towards all men”.) The celebration of Christmas – like Diwali, Durga Pujo, Holi, Eid, Moharram, Yom Kippur and the Chinese New Year – may be less about religious belief and more about the celebration of community, identity. The defining symbol is no longer the cross or the holly. It is the credit card.
Let’s face it, Christmas in its present form never really was about the actual birth of the Saviour. For one thing, the Bible mentions that the Wise Men sought directions from shepherds in the fields when they sought the Child. Shepherds. In the fields. Does that sound like deep and dark December? The Bible itself mentions no date nor season of the year. Besides, it’s no coincidence that Christmastide coincides with the much older celebration of the winter solstice. This was when the Romans celebrated – wait for it – Saturnalia! Which, of course, was a festival noted for its sobriety, piety and atmosphere of restraint. Not! The Church did not approve of the excesses of the Saturnalia. Very interesting excesses they were, too. Those Romans knew a thing or two about debauchery and decadence. Well anyway, the consensus is that the Church, believed that if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em. Around the 4th century of the Christian Era, they quietly took over the winter festival, stripped it of the … errr, youthful high spirits, and converted it into the Feast of the Nativity. So perhaps the Grinch was not the first to “steal Christmas”!
Christmas, of course, has its own set of traditions. It’s quite interesting to trace their origins. The mistletoe connection resonates with Norse fertility rites and the legend that Loki used it to slay Baldur. Wassailers and carol-singers were pre-dated by the Roman Mummers, who travelled from house to house singing and bearing gifts. The Mummers, alas, often quite regrettably neglected to clothe themselves, and were usually the worse for drink, but let’s just say it’s the thought that counts. And be grateful that in the present day we are not assailed by the spectacle of fat Uncle Percy in the altogether! The tradition of deforestation is comparatively new to most of the world. It was common in Germany to put up Christmas trees; it must have been a natural outcome of having to clear acres of primeval forest to keep the wolves away from the castle drawbridges. It was only when German nobility were imported into the bloodline of English royals, and perhaps as late as the 19th century, that the custom of ruining perfectly good forests became common. With the result that more than 20 million trees die every Christmas in the USA alone.
It’s a little strange to note that Americans were originally a little chary of Christmas. They saw it as an English custom, and quite understandably Americans in the 1780s were not too fond of the English. Times changed. In 1822 Clement Clarke Moore wrote the poem that we now know as ‘Twas the night before Christmas. Apparently this popularized the custom of Yuletide gift-giving. In 1843 Sir Henry Cole commissioned the first set of Christmas cards. The flood-gates opened. Christmas moved from the church to the mall. Retail barons offer more deeply sincere thanks for Christmas than do many devout believers. And no matter how much they may try to enforce the First Amendment, America leads the world in Christmas commerce. Sometimes the emphasis on “the season for giving” seems a little contrived to me, even calculated.
And yet … The Wife and the Small Person were leaving Newmarket when a snot-nosed urchin tapped on the window to sell them safety-pins. Whereupon the Small Person piped up, “It’s Christmas, Ma. HE should get a gift too!” The Wife asked the waif what he really wanted. The child’s eyes lit up. He led them to the nearest toy store. And pointed to a little train. Now I, as far as possible eschew emotion. Impedes rationality and all that. The Wife was regrettably damp-eyed when she recounted this incident. And the urchin’s sheer delight when she actually handed over the train set. But when she told me of Small Person’s reaction – “Ma, this is all the Christmas present I need. Now I shan’t ask Santa for anything!” – I must confess that my self-imposed bar on sappiness creaked at the seams. Oh, bother! I’ll admit it, I felt good. And a little moist around the peepers. The spirit of giving? It’s still alive. Compliments of the season, readers, no matter whether you’re fellow cynics or dewy-eyed romantics.