In short, not a lot. To get you into the festive mood, in this article I’m going to explore a few traditions associated with Christmas and see where they really originate from.
Let’s start with arguably one of the most important aspects of the season. You’d think that, when celebrating the birth of an individual, one should try to get the date right. In fairness, given the vague and scant evidence, it may be hard to ever ascertain a precise date for Jesus’ birth. But what we do know is that it wasn’t in the winter season. In Luke’s gospel, it reads that Christ was born while shepherds “kept watch over their flocks at night” (2:8). What is the lowest temperature expected in Bethlehem this Christmas? A chilling 6-7°C. The cold and wet weather would have led shepherds to finding shelter, rather than standing out in the fields. Further, the census that caused Mary and Joseph to travel to Bethlehem was unlikely to have been organised during the time when the roads might have been icy. What would be the point of holding a census when half of the population can’t get into the town to register?
So how did we get the date of December 25th? No-one is entirely sure; the 3rd century theologian Hippolytus of Rome added 9 months to when he reckoned the Spring equinox happened in the year of Jesus’ birth (the date of his conception). But while there may be theological coincidences for celebrating his birth on this date, it seems quite likely that the Church leaders wanted to rival the common and popular pagan celebrations happening round the corner. They wanted to expand their community, and by making up an event like the celebration of Jesus’ birth (the first recorded Feast of the Nativity happened roughly 300 years after Jesus’ life) they could coax pagan worshippers. Heard of the Cult of Mithra? The Cult that celebrates the birth of their God on 25th December? No? Well, the Church leaders had.
So maybe the date is arbitrary. But the notion of giving presents surely comes from the Bible? The 3 wise men brought to Jesus gold, frankincense and myrrh. On a side note, are we sure there were 3? We’ve just assumed that there were 3 wise men because there were 3 gifts. Also, are we sure they were wise men? They are described as “magi”, which could mean magicians or even astrologers (that’s not the good, scientific astronomers, but the field of study from which horoscopes are derived).
For this reason, presents are given as a symbolic act of what the magi did at Jesus’ birth. But, again, the actual act may derive from a Roman festival of the Kalends, signifying the beginning of the year. What is sure, however, is that present-giving now stands for the worry that you’ve spent too little on your present after seeing what your partner has got you, or the panic that you still don’t know what to buy your mum; she has enough cheap jewellery and candles from past Christmases.
Ah, the magical gift-giver who manages to deliver presents to every Christian household in the world in one night. (By the way, someone did the maths. They estimated Santa’s sleigh to have to move at 650 miles per second in order to successfully visit 91.8 million homes, or 822.6 visits per second). When we say “Father Christmas”, we assume that this is another name for Santa Claus, but in actual fact these were 2 separate figures who have become synonymous in recent times. Father Christmas was primarily an English folklore character, whereas Santa Claus’ origins are more often disputed. Saint Nicholas, the 4th century Bishop of Myra, who gained fame through gift-giving, seems to be a very good starting point, but once again it is not as straightforward as that. Some, who trace the name back to the winter festival of Sinterklaas as celebrated in the Netherlands, claim its origins in the Norse god of Odin. We (as in the Germanic peoples) celebrated Odin’s role as a hunter-gatherer during Yuletide (which also brings us various traditions to Christmas such as the Yule log and even carolling, so we’ve got them to thank for the door-to-door singers). Odin is often depicted as an old, bearded man, visiting people with gifts by travelling through the sky on an 8-legged horse. We are edging closer to the big-bellied, red-robed grandfather that we all love, aren’t we? Unfortunately, the idea that Coca Cola put Santa Claus in red and white for an advertising campaign in the 1930s may be an urban myth.
Christmas is the one time of the year when we voluntarily take trees that live outdoors and bring them inside to die. On the face of it, one has to admit that it is quite a weird practice. But it seems to have only become a household tradition as late as the 19th century, when Queen Victoria and her family were illustrated decorating one indoors in 1842.
It may be too difficult to accurately find an origin for this tradition, but one wants to point to some form of tree worship, perhaps in Pagan mythology. Evergreen trees had special significance attached to them, symbolising eternal life as all other trees around lost their leaves during winter. The ancient Egyptians, as part of their celebrations at the winter solstice, put green plant rushes in their homes; Roman citizens, during the festival of Saturnalia, put evergreen boughs in their houses; the ancient Druids put boughs inside their temples too. In other words, there are just too many different groups of people decorating their homes with trees to accurately say where Christianity took the idea from.
During this time, we must remember that Christianity does not have a monopoly on this season. To me, possibly the only thing that they can confidently claim as exclusive to their religion is the name; Christmas. I read somewhere in the depths of the internet the suggestion that we could rename the festive season to “Hitchmas”, celebrating the birth and life of Christopher Hitchens, who died two years ago this month. A day of gift-giving, and meeting with family and friends for a larger-than-life meal. We could have readings from the Good Book (by A.C. Grayling), or even excerpts from the man himself.
Having said that, I wouldn’t change for the world the opportunity to sing “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing”. I love that carol.