Live Well, Do Good

Christmas Could be a Little More Multicultural

Brandon Sun, December 4, 2017 – David McConkey

Merry Christmas!

Or are we supposed to say, “Happy Holidays”? But it’s not just today’s political correctness. Christmas has always been controversial. And Christmas customs have been in constant change for two millennia.

When, how, or even if, Christmas should be celebrated has divided people from the beginning. Even in the 4th century, some complained that Christmas was being celebrated with too much frivolity and greediness for gifts. Over the years, among other objections, Christmas has been criticized for being too pagan to being too Roman Catholic!

Christmas has always been multicultural. The origins of the holiday were associated with earlier traditions. The Roman calendar had December 25 as the date of the winter solstice. In the Christmas story, there could be an echo of older solstice stories about the sun’s return and the birth of a sun god.

Then there is the assimilation of pagan practices like bringing an evergreen tree into the house, hanging mistletoe, or throwing a Yule log on the fire.

This sounds like “cultural appropriation”! But isn’t there always blending and borrowing as cultures bump up against one another? As the Bible says, “there is nothing new under the sun.”
There often has been a dark side to Christmas. St. Nicholas – who was believed to bring gifts to children at Christmas – was both revered and feared. He rewarded good youngsters with gifts. But at the homes of misbehaving children, St. Nicholas left a whip or rod for parents to wield in punishment.

And there were even scarier Christmas characters: like the child-eating Gryla of Iceland and the half-goat, half-demon Krampus of Austria and other countries.

Two writers of the 1800s had a huge effect on how we see Christmas today. One was Charles Dickens, with his story about Ebenezer Scrooge and the ghosts he saw in “A Christmas Carol.”

The biggest influence was Clement Clarke Moore, whose 1823 work became the most reprinted poem of any kind in history. It is usually known by its first line: “’Twas the night before Christmas . . .”

Moore drew on Dutch traditions of New York, which was formerly New Amsterdam. The poet recast the severe St. Nicholas into a “jolly old elf.” Today, we know Moore’s St. Nick as Santa Claus. Moore dispensed with the old Christmas figures like Krampus who were often religious, frightening and country-specific. Santa is secular, comforting and universal.

There are, however, hints of Santa’s Dutch-American ancestry. In Moore’s original wording, two of the reindeer were Dunder and Blixem. They are now usually called Donner and Blitzen. These names are from Dutch and German words meaning “thunder and lightning.”

Christmas continues to change. The Christmas calendar has been extended: “Black Friday” and “Cyber Monday” drag the Christmas shopping season back into November. And Christmas commercialization has been challenged by new notions like Giving Tuesday, or Buy Nothing Day, and even Buy Nothing Christmas.

In the future, will Santa and other Christmas personalities be transformed as we look beyond traditional patriarchal stereotypes?This could already be happening. The “three wise men” are sometimes the “three wise ones.”

The changing course and conflict of Christmas is detailed in a dense new book by Winnipeg academic Gerry Bowler. The ominous title says it all: Christmas in the Crosshairs: Two  Thousand Years of Denouncing and Defending the World’s Most Celebrated Holiday.

Bowler points out that taking time off in December for relaxation and consumption was engrained in traditional agricultural societies. Farmers worked hard during busy times of the year and then took a break. Before the advent of good storage systems, much food had to be eaten right away. What a great opportunity for a celebratory feast! The Christmas holiday was part of these ancient seasonal rhythms.

But industrial societies require regular work, all year, with fewer holidays. Bowler notes that around 1760 the Bank of England closed for 47 holidays. By the 1830s, this had been reduced to only four.

But what about the work / rest calendar in our evolving post-industrial society? With increased automation, perhaps there can be more leisure, more of a place for holidays like Christmas? Perhaps there can be more ways to relax and express ourselves: through hospitality, music, spirituality, charity, appreciating nature and more?

Our multicultural society has religious believers as well as non-believers. Perhaps we can find fun and festive ways that bring us all together?

Merry Christmas!

* * * 

See also:

Christmas in the Crosshairs . . . on

Tomorrow, Buy Nothing

Ways to Leave a Legacy

Changing the Calendar, Changing the Culture

Atheist Christmas Cards

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