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Christmas Through the Ages

Christmas! The very name already invokes a cornucopia of images and sensations in any reader, no matter where they are in the globe. Gift-wrapped presents, yule log cakes, evergreen trees (even in the most tropical of regions), and a jolly old man riding a sleigh pulled by a herd of reindeers (who also has an addiction to milk and cookies).

But above all of these surface-level elements, are the eternal Christmas values of fellowship and charity. Of good cheer and goodwill towards all of humankind. It’s a season for spending quality time with loved ones, giving fabulously-wrapped gifts to others, staying up until the wee hours of the morning, and celebrating the good that’s in all of us. It’s looking at everything that has happened in the year so far, good or bad, and accepting that life goes on.

Looking at it objectively, it seems pretty bizarre that such a specific set of associations could be coupled with a very specific date, no matter where you are in the world. While some parts of the world celebrate it more enthusiastically than others, Christmas overall seems to be one of the few holidays recognised globally.

Today, Christmas is most commonly identified as a Christian holiday, meant to celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ. However, the origins of this snow-capped holiday go back even further than that.

Many elements that would make up what we now call Christmas originated in the numerous winter solstice festivities held by the early Europeans. People celebrated during the winter solstice, as that meant most of the horrors and hardships of winter were now finally behind them, and they could look forward to longer days and more hours of sunlight once more.

The Norse people of Scandinavia celebrated Yule, where large logs would be brought to the home and set on fire, in anticipation of the sun’s return. People would feast and make merry until the log fully burned out, which could take more than a week.

The pagans of Germany, on the other hand, believed that the god Oden flew through the night sky to observe his people, and decide who would perish or prosper. For that reason, people chose to honor him, but also stayed mostly inside their homes.

The Romans held Saturnalia, which was an entire month of hedonism where food and wine flowed freely, and where the normal social order was disregarded. The enslaved were temporarily freed and treated as equals, and business and schools closed so that everyone could join in on the festivities.

As for Christians, there is actually no solid evidence that Jesus was born on the 25th of December, or even anytime near winter. The Bible never spells out the day of his birth (as pointed out by the Puritans, who tried to use this fact to delegitimize the celebration). Instead, it is commonly believed that the early church chose this date in order to co-opt pre-existing winter solstice celebrations such as Saturnalia, so that it can ingratiate itself more with the wider population at the time.

Of course, much of the world isn’t Christian, white, or has experience with winter. It was largely due to the colonizing efforts of European powers (such as the Dutch and British empires of the 18th century) that much of the non-western world even knows what Christmas is.

In modern times, consumerism and globalisation has shorne Christianity of most of its religious associations, in favour of encouraging the buying of gifts (the shinier and more expensive, the better).

In short, there is no core or central meaning behind Christmas. At least, not in its current state anymore.

What does this all mean, though? Does this mean we should stop celebrating Christmas altogether, given that the foundation of the holiday itself is inherently unstable and ever-shifting, with its original meanings buried beneath generations of humanity?

If that thought ever crossed your mind, then I will assure you, my answer is no. Celebrations may have centuries of history behind them, but they are ultimately celebrated for the benefit of those living today. Who cares if it was initially based on religious beliefs that are no longer actively followed? So what if traditions and rituals on the holiday come and go like parts on an ageing automobile? Does this make the time we spend with friends and family during the holiday season any less meaningful or joyful? Does it make all the messages of fellowship and charity any less resonant? Does it dim the joy of a child eagerly sending a dear santa letter, holding wishes for their favorite toys and games within?

Right now, in the age that we live in, Christmas is a universal holiday of good cheer and gift giving, without restrictions on culture or religion. It’s about putting a positive cap on the year behind us, no matter what happened inside that year. It’s something nearly everyone celebrates in some way, even those who aren’t religious or western at all.

No matter where it comes from, one cannot deny that Christmas is one of the most important and widespread celebrations in the modern world, and we should keep it that way.

So, without any further ado, let me wish all of you readers a merry Christmas, and a happy New Year.

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