Recently I have had several young people (younger than I, anyway, which most people are these days) express to me their dissatisfaction with the way that Christmas has been “commercialized”. I keep forgetting to ask them how they would propose that their disappointment be rectified, but they certainly have a point considering the advertising that bombards us from every possible medium.
What with all of the “Black Friday” hype, the incessant mailings and of course the internet popups it is easy enough to fall prey to the concept that Christmas depends on how much money is spent on gifts that might be used to curry favor or meet the criteria of the “must have” that is so important to the spectrum of the public, young and old, that regards gifts as status symbols – the more costly, ornate, or flashy the better (little drummer boy serenades be damned).
Gift giving has been recently portrayed as a more recent component of the holiday, but gift giving was common in the Roman celebration ofSaturnalia, an ancient festival which took place in late December and may have influenced Christmas customs. On Christmas, people exchange gifts based on the tradition associated with St. Nicholas, and the gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh which were given to the baby Jesus by the Magi.
To be sure, perhaps the most common view of Christmas is religious in nature: (Old English: Crīstesmæsse, meaning “Christ‘s Mass“) is an annual commemoration of the birth of Jesus Christ. But the holiday also has been known by various other names throughout its history. The Anglo-Saxons referred to the feast as “midwinter”, or, more rarely, as Nātiuiteð (from Latin nātīvitās below). “Nativity“, meaning “birth”, is from Latin nātīvitās. In Old English, Gēola (“Yule“) referred to the period corresponding to January and December; the cognate Old Norse Jól was later the name of a pagan Scandinavian holiday which merged with Christmas around 1000. “Noel” (or “Nowell”) entered English in the late 14th century and is from the Old French noël or naël, itself ultimately from the Latin nātālis (diēs), “(day) of birth”. From such an extensive background arose an entire category of music: The songs we know specifically as carols were originally communal folk songs sung during celebrations such as “harvest tide” as well as Christmas. It was only later that carols began to be sung in church. Traditionally, carols have often been based on medieval chord patterns, and it is this that gives them their uniquely characteristic musical sound. Some carols like “Personent hodie“, “Good King Wenceslas“, and “The Holly and the Ivy” can be traced directly back to the Middle Ages. They are among the oldest musical compositions still regularly sung. “Adeste Fideles” (O Come all ye faithful) appears in its current form in the mid-18th century, although the words may have originated in the 13th century.
Completely secular Christmas seasonal songs emerged in the late 18th century. “Deck The Halls” dates from 1784, and the American “Jingle Bells” was copyrighted in 1857. In the 19th and 20th century, African-American spirituals and songs about Christmas, based in their tradition of spirituals, became more widely known. An increasing number of seasonal holidays songs were commercially produced in the 20th century, including jazz and blues variations. In addition, there was a revival of interest in early music, from groups singing folk music, such as The Revels, to performers of early medieval and classical music.
A special Christmas family meal is traditionally an important part of the holiday’s celebration, and the food that is served varies greatly from country to country. Some regions, such as Sicily, have special meals for Christmas Eve, when 12 kinds of fish are served. In the United Kingdom and countries influenced by its traditions, a standard Christmas meal includes turkey or goose, meat, gravy, potatoes, vegetables, sometimes bread and cider. Special desserts are also prepared, such as Christmas pudding, mince pies, and fruit cake.
In Poland and other parts of eastern Europe and Scandinavia, fish often is used for the traditional main course, but richer meat such as lamb is increasingly served. In Germany, France, and Austria, goose and pork are favored. Beef, ham, and chicken in various recipes are popular throughout the world. The Maltese traditionally serve Imbuljuta tal-Qastan, a chocolate and chestnuts beverage, after Midnight Mass and throughout the Christmas season. Slovaks prepare the traditional Christmas bread potica, bûche de Noël in France, panettone in Italy, and elaborate tarts and cakes. The eating of sweets and chocolates has become popular worldwide, and sweeter Christmas delicacies include the German stollen, marzipan cake or candy, and Jamaican rum fruit cake. As one of the few fruits traditionally available to northern countries in winter, oranges have been long associated with special Christmas foods.
All of these activities help add meaning to the holiday. Throughout a long military career, I found myself away from home and loved ones on many a Christmas Day and it was not gifts or even the food in particular that I missed, but the company of loved ones and the warmth of a home that was always there for me and everyone else in the family. It took a few years to get back into the holiday spirit after I retired, but today I look forward to the season and the comfort that it offers.
It saddens me to see the “war on Christmas” (the denial in the public square, schools, and other venue of any fragment of what is considered a specifically “Christian celebration” that might prove offensive to those who are not of the Christian faith – or without any faith at all – under the guise of “political correctness”). Make no mistake; the common goal of would-be dictators, benevolent or not, is to remake the society that they wish to rule and one of their favorite paths is to implement through ridicule and derision a planned destruction of public mores, traditions and other binding cultural ties, to be replaced by icons of their own device.
At any rate, for those who are not pleased with their perception of Christmas I would suggest that they refuse to worship at the idol of commercialism and instead focus on the spiritual and social binding ties that have helped the Christmas holiday to persevere throughout the centuries, the good and productive things that can accompany the act of giving if directed toward the less fortunate, the love and warmth that can be generated among family and friends.
You can shape your own Christmas; how it turns out is up to you.
I plan to enjoy mine.
(Acknowledgment is given to Wikipedia for a considerable amount of background information about the origin of Christmas)