Monday, December 06, 2004


The Reason for the Season

Ah, Christmas. The ancient solstice holiday, celebrated for some 5000 years now (about the time the world started warming up enough to allow civilizations to begin flourishing). The Romans called it Saturnalia, celebrating Saturn, their god of agriculture. The early Christians disapproved and tried hard to stamp it out. Even after the Emperor Constantine made Christianity official in 325 A.D., however, the celebrating went on; so, under the principle of "if you can't beat 'em, join 'em," the Christians moved Christ's birthday to Dec. 25th in 336 A.D., overlaying religious significance on to the existing festivities.

"Sinterklaas" or Santa Claus is of course the symbolic embodiment of Nicholas, Bishop of Myra, later sainted, who evidently took Christ's words about poverty to heart (take that, Pat Robertson!) and gave away his fortune to help those in need. In the 1800s, St. Nick made a house visit on Christmas Eve and scared the children witless, and it was the Christ child who snuck in during the night to leave gifts behind. But gradually Santa took over both tasks. Oh, and one more detail about old Nick: Charmingly, it was believed that a gooey liquid substance that formed in St. Nicholas's grave had magic healing properties. Oh, yum! Gimme some of that good stuff!

The tradition of a gift-giving Santa Claus associated with Christmas began about 1800, give or take, as a "new tradition" sponsored by the New York Historical society, with details (such as the flying sleigh) helpfully supplied by Washington Irving, the writer of Rip Van Winkle. But until the later 1800s "St. Nick" was a bearded holy man, who might or might not be portly, whose robes might be dark green or purple and were only sometimes fur-rimmed--or perhaps entirely made of fur. The familiar fat, jovial Santa Claus dressed all in red with white fur trim and boots and belt was given form in the 1830s by Thomas Nast, and gradually assumed his familiar look over the next century until he had become all but standardized by the 1920s. He was rendered into final form by an artist named Haddon Sundblom for a series of Coca-Cola advertisements in the 1930s.

...Which is appropriate, because Christmas is, of course, no longer the celebration of the solstice, but of retail sales--the state of which are breathlessly reported on television in the U.S. as the season progresses. Christian churches still insist on elbowing in with a "birthday" celebration for their "king," but apart from having been sanctified by long practice, the connection is, or was originally, fraudulent.

So when someone tells you to "remember the reason for the season," regard the tepid winter sun pale and wan and low in the sky and think to yourself, "Right--shortest day of the year."

But don't say it out is, after all, the holidays, and you wouldn't want to be a Scrooge about it.

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