Recently, I found myself tangled in a spider web of extension cords, lights and ladders. I paused, and thought about just how unlikely this has all come together. It’s kind of an amalgam of Christianity, Pagan winter solstice, good fellowship, and rabid consumerism, held together by a Madison Street marketing machine.
The Christians will tell you that this is simply the celebration of Christ’s birth some 2,000 years ago. There is much less agreement on just what historical date this was. Records are sketchy, this was B.C., and more than one calendar was in use.
Trying to figure out the date didn’t even occur to anyone until 300 years after Christ’s birth. Various dates in the winter and into the spring were suggested by calculation or verbal histories. We eventually picked Dec. 25. Christmas on May 20 would be a very different celebration, at least for us in the Northern Hemisphere!
Saint Nicholas was an actual 4th century bishop. He was a prolific miracle worker, and gave gifts to strangers. He liked to put coins in people’s shoes while they slept.
He was canonized – presumably for the miracles, not the coins – and became Saint Nicholas the wonder worker. His miracles were probably the origin of the magic associated with St. Nick. And the presents celebrate his generosity.
His appearance started its evolution with the red robes of a bishop. It’s commonly and erroneously believed that Coca Cola first popularized the visage of a modern Santa.
Actually, it came from the poet Clement Clarke Moore, who wrote: “ A Visit From St. Nicholas” in 1823. You would recognize this work by its modern name: “’Twas the Night Before Christmas” (I dare you to not mentally finish this line).
Moore seems to have spun Saint Nick and flying reindeer from whole cloth slightly less than 200 years ago. About that time the North Pole, magic elves and the naughty/nice list were added.
Of course, the Christmas tree is the most controversial symbol of Christmas. Long before the birth of Christ, a celebration of the winter solstice was well established. This celebration involved feasting, tree decorating, mistletoe, holly and a Yule log.
These all seem to have been co-opted for Christmas. This is not uncommon; we celebrate Bastille Day, and Cinco de Mayo, having co-opted the celebration, if not the reason. For the record, the winter solstice is the day that the sun is at its lowest point at noon in the southern sky.
The Christmas tree has not only been co-opted by the church, but it has been reinvented. The triangular shape is said to represent the trinity, and the star at top, the Star of Bethlehem. Interestingly enough, the Vatican got its first Christmas tree in 1982 thanks to Pope John Paul II. It wasn’t until 2005 that the tree was accepted as official Christian Christmas decoration.
Christmas is now, in addition to everything else, an economic beast that many companies depend on for their very survival. A good Christmas or a bad one has great portents for the economy. Black Friday, now a post-Thanksgiving tradition, has become the official start of Christmas shopping as a contact sport.
For many reasons, we all are willing or unwilling participants in this Christmas celebration phenomena. People for a few short weeks try to be little better human beings, and that’s not a bad thing.
Good tidings to you.
Donald Bucklin, MD (Dr. B) is a Regional Medical Director for U.S. HealthWorks and has been practicing clinical occupational medicine for more than 25 years. Dr. B. works in our Scottsdale, Arizona clinic.
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