Celebrating Christmas

It seems to me….

Christmas is not a time nor a season, but a state of mind. To cherish peace and goodwill, to be plenteous in mercy, is to have the real spirit of Christmas.” ~ Calvin Coolidge[1].

While they differ substantially, all families typically share some traditional way in which they celebrate end of year holidays whether as Christmas, Kwanzaa, Hanukkah, the winter solstice, or in some other manner. Though varied based on geography, religion, family history, etc., the one aspect that unites and brings them together is the desire to spend time with those they love. The holidays are a special time for some, perhaps the only time all year they get to see other family members. As children, spouses of children, and grandchildren arrive, those traditions necessarily evolve to accommodate additional participants and customs.

Having been raised as a Christian, most of the following remarks will address the observance of Christmas though this should not be misconstrued as advocating its celebration rather than any holiday enjoyed by others.

There is not any “true meaning” of Christmas – rather, there are as many meanings as there are people. It is a time which can be many things. For some, it may be a time to

decorate the home, to revel, or even for licentious behavior and overindulgence. The Christmas season is extremely commercialized and to some it is a time to capitalize on the occasion. For many, it is time to practice the custom of exchanging gifts. For still others, it is a time for family and friends to get together and share one another’s company. For many, Christmas is a way of life; a way to worship God; a religious holiday or season. For many Christians, it is the season to celebrate and commemorate the birth of Christ.

There isn’t any biblical entreaty for mankind to commemorate the birth of Christ. In fact, observance of birthdays by early Christians was condemned as a pagan practice; it was considerable sinful even to contemplate observing Jesus’ birthday. It is not known who originated the observance as Christmas. It definitely was not observed at the time of the Apostles; in fact, the earliest historical record of its celebration was around 336 A.D.

Originally there were many pagan festivals coinciding with the winter solstice. Northern European tribes celebrated their chief festival of Yule to commemorate the rebirth of the Sun. The Romans celebrated Saturnalia (December 17th) in honor of Saturn, the god of agriculture. There were followers in Rome of the Persian god Mithra, Sun of righteousness, whose birth date (December 25th) was known as the “Birthday of the invincible Sun”. Mesopotamians performed rituals to their god Marduk. Greeks offered sacrifices to their chief god Zeus.

The Christmas tree, including varieties other than fir such as pine or oak, were worshiped as a symbol of eternal life. Some scholars trace the origin of the modern Christmas tree back to the eighth century when Boniface, an English missionary, erected a fir tree. Some date the modern tree back to the sixteenth century coming out of Germany.

Mistletoe also is derived from pagan practices – believed to have magical powers or properties – and burned as a sacrifice on an altar. The custom of kissing under the mistletoe evolved from enemies meeting under it, dropping their weapons, and embracing one another.

Evergreen holly was also worshiped by pagans as a promise of the Sun’s return. Druids considered it a fertility symbol with the red berries representing menstrual blood. Legends surrounding holly include the belief that it might have been used as the crown of thorns placed on Christ’s head. Legend holds that the berries were initially white but turned red when the blood of Christ fell from his head onto the berries, all leading to the origin of the Christmas wreath.

In the fourth century, Christians began celebrating Christmas in an attitude and manner similar to how pagans celebrated the winter solstice: with much impiousness and intoxication. The observance and merrymaking of early Christmas, where reveling would go on for days or weeks, has been considerably ameliorated since then as a result of Protestant influence. When Puritans came to power in England in 1642, celebration of Christmas was even declared illegal.

Pleasant memories of family gatherings are constructed from being together and the accumulation of shared experiences. But such encounters do not always ensue as desired.

Distances or other commitments frequently prevent some family members from participating every year; e.g., husbands and wives might wish to alternate years between their respective families. It might not always be only immediate family members as many include close friends without family or relatives for them to visit. Any Christmas-related travel can quickly become objectionable: weather, crowded airports, construction, traffic delays, accidents… making the journey substantially less than pleasant.

Whenever families gather, whether for holidays or other special occasions, it is generally expected that any personal animosities remain unexpressed for the duration of the event. Parents always hope siblings will remain best of friends but similar to any other comparable grouping, some will remain closer than others – marriage, life choices, education, etc. – the causes differ. Hopefully, as progenies age, the bond once shared as young children will once again emerge.

Problems can partly originate from the additional demands Christmas imposes on everyone’s already limited spare time and other resources. Christmas always is a good excuse for a family gathering but it unfortunately also has an implied expectation of an exchange of gifts, at least among immediate family members. Only rarely, possibly just for young children, does anyone normally have any idea of what to get for even those very well known.

The tradition of exchanging gifts at what is now Christmas is another ancient custom derived from pagan celebrations predating the start of Christianity. The impossibility of finding appropriate gifts for those on one’s gift list only adds to the frustration.

Frequently gifts are either something one would like for themselves (but not necessarily by the recipient), food items (which may or may not be eaten), or some last-minute desperation purchase no one really wants and will be quickly discarded. Just because the giver likes something doesn’t mean anyone else will. Even if given a specific suggestion (request), it is quite probable that it will not be exactly what was desired. Clothing is essentially impossible to buy for someone else – it normally will be the wrong size, color, style, etc. Most people are tired of receiving gifts that have little to do with their needs, interests, or style but the tradition persists.

Gift vouchers or gift cards might seem practical and sensible but are not “Christmassy” and do not provide any of the joy normally associated with Christmas. Most people hate either giving or receiving any kind of voucher or gift card. Regardless of how much thought might have been put into them (or rationalization about how they allow the receiver to get whatever they really want), they always seem indifferent and uninteresting.

Christmas for many is also a time of generosity and sharing whether it is just throwing a few coins into a Salvation Army bell ringer’s bucket or the giving of one’s time and effort when they could be warm and comfortable at home.

Regardless of how you choose to celebrate the holidays, may they bring health, wealth, love, and happiness.

That’s what I think, what about you?


[1] Calvin Coolidge was a Republican lawyer and politician who served as the 30th U.S. President. Born in Vermont, he was active in Massachusetts state politics eventually being elected governor.

About lewbornmann

Lewis J. Bornmann has his doctorate in Computer Science. He became a volunteer for the American Red Cross following his retirement from teaching Computer Science, Mathematics, and Information Systems, at Mesa State College in Grand Junction, CO. He previously was on the staff at the University of Wisconsin-Madison campus, Stanford University, and several other universities. Dr. Bornmann has provided emergency assistance in areas devastated by hurricanes, floods, and wildfires. He has responded to emergencies on local Disaster Action Teams (DAT), assisted with Services to Armed Forces (SAF), and taught Disaster Services classes and Health & Safety classes. He and his wife, Barb, are certified operators of the American Red Cross Emergency Communications Response Vehicle (ECRV), a self-contained unit capable of providing satellite-based communications and technology-related assistance at disaster sites. He served on the governing board of a large international professional organization (ACM), was chair of a committee overseeing several hundred worldwide volunteer chapters, helped organize large international conferences, served on numerous technical committees, and presented technical papers at numerous symposiums and conferences. He has numerous Who’s Who citations for his technical and professional contributions and many years of management experience with major corporations including General Electric, Boeing, and as an independent contractor. He was a principal contributor on numerous large technology-related development projects, including having written the Systems Concepts for NASA’s largest supercomputing system at the Ames Research Center in Silicon Valley. With over 40 years of experience in scientific and commercial computer systems management and development, he worked on a wide variety of computer-related systems from small single embedded microprocessor based applications to some of the largest distributed heterogeneous supercomputing systems ever planned.
This entry was posted in Christianity, Christmas, Christmas, Druid, England, Family, Friends, Gift Card, Greece, Greece, Jesus, Jesus Christ, Kwanza, Marduk, Marduk, Mesopotamia, Mithra, Mithra, Pagan, Persia, Romans, Rome, Salvation Army, Saturnalia, Traditions, Travel, Winter Solstice, Yule and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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