Celebrating Christmas

by frankbeswick

The Christmas celebrations have layers of history in them accumulated over centuries, but also a spiritual and moral dimension.

Do we all celebrate the same Christmas festival, or do different individuals and families each celebrate their own take on the festival held in midwinter in the Northern hemisphere? For some Christmas is a religious time, for others it is a feast of self indulgence and gluttony, for others it is a family festival, and these dimensions can each occur in the same household in various combinations. There are also the symbols of Christmas, which reflect the multi-layered character of the festival, but these are not understood by all.

Image courtesy of Jo-B

A Festival With Different Layers

A few weeks ago one of Wizzley's writers, Veronica, mentioned an old Irish custom that was upheld in our family, the practice of putting a lighted candle in the window on Christmas Eve. The Christian  rationale behind this was to say to the Holy Family, who were shelterless on Christmas Eve, that they would be welcome in your house. A pleasant custom upheld by many families even now, but the Christian rationale for the custom overlays a more ancient belief, that in midwinter we celebrate the triumph of light over darkness. The darkest day of the year is the Winter Solstice, Dec 21st, and this was a time when our pagan forebears made a point of celebrating light to encourage the return of the sun. 

In fact, we have the coincidence of two distinct sacred years. There is the old pagan year, whose midwinter festival was and still is Yule, a word that is still in use, which worked on cyclic time measured by the endless cycle of the seasons, and the Christian year which works on the Jewish concept  of linear time,beginning in  Advent four weeks  before Christmas, and reaches its high point at Easter Tide, celebrating Christ's resurrection and his defeat of death. [The word Easter is itself derived from the name for a Saxon goddess]. So what we have is a Christian festival linked to an ancient pagan Spring celebration. 

The symbolism of the festivals derives from both Christian and Pagan roots. Christianity  came into a world that already had a sacred year well-institutionalized and bedded into people's lives. Moreover, the rationalistic dream of starting afresh with totally new ideas is not how life works, for we are all inheritors of the cultures into which we are born.There was in ancient symbolism much that had emotional impact and value. Nothing good should ever be lost, so the early Christians preserved not only the cycle of the sacred year, giving it their own slant, but some of the old pagan customs reintegrated into a new  system. Catholicism worked with ancient customs, it was the more puritanical versions of Protestantism that opposed and tried to suppress them. 

The Christmas tree is a case in point. As an evergreen it is presented as a sign of the eternal life brought by Christ, but in its older symbolism its evergreen character stands for the endurance of life through the cycle of the year and the time of darkness and cold. The Yule log stands for the preservation of warmth in the coldest time of the year. Holly, whose red berries stand for the sacred blood of Christ, was sacred to pagans because not only are its berries signs of life in the depth of winter, but its leaves are great animal fodder at  time when there is little for animals to eat. Mistletoe, which  to druids was a sacred symbol of fertility, never acquired a Christian meaning,but as fertility is one of the most ancient and fundamental needs of humans it never needed Christian symbolism.

Christmas in the Modern Age

Note how modern scenes are not depicted on Christmas cards. Instead we have a range of scenes varying from the nativity of Jesus, which present an idealized view of the harsh and impoverished circumstances of his birth. Maybe some angels and wise men will be present. We might see pictures of English country villages with robins,holly, mistletoe and so on, often with snowy scenes. I dislike images of Christmas snows, as Christmas time in Britain is rarely snowy, and the tradition of white Christmas derives from New England, where it is genuine and rooted in inhabitants' experience of that season. We also have imagery drawn from the Victorian Age, as the nineteenth century writer, Charles Dickens, did much to give us the modern image of the festival. But this is an idealization of a time when there was much poverty. Santa Claus of course is an old tradition, but the image of him is derived from the 1930s; and the reindeer play into the idea of the white Christmas, for Lapland is a snowy realm at that time of year. Reindeer have only been reintroduced to Britain in the last thirty years, so they are not truly integral to our traditions. 

The trouble is that modern secularism has lost the sacred year, for it has no concept of sacred time, or indeed of the sacred, and so cannot replace the sacredness that it has undermined. Indeed. secularism has stripped the world of any sacred character and lost any concept of sacred places and times, such as shrines and festivals. We place nostalgia for an idealized past in the place that the sacred once occupied. Yet the echoes or heritage of the Christian meaning of the festival still linger, for people talk of the importance of family at Christmas and recall the necessity of giving to the poor and the needy. 

What concerns me  is the commercialization of Christmas. Shops start selling for Christmas in October and I am annoyed by the blaring out of Christmas music. Businesses have been bent on turning Christmas into a festival of consumerism, and only today there was a news item that warned  that many incur debts at Christmas as they feel pressured to spend money that they have not got, so they spend on credit cards whose interest rates fleece them of money. Christmas becomes year long ordeal, and in a misgoverned land such as the UK, where poverty is rising, many people cannot afford to spend the sort of money that they are pressurized to spend. 

For some people Christmas has become a time of gluttony, yet now in our land there are people who can hardly afford food throughout the year and therefore rely on foodbanks. Maybe the cards that show  the Victorian Age make an unconscious point that our social conditions are returning to what they were then, and that's not good. 

Christmas in Moderation

When I was in my teens a schoolmate, with whom I have fortunately had no contact since the 1960s, told me that the Beswicks must be boring, as we did not get drunk at Christmas. Apparently he thought that getting drunk made him interesting.  My parents did not get drunk, and I won't be getting drunk either. Not that I will not be drinking, but on Christmas Day I  will walk home in a straight line. We always celebrated well, but without excess. 

However, there is no way in which I or my family will overspend at Christmas. We do not measure the value of a present by the excessive cost of it, so there will be no credit card or overdraft usage for Christmas presents. I do not use credit cards anyway!. My children are well socialized into the careful spending model, so they know that I do not expect expensive presents. To tell  you the truth, they tend to buy me delicacies, cheese or wine, or occasionally a book. Keeping your present spending simple means that the pressure is off and you can enjoy Christmas without concerning yourself with a bill. 

As a Christian I insist on the religious dimension of Christmas. I will go to mass, not at midnight, but on the morning of Christmas Day, for after all,it is Christ's birthday and anyway, I go every Sunday. I will make a charity donation. As I am  a pensioner I cannot make large donations, but charity to the homeless and poor is vital at all time. There will probably be a collection at church, so maybe I will donate to that. The collection may go to Caritas, the Catholic charity, or to the Saint Vincent de Paul Society, which is a charity present in all Catholic parishes. Then we will spend the Christmas period with family, with Christmas Eve at my sister's house and Christmas Day with my wife's family.

Updated: 12/06/2017, frankbeswick
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frankbeswick on 02/08/2018

Derdriu, it is always great to hear from you. Thanks for the information about the path ceremony.

Yes, we do have Black Friday, for it was imported by certain multinational companies to boost sales and others followed suit. I am not happy with the importation, as this day belongs rightly in America, where it is linked to Thanksgiving, but it has no roots in British culture or history. People go mad for bargains at the sales; and on the first black Friday a supermarket near my home had someone injured in the scrabble for bargain television sets when a part of a display tumbled onto a shopper. I refuse to shop on that day as I have to confess that I find crowded places very difficult to handle. I am too quiet a person for that kind of pressure.

DerdriuMarriner on 02/07/2018

FrankBeswick, Thank you for the time travel through Christmas now and past. The tradition of a candle in the window still exists widely throughout Massachusetts, and particularly in Boston. There's also a celebration of a path -- on the way to the inn -- flanked by paper lanterns that's part of Christmas observances in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Rudolfo Anaya has written two books about them, both of which I reviewed on Wizzley.
Do you have the equivalent of Black Friday, which on this side of the pond is the big pre-Christmas shopping day the day after Thanksgiving? It used to signal the beginning of Christmas decorations and shopping even though for the last decade they start between Labor Day and Halloween.

frankbeswick on 12/07/2017

Many churches in the UK now have a vigil mass. Where I live the situation is peaceful and there is little trouble, even at night, though occasionally drugs dealers have feuds. But the danger is drunken drivers on the roads late on Christmas Eve. I,for example, have to cross a major dual carriageway to reach church, so returning in the early hours of the morning when drunken drivers are around is risky.

blackspanielgallery on 12/06/2017

This is a very varied article, for you touch on so much.
First, pagan celebrations and symbols were altered to fit Christianity, but out of necessity. The people of ancient times would not make an entire change, so some of their culture had to endure, albeit changed from paganism.
As for snow, I often wonder how Christmas looks in Australia. There is another whole hemisphere, and even here the idea of a white Christmas is not something we can expect.
One unfortunate consequence of the times here is many parishes have abandoned Midnight Mass due to the dangers of being out so late. Instead, a vigil Mass has often taken its place. I do not know if vigil Mass, the day before Sunday of a holiday, is worldwide, or an American practice. It must start after a certain time of day, consistent with the Jewish Sabbath beginning at sundown, although the time of day often is before the sun sets..

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