Tuesday, December 22, 2020

How Commercialization Put The Christ In Christmas

If your most important holiday celebration is Christmas, your traditions are a product of  commercialization, not religion. This time of year we always hear things like "Remember the true meaning of Christmas." If you're a religious Christian, this means, "Christmas is the celebration of the birth of Jesus. To Hell with Santa, and reindeer, and the greed of getting things". If you're a more secular Christmas celebrator, this means, "Christmas is about togetherness, family and friends, kindness, and charity, not getting presents and frenzied shopping."

Now, personally, I'm all for this idea of focusing on togetherness and generosity, rather than getting  caught up in retail craziness. And while we're at it, why not throw the birth of  Christ in there, as well. Despite how some of his self-proclaimed followers act, he's a pretty decent fellow. But the truth is, historically, Christmas was never a terribly major holiday for Christians. The Catholic feasts were typically set up to commemorate the death of saints. As such, Good Friday and Easter, celebrating the death and resurrection of Christ, were the most important holidays on the Christian calendar. Christmas was never seen as terribly important until the early modern age.

The early Christian church tended to oppose the celebration of birthdays, viewing them as "pagan", a Roman slur once used to denote rural types, akin to the modern "hillbilly", "hick", or "backwater". As Christianity became the popular craze of the Roman Empire, traditional religions practiced by conservative rural types were referred to as "pagan" religions. When Emperor Theodosius I banned the practice of "pagan" religions, traditions associated with those religions became heretical to the Roman church. Thus, the idea of celebrating a birthday was a bit "iffy", and there was no celebration to commemorate the birth of Christ for quite some time.

At some point in the 200s, December 25th became set as the official date of the birth of Christ, on the Roman calendar. Some scholars believe that this was done to overide the pre-existing December 25th solstice holiday, dies solis invicti nati, or "Day of the unconquered sun" paying homage to the birth of the sun god Mithra, in celebration of longer days leading into Spring. Other scholars, however, dispute this. It was not until the 9th century, however, under a later generation of Roman Catholicism, that this date was organized into a liturgical celebration. It was not, however, seen as a particularly major holiday, as the importance revolved around Easter.

Throughout Europe, Christmas became a part of pre-existing Winter traditions, such as Yule, where families would decorate their homes with evergreens to remind them of the green seasons, while enduring the dreary winter seasons.

In the 4th century, December 6th became the feast of St. Nicholas. This day was commemorated by gift giving, as the Saint in question was said to give gifts to children, or gold to poor families, depending on the tradition. St. Nicholas Day, Christmas, and Yule all became a part of the Winter festivals. After the protestant reformation, protestant cultures, such as England, which do not commemorate Saints, merged the traditions of St. Nicholas Day with Christmas. In Holland, the Dutch shortened "Sint Nikolaas" to "Sinter Klaas", which was later Americanized into "Santa Claus"

After the American Revolution, Christmas, seen as an English holiday, fell out of popularity in the U.S. It wasn't until the late 1800s that the idea of the old Christmas traditions started to gain appeal in the U.S. Stories such as "A Christmas Carol", popularized Christmas as a time of gift giving and charity, and "Twas the Night Before Christmas", cemented the idea of Santa, presents, and Christmas trees as Christmas staples. 

Into the 20th century, with the emergence of  technology, businesses began to capitalize on the holiday, by emphasizing the buying of presents, decorations, cards, and treats, making it the hottest retail season. Every western child came to dream of the presents they wanted, looking at catalogues, seeing commercials, making lists, and  anticipated unwrapping those presents on Christmas morning. And when they grew up, they wanted their children to have that same experience. Thus, Christmas supplanted New Year's in the Western world as the biggest cultural holiday of the year.

With the rise of Christmas, and the cementation of Christmas, and its associated commercialism as a Cultural tradition, it became common for people to re-examine the "true and accurate" meaning of Christmas. It's become a great time to examine ourselves, and weigh our values of charity and kindness, vs greed and retail hype. However, its ironic that this time would not exist as it does now, without that commercial hype we're examining ourselves apart from.


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