Tag Archives: Nativity

History Undusted: Santa & the Traditions of Christmas

Known as Sinterklaas, Father Christmas, Kris Kringle, Saint Nick / Nicholas, Père Noel, Papa Noel, Babbo Natale, Weihnachtsmann, Christkind, and many other names, Santa has been around in various versions and various cultures for roughly 1,300 years, as a character associated with Christmas and gift-giving. As such, it would be impossible to pinpoint exactly when and where the original basis for the legends began. Saint Nicholas was a 4th-century Greek Christian bishop of Myra (in modern-day Turkey). He became the patron saint of sailors, and so it is quite possible that his kindness to the poor inspired sea-faring men to spread the ideals of his charitable acts to other places. As time passed, facts gave way to tall tales and legends, and the rest, as they say, is history.

Christmas stockings have been around for centuries as well; the story goes that a widower with three daughters was worried about them being unable to marry as he had no money for their dowries. Nicholas heard of their plight and, knowing that the father would never accept charity, tossed three bags of gold in through an open window one night; the girls had hung their stockings by the fireplace to dry, and one of the bags landed in a stocking. How much of that is based on historical facts and how much is legend is a balance lost to time.

The modern-day image of Santa, with his rotund belly and his red coat, was  popularized by Thomas Nast, an American illustrator for the Harper Weekly, in the 1860s. Nast, being a German immigrant, based his images on the German Weihnachtsmann and Sankt Nicholaus. Before his illustration, Father Christmas was portrayed as wearing any colour coat, from tan and fur-lined, to pink or purple, brown, grey, white, green or blue, and sometimes even red. [It is a myth that a 1933 Coca-Cola advertising campaign is to thank for a red-cloaked Santa.]

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I could go on and on about the traditions associated with Christmas – the tree, the ornaments, the yule log, Santa’s helpers, reindeer (or was it a motorcycle, blimp or plane?) and other practices that are spread wherever Christmas is celebrated. It’s a holiday that’s been adopted in countries that have no Christian roots, such as Asian countries; there, it could be seen as an excuse for a holiday, or as a marketing ploy. And maybe that’s what it’s become for many people even in the West; but all of these traditions put people in a contemplative, forgiving, generous spirit, which is perhaps the most important aspect of the holiday.

Just as the nativity scene [please click on the link to read about Christmas from a Christian aspect] was a simplified version of the Gospel, created by St. Francis of Assissi to explain events to a largely illiterate population and to counter what he felt was a growing commercialism associated with the holiday (and that, back in 1223!), so it is that many traditions arise over the centuries, often a grain of truth with things then tacked on over the years and through cultural adaptations.  Santa’s legend has grown into what we know today, likely not by leaps and bounds, but by a progressive adaptation to cultural times.

However you celebrate Christmas, whether you’re alone or with too many people for your liking, remember that all of us have the capacity to bless others; as the adage goes, it is more blessed to give than to receive. If you don’t have anyone in your life presently to give gifts to, remember, like Saint Nicholas, the poor and the needy. We can all make a difference, and who knows – maybe in a thousand years, your name will be mentioned alongside his.

Merry Christmas!

Christmas GIF 2

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Merry Christmas!

Christmas Story

For me, Christmas has never been about the commercialism or the food or the decorations; we do things low-key here in Switzerland, though we do decorate and exchange gifts.  It’s about family, time together, specific gifts that the receiver wanted or needed (not just purchases to stuff the stocking or load the base of the tree).  As a Christian, the true meaning of Christmas has nothing to do with Santa or sitting around a dead tree in the living room eating candy out of socks.  It has to do with the single greatest event in the history of humanity, which was simultaneously a “non-event”… nothing like the people of the times had been expecting, and so most of them missed it altogether.  Those who have ears to hear, or eyes to see, will hear and see; those who don’t, or who choose to remain deaf and blind, will do so; it’s that simple.  So it is that many people today repeat history and miss the point of Christmas altogether.  They get bogged down in materialism, commercialism, superficiality or social pressures of one form or another, and forget about the historical and spiritual aspects of the holiday.

Personally, we will continue to celebrate Christmas with a Christmas tree, gifts, Christmas music and time together with loved ones, all the while remembering the true Reason for the Season, for the greatest demonstration of sacrificial love next to the act of Jesus’s obedience to the point of the crucifixion:  That of coming to Earth in the vulnerable form of a baby, born into a family with no status, no wealth and no social power, becoming a human in order to identify with us in every way, and to eventually pay the ultimate price on our behalf so that, if we accept what Jesus did for us on the cross, we can know him intimately – on the deepest level of connection possible to humans in our limitations of time and space:  That of the heart, the soul, the mind, and the spirit.  The more I think about it, the more mind-boggling it is; the events that we celebrate at Christmas were set in motion for you and for me.  It’s that simple.

I wish you all a Merry Christmas, and a Blessed New Year!

Chalkboard - Christmas 1

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The History of the Nativity & Christmas

nativity - by Giotto di Bondone (1267-1337)In 1223, in Greccio, Italy, Saint Francis of Assisi is accredited with creating the first Nativity Scene.  We tend to think of commercialism and materialism as a modern disease, but in fact, Francis created that display to be a visual reminder of what Christmas was all about, and to counter what he felt was a growing emphasis on secular materialism and gift-giving.  It was to be a day of celebration and worship of thanks to God for what he had inaugurated through the birth of the prophesied Messiah, Jesus.

When we think of a modern nativity scene, we think of a few elements as standard:  Shepherds, Jesus in a wooden manger of straw, three kings, angels, and cattle and donkeys and sheep.  In fact, the stable was more likely a cave or a small hand-dug dugout, a shelter for animals in cold weather or raids, and perhaps a place to store surplus grains or foodstuffs.  The manger was a feeding trough, much like modern feeding troughs found on small farms.  The shepherds “watching the flocks by night”  tells us that it was likely in spring or summer in that region; the day we celebrate as Christmas was adopted throughout Western Europe in the fourth century.  Imagine the scenario:  Rome had called for a census of the entire region, turning everything on its head as everyone was required to travel to their ancestral homes, including businessmen like Joseph, and innkeepers as well.  Hundreds of people descended en masse onto sleepy little villages unequipped with beds or food to cope with them all.  Perhaps Joseph had tried at several places in Bethlehem; perhaps there was only one Bed & Breakfast in the entire village; turned away, they headed back to the stable to get their donkey, and uh, “Wait!  The baby’s coming!”

The kings were actually Magi, likely a caste of scientists and astronomers, from the “east” – i.e. east of Israel, which could have made them Asian, Indian, Caucasian, or even African.  There were not three, but rather three gifts:  Gold, Frankincense and Myrrh.  In reality, their number might have been more like a small army:  They would not have travelled such a distance with the quantities of gifts fit not only for a king but representing their own importance, as well as the honour they wished to bestow on this new king, without protection!  The Bible records that King Herod and all Jerusalem were disturbed by their presence and the reason for their journey (Matthew 2).  The three gifts offered by the Magi were very symbolic:  Gold was a symbol of kingship, the wealth of the earth.  It is one of the only metals that, when heated, loses none of its nature, weight or colour, but allows impurities to surface.  It is used to symbolize faith and the process of refinement.  Frankincense represents priesthood and divinity.  It was familiar to most people in the ancient world, used in religious ceremonies.  Myrrh, unlike sweet Frankincense, is bitter.  It was used as a resin in a spice mixture used to embalm the dead and was symbolic of Jesus’ purpose in coming:  His death, burial and resurrection.  It makes an appearance both at the beginning and the end of Jesus’ life on earth.  It was used medicinally as a painkiller (often dissolved in wine) which is the reason Jesus refused to drink it on the cross (Mark 15:23).  And note that the Magi did not show up at the manger in Bethlehem, but by the time they’d travelled that far and found Jesus, he was a child, and Mary and Joseph had set up house (Matthew 2:11).

ichthus

ICHTHYS

Let’s address one more historical topic:  Xmas.  Many people think it’s a modern attempt to “X” Christ from Christmas; but in fact, it is just the opposite, historically-speaking.  The X is the first letter of the Greek word Χριστός which comes into English translated as “Christ.” and such abbreviated references date back as far as the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, 1021.  Even further back, ΙΧΘΥΣ (Ichthys) was an acronym meaning “Jesus Christ, God’s Son, Saviour” used by ancient Christians.  It is often placed within the symbol of a fish, as Jesus called his disciples to become “fishers of men.”  Ichthyology is the study of fish, reflecting the Greek connection for the use of the symbol.

Modern Nativity scenes represent a condensed version of a historical event (there is, after all, more historical evidence for Jesus’ birth, life, death and resurrection than many other events in history people accept as fact); so the next time you see one, think about the significance, the reason for its inception by St. Francis of Assisi in the first place, and the Reason for the season.

Merry Christmas!  Or, Merry Xmas!

Originally posted on History Undusted, December

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