My life stories · The stories we share

Christmas Mash-up

I hope you are all enjoying the Christmas festivities! Building holiday traditions with my family makes me happy. This year our only decoration is a tiny Charlie Brown tree with many ornaments from my dear Grammy, made more dear with her passing years ago. Christmas music is a must. At some point, I will be making ‘gingerbread’ graham cracker houses with my kids. Gulp. Please send help.

What I have wanted to do for a couple of years now is do a little reading up on the origins of Christmas celebrations. Refill your cocao mug and light an evergreen candle, because this is gonna be fun.

As with most everything, most of the traditions we enjoy today during Christmas come from a variety of sources. A Christmas mash-up, in fact. Saturnalia, an ancient Roman winter celebration, is one of the biggest contributors, from which we generally acknowledge that feasting with friends and family, gift-giving and revelry started out. During these celebrations, children would be given some adult freedoms (like being served at the table) and servants and noblemen traded places. Evergreen boughs were decorated with gold ornaments, since gold represented the sun god Saturn, the festival’s namesake.

I found this one piece of information that I haven’t been able to turn up anywhere else, so take this with a grain of salt: one ancient culture believed that in order to secure their gods’ favor for another year, their king had to die. Every year, in the darkest of winter, a prisoner was chosen to act on behalf of the king-you know, to save on yearly coronation costs. The prisoner would be dressed and treated as the king. At the end of the ceremony, he would be killed instead of the king. (I kind of got chills just writing that.). Thus, it was believed that the god would hold off the powers of darkness, keeping the people safe for another year.

Anyone know anything else about this? And anyone else kind of glad we don’t celebrate winter traditions this way any more? Me too.

Then there are the German and Celtic origins of the Christmas tree. And Krampus, Santa Claus’s evil counterpart, who appears to have been absorbed and stripped of his evil behavior in most of the Western world. Although, he does appear to be making a comeback. My sister saw him in a street parade. Oh, yes. Krampus has his own street parades. Before there was Elf on the Shelf, there was Bundle of Sticks in the House, by which children were motivated to good behavior for fear of being beaten by the demon-like creature who shimmied down chimneys during Christmas time.

The early church decided to strip Saturnalia of its merriment (that often included orgies) and gift-giving, claiming that Jesus’ birthday was actually December 25th and that the Romans should stop their festivities now, thank you very much. Never mind that Jesus’ birth had originally been celebrated on January 6th.

Anyway, here we are today. I celebrate Christ’s birth and sing carols that remind me of his incarnation. That’s very important to me, and it is year-round as well as during December. I’m also glad that the early demands to stop gift-giving didn’t stick, that I don’t *have* to tie up bundles of sticks to scare my children into good behavior for fear of Krampus, and that prisoners are not killed on behalf of rulers for the sake of winter festivals. Call me crazy, but celebrating Jesus’ birth doesn’t prevent me from slapping some crackers together with icing and calling it a yearly tradition.

Ah, holidays. Christmas. It is what you make it.

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