“But I am sure that I have always thought of Christmas time, when it has come ‘round…as a good time, a kind, forgiving, charitable, pleasant time; the only time I know of, in the long calendar of the year, when men and women seem by one consent to open their shut-up hearts freely.”

Charles Dickens

 

 

The True Meaning of Christmas

Per Wikipedia, the "true meaning of Christmas" is a phrase with a long history in American pop culture. It first appears in the mid-19th century, and is often given vaguely religious overtones, suggesting that the "true meaning of Christmas" is the celebration of the Nativity of Christ. But in pop culture usage, overt religious references are mostly avoided, and the "true meaning" is taken to be a sort of introspective and benevolent attitude as opposed to the commercialization of Christmas which has been lamented since at least the 1850s. The poem A Visit From St. Nicholas (1822) helped popularize the tradition of exchanging gifts, and seasonal Christmas shopping began to assume economic importance. An early expression of this sentiment using the phrase of "the true meaning" is found in The American magazine, vol. 28 (1889):

"to give up one's very self — to think only of others — how to bring the greatest happiness to others — that is the true meaning of Christmas".

The phrase is especially associated with Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol (1843), in which an old miser is taught the true meaning of Christmas by three ghostly visitors who review his past and foretell his future.

The topic was taken up by satirists such as Stan Freberg and Tom Leher during the 1950s and eventually by the influential TV special A Charlie Brown Christmas, first aired in 1965 and repeated every year since. The phrase and the associated moral became used as a theme in numerous Christmas films since the 1960s.

 

As you gather with family and friends to celebrate this year, take time to think about the origins of some of the traditions of Christmas.

  • Santa Claus – his story begins in the 4th century with St. Nicholas, the Bishop of Myra (an area in modern day Turkey). St. Nicholas was known to be a generous man especially devoted to children. Because he was so kind and benevolent, rumors began that he could perform miracles.  He became the patron saint of Russia and was known for his red cape and flowing, white beard. He has his own feast day that is celebrated on December 6…a day of gift giving and charity. The story of St. Nicholas was passed down through generations and his name transformed over time. The Dutch called him Sinterklaas. Dutch children would leave their wooden shoes by the fireplace and Sinterklaas would reward good children by placing treats in their shoes. This tradition traveled to America with Dutch colonists and here the Anglican name of Santa Claus emerged.
  • Christmas Trees – the decorating of fir trees originated in 16th century Germany where trees would be adorned with apples, roses, candies and colored paper.  The Christmas tree was brought to England by Queen Victoria’s husband, Prince Albert, from his native Germany.  The first Christmas trees in America were introduced by Pennsylvania Germans and became popular by the middle of the 19th century.
  • Mistletoe – mistletoe was used by Druid priests 200 years before the birth of Christ in their winter celebrations. They held the plant in high esteem because it had no roots, yet remained green throughout the winter season.  The ancient Celts thought that the plant had magical healing powers. It was also seen as a symbol of peace and it was said that when enemies met under mistletoe, they would lay down their weapons and embrace. Scandinavians associated the plant with Frigga, the goddess of love. This is perhaps where the custom of kissing under the mistletoe began.  It is thought that those who kiss under the mistletoe have the promise of happiness and good luck in the year to come.
  • The Christmas Wreath – The Christmas wreath is another tradition that has been around for a long time.  The first wreaths were created from fresh evergreens. Because they are green year round they were the obvious choice for winter months.  The word “wreath” is derived from an English word meaning “to twist”, such as in a circle.  Some believe that initially wreathes were hung on doors in Ancient Rome to represent victory.  The circle shape with no beginning or end represents eternity or life never ending.

While celebrating with these ancient traditions and with your own family traditions this year, may you be surrounded by peace and joy.