Christmas, Winterval or Saturnalia? What is this burst of festivity in the deep mid-winter? Christ’s birthday? Only in the same sense that the Queen of England has an official birthday in June. Jesus of Nazareth was most probably born in September or October. The 25 December was hijacked by the early church as a peg to hang a Christian festival onto, and to try to calm some of the orgies and revelry of the Saturnalia by giving it a Christian label. We seem to have reverted to the original feast, plus a few more pagan customs.
What have modern Christmas celebrations in a country like England to do with the birth of the Messiah? The traditional greeting is “Merry Christmas”. Asked for associations with Christmas, most people will list Christmas trees, presents, Santa Claus, turkey with all the trimmings, holly and mistletoe, boozy parties, mince pies and Christmas pudding, snow, robins, tinsel and Christmas lights, candles, reindeer, fairies and cherubic angels. Maybe way down on the list, there will be a baby in a manger, a star and a choir of angels, possibly even carols although for some people I know carols include Rudolf the Red-nosed Reindeer, Jingle Bells, and I’m dreaming of a White Christmas. Others, which truly do carry the Christian message, are often sung with no thought for the meaning of the words just because they are old familiar melodies and nostalgia is strong at this time of year. Or they are jazzed up out of all recognition. My family still chuckle over my father’s reaction to Mariah Carey’s version of Silent Night many years ago: I think the terms used were “bellyache” and “murder”.
At the beginning of Advent I happened to be in Florida, where they continue with all the traditional paraphernalia listed above, plus enormous inflatable snowmen, Santas, reindeer and angels, with strings of lights wound around the trunks of the palm trees. It struck me as incongruous to see Santa driving his sleigh through the palm trees, and I preferred a variation on this theme that showed him in a boat being pulled by dolphins. Then I stopped to ponder on this, and apart from the fact that Santa Claus or Father Christmas has nothing to do with Christ’s nativity, I realised that palm trees are actually far more appropriate to Christmas than fir trees.
It’s the time of year when some who never think about faith or religion the rest of the time do actually attend a church service or read the story of the nativity from the Gospel of Luke or Matthew, again out of nostalgia, as a pleasant fairytale or myth. I will never forget a black African preacher who shocked a gathering of such folk at a carol-singing event a few years ago by linking Christmas with Easter in his message, and presented a hell-fire call for repentance. They wanted “Peace on earth to men of goodwill”, and several complained afterwards, saying they’d never come again. What they had heard upset them: it was the real message of Christmas.
Am I a Scrooge-like curmudgeon, muttering, “Bah! Humbug!” as I watch the rest of the community revelling? I don’t think so. I have already been to two very jolly carol-singing events where I participated enthusiastically. On 25 December I shall join in with the rest of the family, exchange presents, enjoy a wonderful traditional Christmas dinner with a couple of glasses of wine, maybe watch the Queen’s speech if someone remembers to turn on the telly in time, then try to find space for a mince pie and a piece of Christmas cake afterwards. And be very thankful to have a family, especially one made up of such lovely and lovable people. That is, after all, part of the blessing of Christmas.