Toys, Christmas Trees, presents, figgy pudding… This is what Christmas is all about…. Back up…what?!? This is what Christmas is all about? Let’s rewind a bit to how the celebration of Christmas came to be. Bear with me as I lay out a little bit of the history of Christmas…
*Disclaimer, if the history bores you I will put a skip to bottom link at the end of each paragraph that will bring you to the “blog” section of this post, but I encourage you to read the history. I will say that I was really surprised at how Christmas came to be! I also want to apologize if I may have gotten a few of the details wrong. I spent 3-4 hours over the past couple days researching this, and did my best to piece together the crazy amount of history that I found on Christmas in a way that was easy to understand…but it is a bit confusing!* (Skip To Bottom)
Here we go… In the days before Jesus was born, the middle of winter was a time of celebration throughout the world. Although different regions and countries celebrated different festivals, in Rome they celebrated a holiday called Saturnalia to honor Saturn the god of agriculture. This was celebrated beginning on December 17 and ending on December 25th. All the schools and businesses were closed so everyone was able to join the fun! (Skip To Bottom)
Beginning in the week leading up to the winter solstice and continuing for a full month, Saturnalia was a hedonistic time, when food and drink were plentiful and the normal Roman social order was turned upside down. For a month, slaves would become masters. Peasants were in command of the city. Business and schools were closed so that everyone could join in the fun. In addition members of the upper class often celebrated the birth of Mithra, the god of the unconquerable sun, on December 25th. For many, his birthday was the most sacred day of the year. (Skip To Bottom)
In the early years of Christianity, Jesus’ birth was not celebrated, but in the fourth century church officials began to celebrate the birth of Christ as a holiday. Although His birth was likely in the spring, Pope Julius I chose December 25th to celebrate. It is believed this date was chosen in effort to adopt the traditions of the pagan festival Saturnalia. By holding it on this day it probably also increased the chances of Christmas becoming a thing. The custom began spreading throughout the world beginning with Egypt in 432, then England, and by the eight century it had spread to Scandinavia. It happened to be that this time of year was the perfect time to celebrate Christmas because of all of the celebrations going on at that time. If this sounds confusing … it is… and the more I searched, the more complicated the story got. (Skip To Bottom)
It wasn’t until the 19th century that Americans began to embrace Christmas, but changed the traditions to a more family focused day of peace and nostalgia.
So where did the tradition of giving gifts come from?
Before Christianity spread in Rome, despised citizens were compelled by the emperor ‘to bring offerings and gifts during the Saturnalia and another celebration called Kalends. This eventually expanded to include gift giving among the public. The Catholic Church re-rooted this in the gift giving set out by Saint Nicholas, and gave it a Christian feel. St. Nicholas was born in Asia Minor in the third century to wealthy parents. They were devout Christians, but died in an epidemic while Nicholas was still a young boy. Being obedient to the words of Jesus (“sell all you own and give to the poor”), Nicholas used all of his inheritance to help the poor, needy, and helpless. Many stories and legends have been told of the life of St. Nicholas and the people that he helped, but one famous story tells of a poor man with three daughters who he was about to sell into slavery. In those days the daughters father had to offer dowries to prospective husbands, and without the dowries, the daughter would likely not marry, and likely be sold into slavery. However, mysteriously bags of gold appeared in their home, providing enough money for the dowries. These bags of gold were said to have been thrown through a window landing in stockings, which lead to the tradition of hanging stockings on the mantle. He had a reputation as being the protector of children, and apparently as time went on, if anyone got a secret gift, it was said to be from St. Nicholas. (Skip To Bottom)
So how did the legend of St. Nicholas turn into the Santa we know today?
After a while the stories and traditions of St. Nicholas died out. However the Dutch who settled in America brought the tradition of St. Nicholas (known to them as Sinter Klaus) and they eventually Americanized him to the Santa Clause we know today.
So what does any of this have to do with my blog?
I had never really heard the full story of St. Nicholas before. But for some reason, this year I looked into who he was, and why he became so famous. As far as I knew, he was some made up character that children believe in. What I found was more inspirational than I ever imagined, and got me thinking that we have Christmas a bit backwards. His life is a model for compassion and caring for those who are in need, and his life inspires a spiritual aspect of giving. Not saying that traditions and getting your family gifts is a bad thing, but Christmas can be so much more if we really take hold of the words of Jesus and give to those in need.
Sometimes Mike and I are not good at keeping tabs on our bank account. That usually is not a good thing around Christmas time, especially if we both do Christmas shopping in the same week. Well last year, after a morning of shopping for ingredients to make Christmas cookies I ran into an old friend from grade school. We got to talking, and she really desired to give her children a good life, but struggled financially. After wishing her well, Charlie and I went to Toys R Us where I could get him some stocking stuffers, and a few other things for Christmas. In line, I decided that I was pretty tired and got myself a bottle Pepsi for a late morning caffeine boost. While trying to pay, my card was declined. It was a little frustrating because I had left my phone in the car, because I didn’t think I would need it. So I had to go back out to my car to call Mike to transfer money for me. Not a big deal, but not easy either with a 6 month old. As I was walking back in the store, I received an email receipt from Toys R Us on my phone. I was really confused because my payment didn’t go through, so I shouldn’t have gotten a receipt. But when I got up to the register the cashier said that the guy behind me had paid for my items. I cried. I cried because it was not a cheap bill… not crazy… but not cheap. I cried because we didn’t need the money… we had just made a little mistake by not keeping tabs on our account (and when I looked at our account, our account had only been short $1. The Pepsi) He didn’t know that. He also didn’t know that because of his act of kindness, he really did help a family in need… the family of my friend from grade school.
I encourage you this Christmas season to be more like St. Nicholas. Don’t miss opportunities to help someone in need. Many of us have so much. Much more than we really need. Let’s care for those around us and in the midst of our family gatherings and traditions… give this Christmas away.