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February 27, 2021

The Christmas story: a gift of giving and love

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Christmas is the celebration of the birth of the Jewish political activist, preacher, and messiah Yeshua ben Youssef, aka Jesus. So what has the fat man in the red suit got to do with it? Like the bunny with chocolate eggs, Santa Claus shares Christmas with Jesus (a talented out-sourcer of holidays), and just like the Easter Bunny, Santa was around long before Jesus.

Ancient Pagans celebrated the winter solstice with carols and mistletoe and gifts. They believed that the god Woden/Odin flew across the sky on solstice night with ravens who listened at chimneys to find out who’d been good or bad – and good children got presents. Sound familiar?

Ancient Rome celebrated the winter solstice festival, dedicated to the sun god Sol Invictus, on December 25. The carnival atmosphere of Saturnalia was a time for feasting, promiscuity, and gift-giving.

When Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire in 313 AD, the sun god festival was re-allocated to celebrate the birth of Jesus (the Light of the World), giving us the enduring date of December 25 for his birthday.

In the European Dark Ages, Christmas remained a minor festival while the Celts and Pagans continued celebrating winter-solstice festivals, and elements of these – mistletoe, Yule logs and carols – are incorporated into modern Christmas celebrations along with common themes of feasting, charity and gift-giving.

In the middle ages Christmas was popularised by the (supposedly) divinely appointed narcissistic god-kings Charlemagne and William I. Then came the Puritans who frowned on sinful revelry, and in 1647 Oliver Cromwell banned Christmas celebrations. But as every successful cultural imperialist knows, the people are jealous of their holidays and, by necessity, Christmas was revived within a decade by the decadent Charles II.

Fast forward to New York, 1821, when an anonymous poem appeared in the New York Sentinel. ‘Old Santeclaus with much Delight’ was the first description of a benevolent fat man travelling in a sleigh pulled by reindeer and piled with children’s toys, loosely inspired by the Dutch celebration of St Nicholas. The idea of Santa meant that now anyone could celebrate Christmas, not just Christians, and the concept of a non-denominational Christmas appealed to multi-cultural New York. But it wasn’t until January 3, 1863, that the world finally had its first image of Santa, created by artist Thomas Nast in Harper’s Weekly. Santa, in essence a contemporised version of Woden, had returned to inspire the world.

Santa’s popularity grew, particularly in the US, until in 1930 the Coca-Cola company used him in a wildly effective Christmas advertising campaign to sell their cocaine-laced soft drink. It was marketing genius and everyone leapt aboard – from the Salvation Army to the world’s department stores. The rest is retail history.

It is easy to mistake Santa and Christmas for retail greed and blatant profiteering, but don’t succumb to the cynical Bah Humbug. Instead remember that behind the crass commercialisation Christmas carries an ancient message of charity and love, a gift passed down to us by our distant ancestors.

So merry Christmas everyone. And you’d better not shout, you’d better not cry – Woden’s ravens are listening.

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  1. It has been said that Christmas is the celebration of the alleged birth of the Jewish political activist, preacher, and messiah Yeshua ben Youssef, aka Jesus.
    It is a belief that has evolved to this day.

  2. The solstice was appropriated by Emperor Constantine in order to popularise the relatively new religion of christianity, despite the fact (check historical records) that JC was born in August or September (he was a Virgo).

    Christmas as we know it is all about spending; otherwise it’s meaningless.

    Bah humbug!

    • The Christmas you know might be all about spending but that somewhat misses the point. Christmas remains for many a celebration of family and friendships; the large interstate movement of people in cars and planes is not about shopping – they are people visiting their loved ones. Australians are a practical and materialistic people so they express that love to family and friends in presents.

      And there are still plenty of Australians who might not care whether the historic Jesus was born in December or whatever month but believe His message of universal love. They know it is important to love our neighbour. When asked – as Jesus was – who is their neighbour, they are capable of extrapolating from the parable of the good Samaritan and of knowing our neighbour can be someone suffering from war in Syria or substance abuse in rural NSW, or a young person struggling with sexual identity . Nor do we need to identify as Christians or go to a church to heed His message; not long ago I read at our suburban Uniting Church Christmas service the verses from the translation of the Koran that teach Muslims of the birth of the child they know as the prophet Jesus.

      We celebrate these messages of familial and communal love on 25 December because of some Roman belief and we send each other cards decorated with pictures of Northern European winters. We Australians are the crazy mixed up kids of so many traditions while watching cricket with a cold drink in front of a fan, but the important thing is we do keep celebrating that love in ways that are meaningful to us.

      A happy and safe Christmas to you all.

  3. Santa’s popularity grew, particularly in the US, until in 1930 the Coca-Cola company used him in a wildly effective Christmas advertising campaign to sell their cocaine-laced soft drink. It was marketing genius and everyone leapt aboard – from the Salvation Army to the world’s department stores. The rest is retail history.

    This sickening statement says it all about Santa and coke . One time I think, I even saw him kissing Mum..

    Merry Christmas to you all anyways.
    Thank you Echo for the most entertaining publication in Australia
    especially the comments and letters HO HO HO


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