Extracted from my presentation to the Rotary Club of Singapore on December 20, 1989
Our Modern Christmas
Western societies are becoming increasingly sensitive celebrating Christmas as they strive to be politically correct and not offend any segment of a multi-cultural society; but not so in Singapore a majority Buddhist country with significant Islamic minority. The citizens of Singapore celebrate everybody’s festivals, and they do it openly and with finesse. Tourists make it a point to be travelling through Singapore during Christmas season. Giant Santa Claus and reindeer adorn shopping centres. Flying Angels and nativity scenes fill downtown skylines, and these are lighted up in the evenings for a spectacular display island wide. Even non-Christians can be seen in crowds with flashing cameras recording this special holiday season event.
In Australia we celebrate the season as a business bonanza. Radio and TV announcements welcome the season with enticements to buy and give. All segments of society get caught up in the frenzy by distributing customary “Xmas” wishes through card and gift, regardless of their religious persuasion. The celebration becomes more elaborate with each passing year.
Christians celebrate the season with special church services and masses. The very devout keep all night vigils and rub shoulders with those not so devout who perhaps make one of their infrequent visits to a church on this important occasion. All this attention is a remarkable testimonial to a child who was born over 2000 years ago in a stable manger attached to a 1 star motel.
We recognize certain colours as being distinctively Christmas. Red, green and white are prominent among these colours. The German scientist Wilhelm Ostwald (1853-1932) made a careful study of colours and their impact on people. He observed people tended to have associations with colours, and these have an effect on their perceptions. For example, the colour red was identified by Ostwald with fire and blood, and was associated with charity. Green was associated with nature, and continuity of life. White symbolized light, and was associated with purity, joy and peace.
Red candles and berries, the greenness of the tree and mistletoe, and the lighted candle with a background of snow; these together represented to the ancients the spirit of Christmas.
Holly was another necessity in early Christmas celebration. The evergreen with a red berry was an attractive decoration at a time of the year when all other vegetation had apparently gone into hibernation. Wreaths were made to decorate homes, and later when Europe was Christianised, churches were made beautiful with these decorations. It was known then as the holy tree, and later evolved into the holly tree.
Mistletoe was an ancient symbol of the pagan Druid priests throughout Europe and central Asia. It had been used as a religious symbol from antiquity. This beautiful parasite living on the sacred oaks of the Celts was used in worship rituals. Enemies meeting under the mistletoe would be duty bound to call a truce. (Is that why lovers kiss under the mistletoe?) Christianity spread, and absorbed customs as it went, and the mistletoe became another part of the Christmas celebration.
Another interesting part of our modern Christmas celebration comes from the legend of St. Nicholas. This legend came to us fairly recently, being only a couple of hundred years old. Washington Irving was fascinated by his studies of early Dutch settlers in New York and published a book in which patron Saint Nicholas was pictured flying around the country delivering gifts to children. The Dutch name was Sintaklaas.
In actual fact St Nicholas, Bishop of Myrna was a saint born in what is now known as modern Turkey. He was born 270 AD, and probably died about 343 AD. It was believed he could transport people hundreds of miles through the air to another destination in an instant. He did it without a reindeer and sleigh though. One legend made him a life giver and another depicted him dropping gifts down a chimney for needy people. He was almost as popular as the Virgin Mary in the middle ages.
Birth of Jesus
The exact date of Christ’s birth is not known. Early Christians considered birthday celebrations pagan, and there are those of advanced age today who have the same distaste for birthdays! None of my friends want to acknowledge another birthday has arrived.
However opinions change and the first mention of celebration of the nativity occurs in church literature about 200 AD. There was a great deal of confusion in these times as to an appropriate date to be celebrated. Celebrations were taking place at different dates in different locations, some January 1 or 6, others on February 2, March 21, 25 and 29, April 8 and 19, May 20, September 29, November 17 and December 25.
To settle the confusion, church fathers decided to fix the Date December 25 as a date to be celebrated throughout the Christian world. It fitted nicely with the date pagans celebrated, being the darkest day of the year in the Northern Hemisphere. The sun was beginning to march back from the south at the time of the equinox, and pagans worshiped the sun and looked forward to summer at this time. Emperor Constantine set his royal seal of approval on this date, and with the exception of the Eastern Orthodox Church, which kept January 6, the majority followed Constantine’s dictate.
Meaning of Christmas
Can we find meaning from Christmas, given the pagan origin of many of the practices surrounding its modern celebration? Is the essence of its celebration to be found in Santa Claus, the decoration of the tree, and the holly wreath over the doorpost? Is the spirit of Christmas to be found in the continual round of parties associated with the festive season, family gatherings, and customary gift giving? Is the celebration to be found in the Christmas tunes played as part of some product sale on radio and TV? Is the essence the Yule log, advent calendar, ritual of the 12 days of Christmas, or other activities we celebrate what is expected of the season?
No, the essence of Christmas is none of the above, warm and fuzzy as they may be. The central theme of Christmas is to be found in the portrayal of a God who loved and gave. Here was a God contrasted with others who was willing to give His precious gift to dwell among us, understand first hand how we feel and how we think. Christmas gives focus to this most magnanimous act!
This is what is communicated to us in our celebration of the Christmas season. It is the important substance; not the form, symbolism, colours, trappings or gifts we give each other in today’s world.
“© Copyright Ian Grice 2011, all rights reserved”
I.Right up to the end of his life Ostwald studied colours and shapes, in the endeavour to find a scientific standardization for colours. His main works in this field are Die Farbenfibel (The colour primer), Die Farbenlehre (Colour theory), Die Harmonie der Farben (Harmony of the colours). He also published a periodical Die Farbe (Colour). (Internet Search on the life of Wilhelm Ostwald)
II. Britannica Standard Edition
III. Britannica Standard Edition