The trees have lost their leaves. The decorations are up. The shops have been stocking up on chocolate and sw eets for months. The Coca-Cola advert has been on TV. It’s official – Christmas is a-coming. But what does that really mean to us these days? A groan as we think of pushing through the crowds of shoppers to buy presents for an ever expanding list of family members? Propaganda from commercial corporations trying to squeeze out as much of our money as possible, leaving gaping holes in our pockets? An awkward charade with the extended family, who we barely acknowledge the existence of during the rest of the year? Knitted gifts from various, unspecified, elderly relatives?

I think of Christmas and it no longer fills me with excitement and joy as it did when I was a child, but instead I find myself filled with a weary, grudging acceptance. Its official – I’m too old for Christmas. Nor am I alone on this front. We’ve reached the age where many of us have seen past the brightly coloured facade and feel as if we have uncovered the meaningless consumer-fest that it really is. We know Santa Claus isn’t real – he died over 1,600 years ago and his bones are buried at the ruined church at Demre, Turkey. So what is the true meaning of Christmas?

If you ask those of the Christian faith, they’ll happily tell you that Christmas is the celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ, and the whole event is a Christian festival. But what have fir trees, holly, mistletoe and Yule logs got to do with the nativity story? Or the fat guy in red? Did ol’ Kris Kringle pay Jesus a visit? I didn’t pay much attention during the school nativity play (I was stuck at the back as one of many angels), but I could’ve sworn it was three Kings that came bearing gifts, not a bearded guy in a jumpsuit. It is of course impossible to prove when baby Jesus popped out of Mary’s virginal womb (an experience that must have been more painful that a standard pregnancy, I’m sure). However, it’s thought rather unlikely that shepherds would be tending to their sheep during a cold Judean winter night. Furthermore, it’s interesting to note the similarity between Christmas and the pre-existing Pagan festivals. Firstly, there’s the Roman festival Saturnalia, on 17th December. Saturn was the roman god of agriculture and plenty – to honour him the rich would hold great feasts for their poorer neighbours and give presents to redistribute their wealth. On 21st December, Pagans celebrated the winter solstice, and on 25th December they would hold a feast to honour Mithras, the Roman god of light. During these winter festivals, Pagans would burn huge Yule logs in honour of the sun. Kissing under mistletoe was a ritual of fertility and live evergreen trees were brought into the home to remind inhabitants that crops would soon grow again. It was in 350 AD that Pope Julius I declared that Christ’s birth would be celebrated on the 25th December. As the majority of Romans were Pagan at the time, many believe that he was just trying to make it as easy as possible for people to convert to Christianity. In fact, many Christians agree that Christmas is a Pagan festival and don’t believe that followers of the Christ should worship it at all, arguing that the only day He commanded them to celebrate was the Last Supper.

Santa Claus was added to the Christmas mix in England around the 17th century, inspired by Saint Nicholas of Myra, a very generous Greek bishop who would give secret gifts to people. He was originally depicted as a large jolly bearded fellow in a green fur-lined coat. His coat was turned red in 1863, not by the Coca-Cola Corporation as the myth popularly goes, but by Thomas Nast, a popular American cartoonist. Similarities have been drawn between Mr. Claus and the Pagan god Odin, who would ride around on his eight-legged horse at night and leave candy in the shoes of children.

Maybe it’s just me, but I do find it a bit strange that so many people in the last couple of decades have been trying to crack down on religious references during the Christmas period, in an attempt to make the holiday more ‘politically correct’. The most famous of these was ‘Winterval’ – the attempt by the Birmingham City Council in 1997 to rebrand Christmas and make it accessible to all. More recently, there were protests last year when the city of Dundee’s ‘Winter Night Light’ Christmas festival initially had no specific religious references. As far as I’m concerned, as a joint Pagan-Christian festival, Christmas seems to be pretty inclusive on the religious front. In fact, I fully propose that we get the Jews involved and merge it with their winter-time ‘Festival of Lights’ to form ‘Chrismukkah’ (yes, there is a slight possibility that I may have poached this from The OC). There would be eight days of presents, followed by one day of many presents. I very much doubt that retailers would complain.

After all, it is the retailers that truly own Christmas. We’re old enough now to have shaken off the naiveté of our youth and realised this. It is not a religious festival, but a commercial one. The commercial companies are all too keen to tell us what the true meaning of Christmas is – it’s all about giving. More specifically however, it’s all about giving presents bought at their particular store. Funny how they’re so busy lecturing us on charitable giving at the same time as jacking up their prices. Plus, let’s not overlook how their advertisers target children, brainwashing them into thinking that Christmas is the time that Mummy and Daddy are obliged buy them the flashy, shiny, expensive new toy that will make their life complete. Is this really what Christmas should be about? The purchase of material goods?

I’m not going to suggest that we don’t celebrate Christmas. That would be silly. It’s a wonderful time of the year and a lot of good things come out of it. Nor will I suggest that we don’t buy presents for our loved ones. I may slate the commercial world, but they are right in one aspect; giving is a big part of Christmas. However, I will make this suggestion to you: find out what your friends and loved ones need or want, then go out and buy them that. Don’t just buy a present for the sake of having something to give. Nor should you ask them exactly what to get them – it shouldn’t be about the gifts themselves, they should be seen as tokens, proof that you know and love the recipient.

Presents shouldn’t be judged on their price, but the amount of thought that goes into choosing them. An inexpensive but thoughtful present is always going to go down much better than loads of money spent on a thoughtless, vapid one. If you have a skill and abundance of time, perhaps make someone a present. I may mock knitted gifts from the elderly, but honestly I regret that none of my family members knit or weave; a scarf made by them would mean much more than a scarf picked up at the shops. Christmas is about showing your appreciation for those you care about, through both well chosen gifts and spending time with them.
I don’t want to offend those of a religious disposition, but Christmas isn’t about a bawling baby in a manger. Nor is it about celebrating the winter solstice. It’s not even about a jolly fat guy clambering down chimneys. It’s a tired cliché, I know, but the true meaning of Christmas is love. Aww. Remember that, and we might bring some life into this false garish brightly-lit consumer-fest.

Stephen Lovejoy

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