Sunday, December 12, 2010

The greatest Christmas gift ever

During the waning days of the Roman Empire, it was still a crime (punishable by death) to be a Christian. By the year 350 A.D., the Roman Empire was on a downward spiral, so Pope Julius I felt confident enough to officially designate December 25 as the date to celebrate the birth of Christ. By the year 380 A.D., Christianity was the official state religion of the Roman Empire.

The tradition of gift giving at Christmas originated with a Christian bishop, St. Nicholas of Turkey, in the 4th Century. By the 10th Century, the custom had spread around the world. Arguably, the tradition could be traced back even further than that, because Three Wise Men from the East brought gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh to a small child who was born in Bethlehem.

It may surprise you to know that giving gifts in December actually goes back even BEFORE the Three Wise Men made their journey to Bethlehem.

Most of the customs now associated with Christmas were not originally Christmas customs but rather were pre-Christian and non-Christian customs taken up by the Christian church. Saturnalia, a Roman feast celebrated in mid-December, provided the model for many of the merry-making customs of Christmas. From this celebration, for example, were derived the elaborate feasting, the giving of gifts, and the burning of candles that we associate with the Christmas holidays.

In America, from time to time, controversy has arisen about the practice of putting Christmas trees, or manger scenes, on public property, due to the idea of separating church from state. In the spirit of compromise, Daley Plaza in Chicago has both a Christmas tree AND a menorah, conveniently overlooking the fact that many of the traditions that we associate with Christmas are actually derived from a pagan festival.

Like many people, I’ve long felt that the celebration of Christmas has become WAY too commercial. Black Friday sales the day after Thanksgiving have absolutely no appeal, and neither does anything in the Neiman-Marcus catalog.

I’ve lived long enough that I’ve already accumulated enough “stuff”, so I’ve asked my family to try a different approach this year. I’m fully capable of buying my own scotch and cigars, so I don’t want them to feel obligated to give me any presents. Instead, I’ve asked them to donate some money to a charity of their choice in my name, since that act is, in my opinion, more in the true spirit of Christmas.

The majority of the people that live in this world aren’t Christians. As a matter of fact, a majority of the people that live in this world don’t even belong to an organized religion. In spite of that fact, though, there actually was a time that even those engaged in warfare had a one day truce on December 25, and most of the world pauses to pay homage to a small child who was born in Bethlehem over 2000 years ago.

In the Good Book, Matthew 1(23-25) reads "Behold, a virgin shall be with child, and shall bring forth a son, and they shall call his name Emmanuel, which being interpreted is, God with us. Then Joseph being raised from sleep did as the angel of the Lord had bidden him, and took unto him his wife: And knew her not till she brought forth her firstborn son: and he called his name Jesus."

What could be a greater gift than that?

1 comment:

  1. As Baha'is, we enjoy gift giving at Christmas time with Christian family and friends. Our Baha'i gift giving and party time is the five-day Ayyami-ha, Days of Joy, at the end of February. Tonight, December 13, the Little Marais Community Club Christmas party may not happen, because the heating system in the historic school house has failed. As many as thirty people exchange gifts at that annual event. More important, generous donations go to the the local Food Shelf in Silver Bay. There is no end to the commercialism of gift giving in any season. What may seem like new traditions in our Baha'i communities has gone on before, including the tradition of establishing new institutions to benefit the community during such holiday periods.