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Some thoughts about Christmas


It is possible that in the same way many children today associate milk with the supermarket rather than with cows, we will at some point in the future be celebrating Christmas without Christ. Fuelled by the heavy commercial focus, Christmas has been taking on a life of its own minus Christ. These days, even the traditional Christmas carols are disappearing, being replaced by Christmas songs with a commercial focus and with little relationship to the real meaning and purpose of Christmas. This is not to deny that the commercial slant had been there for quite a long time. It was, however, not the main focus of Christmas and did not eclipse the idyllic aspect of Jesus’ birth, enhanced by the visits of the shepherds and wise men.

Santa Claus, that mythical, folkloric figure, at least for the children and for commercial ends, is now taking centre place. It always annoys me that poor parents struggle to get Christmas presents for their children only to find Santa Claus/Father Christmas getting the praise. Of course, it matters little to me that the child would soon get to the age when he/she will realise that Father Christmas is pure fantasy, for the sacrifices made by parents are absent at a critical time in the child’s development.

Santa Claus appeared to have emerged from figures in Germanic and Dutch folklore, and merged with Father Christmas from British folklore. Santa, we are told, became popular in the USA and Canada, partly because of the influence of Clarke Moore’s 1823 poem, “A Visit from St. Nicholas”. St. Nicholas was a sort of ‘alter ego’ that was influenced by a 4th century Greek Christian who had established a reputation for offering gifts to the poor.

“T’was the night before Christmas, when all through the house; Not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse; The stockings were hung by the chimney with care, In hopes that St.Nicholas soon would be there. The children were nestled all snug in their beds, while visions of sugar -plums danced in their heads.”

With the falling off of children attending Sunday schools and the declining membership in many churches, it is possible that the story of the nativity will become foreign to many; of Mary wrapping baby Jesus in swaddling clothes in a manager; of the visit by local shepherds “keeping watch over their flocks by night”, and of the wise men who were really astrologers studying the skies and concluding from the star formation that a king was born. We live in a different era where materialism runs rampant, and have to expect changes, but when something like the nativity which is so central to the Christianity which we claim to believe and practice no longer occupies our attention at Christmas, then we have cause to be worried.

A report in the Times newspaper in 1912 noted that “…Traders complain that their takings this season was not as good as 1911 which must now be regarded as a record year.” This, of course, spoke to the commercial aspect of Christmas, but one did not get the impression that this was eclipsing everything else. This, of course, was 1912. The report in the Times continued: “The services at the churches are always a very important feature of the celebration and the present occasion was no exception to the rule, very large congregations were general, but the midnight mass at the Roman Catholic Church and the early morning services at the Cathedral, Weslyan Church and the Church of Scotland call for special remark, there was not even space to stick the proverbial pin.”

The cultural aspects were also present, “After noon the customary bands and bois bois men on stilts were very much in evidence, but there was practically no drunkenness nor misbehaviour. The evening was devoted to dancing and kindred amusements, and a very enjoyable time seems to have been spent by all.” The bois- bois men doing their rounds on stilts was a common feature at Christmas and became associated with Carnival for the first time in 1913.

Christmas today still remains a time when families get together. The harsh economic times and the spate of crimes have cut back on the assembly of friends moving from house to house sharing camaraderie. Christmas, except for those bent on crime and theft, is still a joyous occasion. It is in a sense a time when we take time out from the realities of life. Come January we become a different set of people playing different roles. The spirit we assumed for the Christmas season is put away, to be revived hopefully next Christmas. Unfortunately, we will judge Christmas by the extent of sales at the various business places around town. The quantum of sales during the season is important, but for different reasons. Christmas is really a time to celebrate the birth of Christ and to reflect on its meaning for us.

Dr Adrian Fraser is a social commentator and historian.