I remember being chided by my dad way back when I was still in grade school. I had written “Merry X-Mas” on some greeting cards we were told to make as a school project. I didn’t think anything of it and just thought it was a shorthand way of writing “Christmas.”
But dad said, “Is your God an X? Don’t write XMas because that means he’s unknown.”
Of course, I hadn’t read up enough yet to know that the proper reply to this is “X is how the Greek letter chi is written and is the first letter of ‘Christ’ in Greek.” So I grew up always on guard that I should write “Christmas” and not “XMas” lest Jesus see me and cross me off his book for being too lazy to write the full spelling of his name. (Yes, I know that technically “Christ” isn’t his name but you know what I mean).
This is also that time of the year when Christians remind us to “Remember the reason for the season” and to “put Christ back in Christmas” — a yearly crusade against the commercial and festive atmosphere typical at this time of the year. I wonder what they would say if they knew that the reason for their season was most probably a political move by Pope Julius 1 at around the 4th century, who chose December 25 to be the official birthday of Jesus Christ. The decision to do so was not because of historical accuracy since the scholarly opinion at that time was that Jesus was born sometime in spring and not winter — a fair point if one considers that there were shepherds herding their flocks in the field — which wouldn’t make any sense if there were snow all around.
So the ancient church decided to celebrate their savior’s birthday alongside other pagan winter festivals, in the hopes that Christmas would also be popularly embraced — a strategy that paid off, especially when Christianity became a dominant religion in many European countries.
In fact, many Christmas customs and practices have origins in pagan celebrations. The tradition of gift-giving and merrymaking comes from the Roman’s celebration of Saturnalia — in honor of the Roman god, Saturn. After a sacrifice at the Temple of Saturn, ancient Romans held a public banquet, then more private celebrations, gift-giving, and a general carnival atmosphere. Sound familiar?
The word “Yuletide” is not a Christian word but is derived from the pagan Yule celebration practiced by Scandinavians and historical Germanic people. The exact meaning of the word “Yule” is uncertain although there are references to the Norse God, Odin as the “Yule Father” and “the Yule One.” Ancient Norse people would burn large logs to celebrate the end of winter or “the return of the sun.” The logs would literally take several days to burn out, and during those days, the people would feast and have a good time. Today, burning the “Yule log” is a popular a Christmas tradition in Western countries even among Christians who probably have no clue where the practice came from.
In the early 17th century, Puritan Christians decried the decadence of Christmas celebrations. This would start a prolonged fight between different church factions, the Anglicans, Catholics, Protestants, and so on on how Christmas should be celebrated. Some wanted more elaborate ceremonies, while others wanted to focus on the more religious aspects, and still others wanted the whole thing banned altogether — which actually happened in many communities and even countries like Scotland.
It was only in the 19th century when writers such as Washington Irving (“The Sketchbook of Geoffrey Crayon”)and Charles Dickens (“A Christmas Carol”) wrote popular stories about Christmas that many traditions surrounding it were slowly revived. Christmas became a popular holiday to celebrate family, goodwill and charity, and that continues to be the case to this day.
So whether you are Christian, Atheist, Agnostic or Pastafarian, I wish you all a Merry Xmas and Happy Saturnalia!
Originally published in Sunstar Davao.