MEERA S. SASHITAL speaks about the birth of Jesus Christ and the festival of Christmas.
Of all the religious festivals I have great feelings for Christmas because it is solemn, peaceful and serene. Christmas meaning ‘Christ’s Mass’ is the day on which Lord Jesus Christ was born to Mother Mary in Bethlehem of Judea and which is annually celebrated on 25th December. It is also called Noel, Nativity and Yule. The day before is known as Christmas Eve. The birth of Lord Jesus Christ is celebrated all over the world by Christians as well as by non-Christians observing a holiday marked by feasting and gift giving.
Mother Mary and Joseph had desired for a comfortable shelter but since all the inns were full the only place they could get as shelter was a stable or manger where Jesus the Saviour was born. Surrounded by farm animals in this manger (as mentioned in Luke 2.7) Mary “wrapped him in swaddling clothes and laid him.” Angels came to announce the birth of the Divine Baby and shepherds from the fields of Bethlehem hearing of the birth of the Divine Child were the first to see the Baby.
Tradition tells that three wise men, the Magis or astrologers (named Malahir, Casper and Balthazar) from the East, came to worship the infant Jesus in the manager. The Magis were said to have reached the infant Jesus following a morning star known as the Star of Bethlehem. In commemoration of the visit of the Magis, the Feast of Epiphany is also celebrated on January 6th which is supposed to be the formal termination of the Christmas season according to
Although Christmas is celebrated in the honour of the birth of Jesus Christ, the actual day of the Nativity is undecided. According to Hutchinson Encyclopedia, many of its customs have a non-Christian origin and were adapted from celebration of the Winter Solstice. The choice of the Winter Solstice for selecting the date for Christmas, it seems, was due to the missionary motive to facilitate conversion of members of older religions which usually held festivals at that time of the year. Many orthodox Christians use an older calendar and celebrate Christmas on 6th January. In Britain, 25th December has been kept for celebrating Christmas since much earlier.
In 1848, Charles Dickens wrote the novel ‘A Christmas Carol’, which is believed to have boosted the ‘spirit’ of Christmas and seasonal merriment. It seems its instant popularity played a great role in forming Christmas as a holiday to bring together families creating goodwill and compassion. During Christmas, Christians attend the Midnight Mass. Carols are sung by the young as well as by the old.
Christmas Day is celebrated as a major festival and has been observed as a holiday almost all round the world. Even regions where the population consists of non-Christians or has Christian minorities, due to influence of foreign culture it has led the people to observe Christmas as a holiday. For example Japan where Christmas is celebrated and is popular, though the number of Christian population is small many customs of the Christmas have been adopted by them like Christmas tree, decorating for Christmas and gift-giving. Even in India along with Christian community, non-Christians too celebrate Christmas heartily. Attending church service at normal times is done but participating in religious services during Christmas and Easter is deemed most important. It seems this is the period of highest church attendance in Catholic countries.
One of the most significant feature of Christmas is the Christmas Tree decorated and kept in every household. The Fir trees were used as X’mas Tree and this was introduced and popularized in England in the mid 19th century by the German Prince Albert, husband of Queen Victoria. In those days, the Victorian tree was decorated with several Christmas goodies. The custom of X’mas tree was brought to the United States by German settlers during early part of 1
7th century and it spread to Europe too. As for China and Japan it was introduced by U.S. Missionaries in the 19th and 20th century. Again the Yule log was taken from the pagan Norse festival. In London, during the 15th century, it was mandatory for every house and parish churches to be “decked with holm, ivy, bays, and whatsoever the season of the year afforded to be green”.
Red, green and gold, which are a part of Christmas decoration, have a special meaning that are associated with the festival. Among these colours, red is symbolic of Jesus Christ’s blood, green of eternal life and gold is associated with Christmas as one of the gifts of the Magi which is symbolic of royalty. The Scandinavians decorate the house and barn with evergreen to scare away the devil and setting up a tree during Christmas. In Germany, from where the Christmas tree originated, they hung apples on a fir tree representing the Paradise Tree, the Garden of Eden. The Christmas is always decorated with lights and ornaments.
A joyful character associated with Christmas is Santa Claus for whom children wait eagerly for his gifts. The X’mas stocking is hung up by children on X’mas Eve for Father Christmas to fill it up. Santa Claus is a corruption of the Dutch name Sinter Klaas for St. Nicholas, whose feast is on 6th December. It seems Nicholas was a 4th century Greek bishop of Myra (Turkey) having saintly attributes who helped poor people with bags of gold which was later replaced with presents. Father Christmas or Santa Claus has been personified as a well nourished man, jolly, bearded old man dressed in red who brought spirit of cheer to Christmas.
Another important item of Christmas is the Carol which was first traced to 4th century in Rome as Latin hymns. Owing to the influence of Francis of Asissi popular songs in the native language developed in France, Germany and Italy during 13th century. The songs we know as carols were actually communal folk songs sung during Christmas and “harvest tide” and it was only later that the churches started singing Carols. It seems some Carols belonging to Middle Ages like “Good king Wencester” and “The Holly and the Ivy” the oldest compositions are still regularly sung. Completely Christmas seasonal songs like “Jingle Bells” we are told emerged in the late 18th century.
Christmas Cards wishing Merry X’mas and Happy New Year are exchanged during Christmas. The first X’mas Card is believed to have been designed by J.C. Horsley and the first commercial Christmas Card seems to have been produced by Henry Cole in London in1843. The custom of sending the Cards was established by 1870 in England and spread to the U.S.A. later. Now mostly e-Cards are sent on on-line or internet.
On occasion of any festival, cuisine is a must and a traditional cuisine, a special Christmas family feast is most important part of Christmas celebrations. Though it may vary from region to region, the Christmas festivity is celebrated by a sumptuous grand feast mainly with roast turkey, Plum puddings, Cakes and Wine.
Any festival means exchange of Gifts. So is it with Christmas where Gifts are exchanged and happy union of family and friends take place. Thus Christmas festivity is observed merrily with rejoicing, but most solemnly, greeting each other “Merry Christmas and Happy New Year” for no wonder it is the Day of the Saviour Jesus Christ.