Christmas' broad traditions

By Lauren Peckler
Arizona Daily Wildcat
Wednesday, December 8, 2004

I love how the history and meaning of Christmas yielded in the 20th century to consumerism. honey-baked hams, mounds of presents and unhappy families are sometimes the only thing I can think of when Christmas comes to mind. Being that I can't even decide whether or not God exists, I think knowing that this holiday signifies the birth of Jesus means a lot when that's all that just about anyone under the age of 14 can tell you.

Christmas is supposed to be this grand holiday all about the essence of Christianity. In reality, it's the one day out of the year that families actually attend church. That baffles me. What really blows my mind is how complicated the original traditions of Christmas are.

What most don't know is that Christmas symbols around the world combine both Christianity and paganism. Additionally, regions all over the world interpret the Christian and pagan aspects of the winter holiday quite differently.

Before Christianity, Europe and the Middle East were polytheistic. Around the time that Constantine legalized Christianity, pagan holidays were still celebrated. Since the pagan holiday Saturnalia was celebrated years before Christmas on Dec. 25, politics likely played a part in the decision of what day to celebrate Christ's birthday. Not surprisingly, much of this holiday is celebrated with pagan symbols.

Furthermore, as a consequence of transcending from one religion to the next, each part of the world celebrates their own Christian and pagan version of this holiday.

In the United States, Pilgrims outlawed the holiday because of its connections to paganism, and Christmas wasn't legalized until the end of the 19th century. Clement Clark Moore wrote "Twas the Night Before Christmas" in 1822, adding the 12 reindeer to the traditional American Christmas. In 1862, Bavarian political cartoonist Thomas Nast drew the image of Santa Claus as we know him today.

Santa Claus grew out of St. Nicholas, a bishop known for his power of prayer and the giving of gifts. Celebrations on the 5th and 6th of December commemorating his death occur in various parts of Europe, where children who are good receive gifts in their shoes or stockings. Some of these countries actually celebrate this day more than Christmas, while a few combine the character St. Nicholas with Christmas, inventing the popular Santa Claus.

Russian and Eastern European countries revere St. Nicholas more for his clerical work, but at Christmas time, which is in no way affiliated with St. Nicholas, Grandfather Frost or Baboushka bring presents instead.

Some believe Baboushka is a pagan symbol because she's a witch who rides on a broom. According to religious stories, she is the witch who led the three kings in a different direction. As a result, King Herod was unable to find baby Jesus when he ordered all the first sons to be killed. This character changed to Grandfather Frost during communism. However, Italians still recognize Baboushka, or more properly, La Befana.

It's not surprising either that in Germany the pagan god Thor brought gifts to children during Yuletide. Whenever I hear Yuletide, I think Christmas, but this is actually a pagan holiday of northern Europe that celebrates the birth of the sun god by burning logs in honor of the sun.

Though Christmas seems like it couldn't exist without a monstrously tacky tree in the living room, this symbol is also pagan. Pagans looked to the evergreen tree as a sign of hope for spring because it didn't change in the wintertime like every other plant. During the wintertime, northern Europeans put these trees in their houses as a reminder that their crops will return.

Even the mistletoe, holly berries, and poinsettas are pagan symbols. Mistletoe symbolized fertility. People believed the Gods ate holly berries. Bunches of crimson flowers now found all over groceries stores throughout the season actually were used by the Aztecs for medicinal purposes as a symbol of purity.

Christmas by nature is not purely Christian, and even now, to me the holiday is mostly secular. It just goes to show that overtime any holiday's meaning can change drastically. Who would have ever thought during the first millennium that Christmas would be about how many gifts you receive and redeeming yourself for all those Sundays you missed at church?

Lauren Peckler is a sophomore majoring in English and sociology. She can be reached at