A word to the wise – December 2009

Verbum satis sapientibus: A word to the wise is sufficient

By: Gerald Waite

Christmas is coming. You may have noticed. And despite all the holiday evidence in our culture, Christmas for countless centuries has been preeminently a religious festival. However, pagan festivals in many cultures influenced the timing as well as the traditions we still honor during this month.
The word Christmas means Mass of Christ’s day, in Latin dies Natalis, or il Natale and Noel in Italian and French, respectively. The –mas usage was common in earlier days in reference to many religious festivals, including Michaelmas, the feast of St. Michael the Archangel, or Candlemas, the festival when candles are blessed.
Trying to fix the actual date of Christ’s birth was the subject of much erudite calculating in the early Christian church, but the exact date remains unclear. In fact, various scholars have located it during every single month of the calendar. It was hardly celebrated at all in the first century or two Anno Domini (A.D.), often observed only along with the arrival of the Wise Men on the Epiphany, January 6.
However, by the early fourth century, during the age of St. Augustine and the Christian Emperor Constantine the Great, Christmas Day was well established on December 25, and particularly in western countries. The choice of this date may very well have been influenced by the important Roman solar feast, Natalis Invicti, or Birthday of the Unconquered. The return of the sun at this point in the year has been a religious observance in many cultures. Witness Stonehenge and the impressive Celtic stone mounds of New Grange, near Tara, north of Dublin in Ireland, where at the Winter Solstice the arrival of the dawn still is greeted today.
St. John Chrysostom in the fourth century clearly Christianized Natalis Invicti. He argues that like the sun, “Our Lord, too, is born in the month of December…But they call it the ‘Birthday of the Unconquered.’ Who indeed is so unconquered as Our Lord…? Or, if they say that it is the birthday of the Sun, He is the Sun of Justice.”
A different tradition brought us Santa Claus in more recent centuries. The name, of course, is a corruption of St. Nicholas, whose feast day is actually December 6. The date long has been observed in European countries and throughout the Old World, especially the Netherlands, Belgium, Austria and Germany. I grew up in south central Wisconsin, much enriched by German culture, and on St. Nick’s Eve we children would put our shoes outside the door to be filled by the saint with a few fruits, candies or small toys.
St. Nicholas was the fourth century bishop of Myra in what is now Turkey. Little else is known about him, but legends attest to numerous miracles. He was known particularly for his generosity to the poor, one story telling about his gift of dowries to three daughters of an impoverished family, allowing them to find spouses.
Another early representation of this generous St. Nicholas-Santa Claus spirit was Odin, a god among early northern European peoples. Children would leave food for Odin’s flying horse, and Odin in return would reward them with gifts and fruit. This mysterious gift-giving practice later became associated with Santa Claus. Perhaps this is why my father always insisted we leave a beer for the jolly fellow, a practice I scrupulously continue.
To New York’s early Dutch, St. Nicholas was Sinterklaas. In Washington Irving’s 1809 spoof of New York Dutch culture, History of New York, Sinterklaas was forever Englished into Santa Claus. In England, the figure is Father Christmas, the cheerful spirit portrayed as the Ghost of Christmas Present in Dickens’ A Christmas Carol.
As for the Christmas tree, holly and mistletoe, greenery is associated with fresh life, and particularly in winter. Mistletoe was a part of ancient Druid rites, while the Christmas tree has been around since 1600 at least. As for holly, a Phyllis McGinley poem in A Wreath of Christmas Legends says infant Jesus pricked a finger on a sharp holly leaf, the gift of a shepherd. Ever after, a drop of His blood transformed the once white berries to red.

Word for the month
Yule (yool), or Yuletide, was a pagan festival in northern Europe superseded by the celebration of Christmas. The Anglo-Saxon word was giuli, the word for the winter month, December or January, and like Natalis Invicti, the pre-Christian holiday marked the rebirth of the sun. The Yule log, still a common tradition, was the emblem of the returning sun. And the term –tide means simply a space of time, or a season.

— Gerald Waite
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