I always loved Christmas as a child and the magic has never left me. The excitement of putting up decorations, counting the days until Santa arrived and eating festive food and treats are some of my favourite childhood memories. Church attendance as a whole may be in decline these days but midnight Mass is still a time that attracts people to attend church to celebrate the birth of Christ. Christmas carols are many in number, but for Catholics some firm preferences include the meek Silent Night and ‘Away in a Manger, and the rapturous Come All Ye Faithful. It’s amazing that most of the Christmas songs you now hear on the radio are mainly products of the seventies and eighties; ranging from Mary’s Boy Child by Boney M to Santa Claus is Coming to Town by the Carpenters, Driving Home for Christmas by Chris Rea and Last Christmas by George Michael. Probably the most played record of them all is by Slade. Almost everyone has heard the words: So here it is Merry Christmas, everybody’s having fun… It’s hard for memories of yesteryear not to come flooding back at the sound of these songs.
Christmas as we know it today is a concoction from different cultures and traditions. The origins of Santa Claus began in Greece in the 4th Century, with Saint Nicholas who was considered a very generous man. He later became the patron saint of Russia, where he was known for his red cape and flowing white beard. But did you know that mistletoe was used in winter celebrations by ancient Celtics hundreds of years before the birth of Christmas? It was considered a revered plant because despite not having any roots, it remained green during the winter months. Christmas trees first originated in Germany in the 16th century but were not introduced to England and Ireland until the 19th century, when Prince Albert brought home a Christmas tree for Queen Victoria from his native country. It was around the same time that Christmas cards were first sent, after being designed by London’s Victoria and Albert Museum. And although poinsettias, a native Mexican plant, first became recognised in America in the 19th century, it is only in the last few decades that they have become popular in Europe. I don’t know what the Irish contributed to the Christmas tradition. Perhaps, we brought some whiskey and general cheerfulness to the celebrations.
Christians in other countries celebrate Christmas in a different way to how we celebrate in Ireland. The lyrics of the well-known Band Aid song Do they know it’s Christmas? is misleading because Africans have never perceived Christmas, or celebrated it, in the way the Western world does. Christmas trees, lights and house decorations have never been part of their custom. Christmas is celebrated as a church festival with churches decorated as for other big festivals, but using the indigenous flowers and foliage. There could be a Christmas crib in church, and Christmas songs and carols, but there is little gift-giving or overeating, and certainly few Christmas cards. Christmas is, after all, the hottest time of the year at the equator and countries to its south. So much of our traditional Christmas in Ireland is based on the premise that it is cold outside, making the emphasis more on being indoors. Here, social and family gatherings take place, presents are exchanged, turkey and ham and plum pudding are eaten with great relish, and there is laughter and good cheer often found around the glow of a good open turf fire.
There is a downside to Christmas though which is sometimes renowned as a time of indulgence and extravagance. Perhaps we all eat and drink a little more than we should, but Christmas for some is a time of great financial hardship, and the guilt and loneliness that comes with these struggles. There are others who often overspend. They lavish the latest iPhone, digital gadgets and designer clothes on their children. I know of parents whose marriages have broken who bear guilt for not seeing their children as often as they would like, and overcompensate with expensive Christmas presents in the hope that it will make up for their insufficient contact. But the main point is lost here, in the sense that it’s not the gift that is the most important – it’s the giver.
Finally, Christmas is known as the season of goodwill. ‘Glory to God on high and peace and goodwill to all men’ as the angels sang to the shepherd. It is a time for thinking of the elderly and bereaved and carrying out a thoughtful gesture, for volunteering with the homeless or making a donation to a charity like the St Vincent De Paul. Christmas is also a time for forgiveness. It’s a time to forget about grievances and squabbles and to wipe the slate clean, a time to shake hands or embrace and say ‘Happy Christmas’ with meaning. I wish you all a happy and peaceful Christmas and hope that a little piece of Christmas magic touches your heart and remains with you throughout the coming year.
Image Credit: mykidstime.com