Friday, November 25, 2011


Evolution. That’s a word we usually associate with biology. For example, some scientists believe that human beings evolved from apes. (That stretches the imagination until you consider some of the similarities in behavior!)

Wikipedia, however, says that the word "evolution" can refer to any gradual change that occurs over generations. With that definition, I think it is clear that there has been an evolution of Christmas. I mean, after all, originally it was just a day when a boy child – later named Jesus – was born in Bethlehem.

Many came to believe that Jesus was the Messiah (Savior) prophesied by the Hebrew scriptures. Persecuted by the Romans, they began celebrating his birth on December 25, the time of a Roman holiday celebrating the returning of the sun. Thus, their festivities escaped governmental attention. By 354 A.D. that date was fixed in the calender of the early church and soon became a day for feasting and celebration.

It was not until 1038 A.D. –700 years later – that the day was called Christmas. The word comes from the old English, Christes maesse, or Christ’s Mass. At that time, the seasonal holiday continued for twelve days, from December 25 till January 6,Three Kings’ Day (or Epiphany).

Decorations for Christmas have also evolved. It was traditional to decorate with evergreen branches for ancient Roman and Jewish winter holidays. In the 1400's England added holly and ivy to the holiday decor.

Artful miniatures of the nativity of Jesus had begun to be created in Italy as early as 900 A.D. St. Francis of Assisi was especially fond of these "nativity scenes" and popularized them in the 1200s. The tradition spread rapidly across Europe.

Christmas trees date back to Germany, perhaps to Martin Luther, in the 16th century. English royalty imported this symbol of the season by the 1700s and it spread to America with immigrants from Europe by 1870.

Music, especially composed for the Christmas season, was sung in Rome as early as the 4th century. France, Germany and other European countries developed their own Christmas carols beginning in the 1100s. In England, too, special seasonal music was composed and the custom of "wassailing" became a common part of the holiday celebration. Small groups of people singing carols walked from house to house. The gracious recipients of their music would invite them into the house for wassail, a hot, spiced fruit juice-based drink.

Not everyone has rejoiced in the celebration of Christmas, however. In England, during the brief rule of the Puritans from 1647 to 1660, Christmas celebrations were outlawed. Puritans who immigrated from England to America also opposed all festivities at Christmas-time, believing it was an invention of the Roman Catholic church against which they had rebelled. Their neighbors who had immigrated from Germany, however, celebrated the holiday lavishly with special foods, decorations, music and pageantry.

Perhaps the greatest evolution related to Christmas customs is the changing nature of the season’s major gift-giver. In various countries, gifts were brought by Father Christmas, the Christ Child, the Three Kings, St. Nicholas, Pere Noel, or Basil of Caesarea. But Santa Claus had begun to emerge in New York City by the early 1800s. In 1822, Clement Clarke Moore wrote a poem that described his view of Santa Claus. It was called "A Visit from St. Nicholas" and described the seasonal gift-giver as "round" and "jolly," dressed "all in red" with a white beard. He drove a sleigh pulled by reindeer, carried a sack full of toys, and came down the chimney to deliver gifts for children on the night before Christmas. This became the classic picture of Santa Claus which has now spread around the world.

Even within the half century plus of my lifetime, there has been much evolution of Christmas. In my childhood, celebrations of the season revolved around our church and our home. The religious nature of the holiday was emphasized by the singing of carols and the reading of the nativity stories from the Bible. Gifts were simple and often homemade.

But Christmas has now evolved into "the largest annual economic stimulus for many nations," Wikipedia reports. Christmas shopping season begins about the middle of October as the stores begin "decking their halls" with Yuletide trimmings and advertising "holiday sales" in newspapers and on TV.

Perhaps we could hasten the evolution of Christmas from faithful to financial by establishing October 15 as the beginning of the season. We could revive again the old English custom of "wassailing" so singing parents could accompany their "trick-or-treating" children!

As for thanksgiving, new carols could be created for the Yuletide repertoire in order to "christmas-ize" that holiday. For example:

(TUNE: Over the River and Through the Woods)
"Over the highways and to the mall for Black Friday sales we go.
We know the way well, and we’ll be there a spell,
For we don’t want to be left out. Oh, no.
Over the highways and to the mall to fill up our shopping bag.
We won’t think twice about the price
Though our spouse will probably nag.

Over the highways and to the mall, to each store that advertises.
We’ll get there at 3 in the morning, you’ll see,
In our Santa Claus disguises.
Over the highways and to the mall. Oh, shopping’s such a lark.
We’ll shop ‘till we drop and still not stop,
If we can find a place to park!"

Other new Christmas carols could focus upon the economic emphasis that has developed around that gift-giving holiday. For example, a Christmas Theme song for merchants:

(TUNE: White Christmas)
"I’m dreaming of a green Christmas, with every purchase that is made.
As the cash drawers jingle and credit cards mingle
with overdraft letters from the bank.
I’m dreaming of a green Christmas, to turn my bottom line to black.
With each ad in print or TV, I count all my profits, don’t you see!"

Of course, the shoppers, too, need a theme song:

(TUNE: God rest ye, Merry Gentlemen)
"God rest ye, merry shoppers. May you find your heart’s desire.
Go, grab it quick and pay for it before the price goes higher!
The special sales are really grand; I’ve bought more than I planned!
Oh, tidings of lots of gifts for me; stuff I don’t need.
Whoops! And tidings of money woes indeed!"

Christmas customs and celebrations have changed over the years. From a babe in a manger to a diamond necklace in a velvet box, our holiday outlook has changed. Christmas has evolved. But, like the evolution from apes to humans, it’s too early to tell whether the change is for the better or not!

24 Nov 2011 - mshr