Cynthia Tucker: Merry whatever

Roundup: Talking About History

... many of the Christmas traditions that Western Christians have adopted do not hark back to the birth of Christ; indeed, some of them trace their origins to pagan rituals.

Take the "Christmas" tree. Anthropologists and historians have followed a trail of dried-out fir needles all the way back to ancient cultures, which used evergreens as reminders of the spring that would return after long and barren winters. Ancient Egyptians decorated their homes with green date palm leaves for the winter solstice. In what is now Great Britain, Druids also used evergreens in solstice rites.

But modern-day Christmas festivities probably draw much from Roman pagans, who celebrated the winter solstice with a festival they called Saturnalia, decorating their houses with evergreens and lights and exchanging gifts.

Explaining the calendar of the Christian church, the Encyclopedia Britannica notes that the early church established the celebration of Christ's birth at the same time as the pagan festival in order to usurp it: "A new focus of celebration, to commemorate the birthday of Christ, was instituted at ancient winter solstices (Dec. 25 and Jan. 6) to rival the pagan feasts."

Similarly, Santa Claus is a conflation of myths and legends from many countries and cultures over many centuries. While some Santa fans insist that the figure familiar to American children is a direct descendant of St. Nicholas, a Catholic bishop of the fourth century, there is no historical record indicating that the bishop went around distributing gifts on Christmas Eve. While many miracles are attributed to St. Nick, separating well-behaved children from young delinquents is not among them.

But the American Santa does share certain traits with the Norse god Thor, who was believed to have a long white beard, to travel through the air in a chariot and to slide down chimneys. Happy Thor's Fest, anyone? (Of course, we celebrate Thor's day once a week already.)

Perhaps the oddest thing about this cultural imbroglio is the insistence by some Christian purists that stores - palaces of consumerism - should observe the season with declarations of "Merry Christmas!" The weeks-long orgy of buying that begins around Thanksgiving and ends, mercifully, with the New Year celebrates consumption, selfishness and excess - a time when Christians turn the other check. This is probably not what Jesus would do....

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