Friday, December 19, 2008

Merry Christmas (the craziness is traditional)

12/17/08 Chatterbox Betty Kaiser Hey, everybody, Merry Christmas! How is the shopping going? Is your house decorated? Are gifts purchased and wrapped? Will your extended family drive for hours to enjoy a festive day together? Or will you just drive each other crazy? Will you suffer through preparing grandma’s pearl onions and grandpa’s favorite dish of lutefisk because it’s “tradition”? Are you on the verge of exhaustion? Have you decided that next year you’re really, really going to simplify the holidays? Do you wonder why we work ourselves into a frenzy to do all of this stuff? Well, you have questions and I have answers — traditional ones. First, the disclaimer: I am a Christian who loves Christmas — both the spiritual and the secular. My spiritual traditions include times of worship, prayer, hymns and carols. The other side of that coin is all the crazy hoopla that goes into family celebrations — the decorating, the presents, the food, the fun, the arguments and the fatigue. When things get really crazy, I wonder… if celebrating Jesus’ birthday is the goal for Christmas where did all this other stuff come from? Why don’t we just do cake and ice cream? Over the centuries, his simple birthday party has evolved into the biggest celebration in the world. Because it’s the dead of winter, that’s why. And we’ve got to have something to cheer us up. It’s traditional. Two thousand years ago the early Christians did not celebrate Christmas. It wasn’t until the fourth century that believers could agree on the date that Jesus was born. They chose Dec. 25. A date not necessarily based on fact. But it was convenient. Other (pagan) celebrations were being held at that time of the year — why not Christmas? They added another tradition. The manner of celebration has been bathed in controversy ever since. At first it was a solemn, quiet religious day. Then, so-called pagan cultural influences inspired the Christians to tell the story of the nativity through music, art and dance. Things became a bit earthy and raucous. Finally, after the Reformation, Protestant groups banned celebrations entirely. Christmas was only re-instated after King Charles II was restored to the throne. In the American colonies, Christmas celebrations evolved slowly. The Puritans were very orthodox. It was illegal to mention St. Nicolas’ name, exchange gifts, light a candle or sing Christmas carols. There was a five shilling fine for exhibiting the Christmas spirit. Around the 19th century, the nation embraced Christmas as a family holiday. Slowly they re-incorporated candles, cards and carols into worship. German immigrants to Pennsylvania introduced the tree concept to Americans. Their candle-lit Christmas trees originated as oak trees that were worshipped in the 8th century by Germanic tribes. Martin Luther is credited with bringing a small fir tree into his house and decorating it with candles as a way of mirroring the beauty of the starry outdoors. It became a tradition. The garlands and wreathes that we hang on doors and tables date back to the 16th century. They are attributed to German Lutherans who began the custom of Advent — the period of four Sundays preceding the nativity of Jesus. The circular shape of wreathes symbolizes the love of God that is without beginning or end. Candles are one of the oldest of all Christian symbols. There is no controversy about the meaning of lighted candles in a church. In contrast to darkness, light is illuminating. It means goodness, truth, life and wisdom. The Bible says that Jesus is the light of the world and God is the father of light, so we let the candles burn! So what are we to make of gifts and gifting? Well, I think that 2,000 years ago a precedent was set. The Magi brought appropriate gifts to the infant Jesus. The three gifts were spiritually symbolic and fit for a king of that era. By doing so they demonstrated their joy, honor and respect at his incarnation. Perhaps this could be a template for our gift giving — three items — instead of the entire toy, clothing, sporting goods or jewelry store! A new tradition. The Christmas challenge is to balance the spiritual with the secular. But as we have seen, a lot of the secular has a spiritual background. Christmas is all about worship and sharing joy. We know we’ve succeeded at the later by the smiles on the faces of the ones we love. While most of us are working ourselves into a dither putting together a traditional Christmas, some people get all worked up over whether or not to tolerate the holiday. Some folks are really good at getting hostile about anything that smacks of religion. Recently there was a letter to the editor of the Register Guard exhorting readers to not extend celebratory greetings to strangers. Such phrases as “Merry Christmas” or “Happy Holidays” were distasteful to him. No sharing of well wishes or random people contact for this unhappy guy! Bah Humbug! The kindness of others, be it a smile or a warm greeting, is a blessing not a curse. If someone is celebrating, celebrate with them. It’s a cold, dark and lonely world unless joy is shared. It’s traditional. Years ago the word ‘merry’ had an entirely different connotation than it does today. It meant peaceful and blessed. “Merry Christmas” would then be translated as, “A peaceful Christmas to you” or “May Christmas bring the blessings of God to you.” Peace and blessings are great gifts. Long after all the presents under the tree have been unwrapped, the meals eaten, the guests departed and the decorations put away, the intangibles remain. The hugs, smiles, greetings and warm memories of the season are the best gifts — peaceful blessings. Enjoy your traditions (you can rest later) and Merry Christmas to all! Betty Kaiser’s Chatterbox is about people, places, family, and other matters of the heart. Read her weekly columns in the Cottage Grove Sentinel.

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