The meaning and spirit of Christmas, at its best, is one of hope and community. It is a history that has developed and changed over the centuries, primarily in Europe and the United States. Because of the positive and inclusive message, the tradition of Christmas has spread around the world in both Christian and other communities.
European and U.S. Origin of Christmas
Christmas is both a sacred religious holiday and a worldwide cultural and commercial phenomenon. For two millennia, people have been observing it with traditions and practices that are both religious and secular in nature. Christians celebrate Christmas Day as the anniversary of the birth of Jesus of Nazareth, a spiritual leader in the Middle East whose teachings form the basis of their religion. Popular customs include exchanging gifts, decorating Christmas trees, attending church, sharing meals with family and friends, and, of course, waiting for Santa Claus to arrive.
In Western cultures (primarily Europe and the U.S.), Santa Claus is now inextricably linked to Christmas. The original “Santa Claus” was born in the Fourth Century and “sainted” by the Catholic Church in the 19th Century.
In 1931, the Coca-Cola Corporation contracted with Swedish commercial artist Haddon Sundblom to create a coke-drinking Santa. Sundblom modeled his Santa on his friend Lou Prentice, chosen for his cheerful, chubby face. The corporation insisted that Santa’s fur-trimmed suit be a bright Coca-Cola red, resulting in the Santa Claus image we know in the U.S. today. Black, or African-American, Santas began around the same time. Others in the African-American community have rejected traditional Christmas and adopted Kwanzaa as a secular alternative in celebration of cultural and traditional values.
In Ukraine and other countries in Europe associated primarily with Eastern Orthodox churches, the Julian calendar is followed and Christmas is celebrated on January 7th. The holiday celebration begins on Christmas Eve with a dinner consisting of 12 dishes that symbolize the apostles.
Christmas in Asia
Throughout Asia, Christmas is celebrated in Christian communities. It has been given a local flavor and is sometimes intertwined with local festivals and events.
In Malaysia, it is a public holiday and has retained its commercial “edge”. In Thailand, where they like to party, the religious meaning is not focused on and the King’s birthday in early December is even more reason to party. While the Chinese don’t traditionally celebrate Christmas, the western influence, especially so in the big cities, has made Christmas more visible, though still associated with Christianity and the West. In Japan, Christmas is seen as a chance to spread happiness and good fortune, rather than as a religious celebration.
A special tradition in India is attending Midnight Mass with family and friends on Christmas Eve. Churches in India are decorated with poinsettia flowers and candles, especially for this important service.
Afterward, there is a feast, and gifts are exchanged.
Christmas in Africa
For almost everyone in Africa, Christmas is a time to gather with friends and family, go to church, and enjoy a big feast – but every country also has its own unique festive traditions. In most countries, Christmas is a public holiday and people make the most of the opportunity to visit family and friends. In East Africa, goats, rather than turkeys, are purchased at the local market for roasting on Christmas Day.
For those countries following the Julian, rather than Gregorian, calendar, such as Egypt and Ethiopia, Christmas is celebrated on January 7th. In some African countries, the time around the end of the year, the winter Solstice, is for celebrating the god Osiris (Ra). Often, instead of expensive gifts, people give each other affordable items or services, and those who can afford it, donate books, clothes, and toys to orphanages or churches. Liberia has its own version of Santa Claus, known as Old Man Beggar, who dances and solicits presents.
Bless Us All
As we approach Christmas this year, let us remember a poem by Howard Thurman, an author and theologian, often considered to be a mentor and spiritual adviser to Martin Luther King, Jr.
The Real Work of Christmas
When the song of the angels is stilled,
When the star in the sky is gone,
When the kings and princes are home, and
The shepherds are back with their flock,
Then the real work of Christmas begins:
To find the lost,
To heal those broken in spirit,
To feed the hungry,
To release the oppressed,
To rebuild nations,
To bring peace among all peoples,
To make a little music with our hearts,
To radiate the Light of Christ
Every day, in every way
In all that we do
And all that we say,
Then the work of Christmas begins