Christmas is a religious festival, but it is much more than that. It is Christian, and is one of those typical religious festivals that are expressions of belief with internal sacred rituals and worship, but which also have a large public outreach. Again, like so many other religious festivals, the public celebration is primarily utilised to ‘spread the gospel’; to express the religious belief in a spectacular way to the world at large. This outreach uses popular means to broadcast the principles of the religion, as well as related but universal messages that may appeal to believers and non-believers. It makes use of texts, literature, stories, myth, symbolism, images, ritual, theatre, music and spectacle.
Christmas is also a traditional festival. It is the most important event on the Christian calendar, but because of its origins, history and practice, it is traditional. It has very deep roots not only from and in the traditions of Europe where it originated, but in practically every country in which it is celebrated. For the Caribbean it is an imported festival that came in through colonisation, but as in other regions, it took root and evolved in both indigenous and imported forms.
Through a mixture of factors, Christmas is also a grand secular festival. One of the developments that Christians often lament is the very secular and unreligious way in which the festival is celebrated. It is often called ‘Xmas’ and some complain that ‘Christ’ is ‘exed’ out, but there are two ironies there. The X is actually a signature (from the Greek) which means Christian; and its secular nature is a result of the great and borderless success of the public outreach of the religious festival.
Partly because of this, but also because of its non-religious origins, Christmas is not only the world’s largest religious festival, it is also the largest traditional festival and the largest and most popular festival of any kind in the world.
There are religious festivals which are very populous and have wide diasporal spread, such as Diwali and Holi in India and worldwide. Perhaps nothing surpasses the unimaginable spectacle of the Haj in Mecca, with millions of Muslims all in one place, performing the rituals, Ishmail and Ibrahim’s journey, the rebuke of Shaitan at the stoning wall and the Qurbani. But there is no continent or region of the globe that does not know, mark or celebrate Christmas. It is high passion in every inch of North, Central and South America; it literally shuts down England and Wales for two days, university campuses are sealed shut for more than a week; across the channel, Europe is also its mecca; it rings loud in Australia and Africa; and neither is it a stranger in Asia. Christmas is a popular festival.
This most important Christian event celebrates the Nativity with the retelling and dramatisation of Christian mythology and the birth of Christ. But it originated in a mixture and confusion of ‘pagan’ festivals, celebrations and superstitions. These include ancient European carnivals, beliefs revering the evergreen plants and a Roman Bacchanal of Saturnalia involving feasting, drinking and probably ritualistic orgies. These were end of year celebrations and marked seasonal cycles including rebirth, renewal and the new year. While it is believed that December 25 is not the real birthday of Jesus, one version of the history is that it became convenient or tactical for the early Christians to appropriate the Roman saturnalia as the official anniversary of the divine birth to phase out that carnival and tone down its excesses.
The Christmas season – from Christmas Day on December 25 through the 12 Days of Christmas to Twelfth Night on January 6 – solidified or experienced rebirth in the mediaeval period when it was also known as Yule. Its present name comes from the Old English Cristesmaesse, (Christ’s mass) and in the Middle English period both the religious traditions and those secular ones relating to feasting, drinking and revelry, developed significantly.
So did the religious public outreach. Liturgies in the Roman Catholic Church services developed into liturgical drama, further extending into Nativity plays, that is, drama which tells the story of Jesus’ birth. Also, in English villages, Shepherd’s plays developed whose characters included the shepherds who are always featured in pastoral nativity scenes. Plays of these types abound today, as well as images fixed in dramatic tableaux depicting Mary, animals, shepherds, the Magi and Jesus in a crib. In fact, these plays around the ninth century, were responsible for the renaissance of western theatre as a whole.
Also as part of the public outreach, literature and music were called into service. Several Christmas songs including Christmas carols carry the religious message with lyrics that reflect the mediaeval or early Renaissance period. Apart from references to feasting and merrymaking, there are universal messages of peace, goodwill, comfort, joy and the triumph of good over evil. According to the religion, all these were occasioned by the coming to earth of Jesus Christ, and so, since the Middle Ages, theatre and exhibitions have expressed this outreach. Some Roman Catholic rituals today are highly theatrical, if not carnivalesque, and prominent among these is the public parade on the streets in the week leading up to Christmas Day.
In addition, many customs that transcend Christian belief, still have their origins there. For example, the giving of gifts is a strong Christmas tradition. But it is a part of the outreach of the festival since within the religion is the belief that Christ’s coming to earth was a gift from God to mankind. Also, in the mythology, is the story of the three wise men who brought gifts in their recognition of the birth of a king.
What increases the grandeur, the borderless extent and the complexity of Christmas as a popular cultural festival is the extent to which it has evolved an existence and culture of its own quite outside of Christianity. It makes use of text, literature, symbols, theatre and spectacle in several ways related to its secular tradition. Bright colourful decorations and the exhibition of lights are included in its spectacle. Although there are theories of origin which relate it to the Nativity, the use of trees and evergreen vegetation also has ‘pagan’ roots.
The holly and the ivy (immortalised in song), vines, boughs and wreaths are popular decorations which relate to the ancient European superstitions that deify evergreen plants where renewal, rebirth and the life cycle are concerned. One of the most important symbolic spectacular items is the Christmas tree, said to have originated in Germany. This combines evergreen vegetation with lights as a hallmark of the festival.
Related to the tree is one of the most remarkable elements in this popular festival. That is the way it has developed its own mythology and culture quite outside of the religious, but blends this so neatly into the one grand celebration. There are myths, legends and even history. Santa Claus is prominent in this regard. He is the great hero of myth, a fictitious creation, archetype of gift-giving and jolly goodwill. Historical accounts claim he really existed, as Saint Nicholas in Europe. The dramatis personae of this complex mythology include the elves, the reindeer, the North Pole and much more. To these may be further added the romantic magic of the hanging mistletoe, and the gifts placed in stockings.
This mythology is recounted in songs, secular Christmas carols, folklore and stories. In fact, the corpus of literature was responsible for the expansion of the lore when the imagination of writers was brought into the spirit of it. It was a nineteenth century poem in the USA, The Night Before Christmas that first gave a physical description of Santa Claus and since then his very distinctive and recognisable appearance has been a part of the mythology. The same poem listed the names of the reindeer who pull his sleigh and was the source of the popular song about Rudolph’s shining red nose.
The propagation of these myths, legends, beliefs and customs has made Christmas the greatest commercial and the most commercialised festival on earth. It has given rise to a multi-billion dollar industry which manufactures Christmas cards, recorded music, films, published stories, decorations, toys, lights, Christmas trees, sweets, food and drinks.
As far as the Caribbean is concerned, this imported festival has become indigenised with several local developments and evolved traditions. The history of Christ-mas practices by the plantocracy on the plantations caused many of these developments.
Work ceased on the estates while the Europeans engaged in the compulsory recruitment and initiation of all able resident white men into local militias among balls and festivities.
The Christmas season was also celebrated and the enslaved had the opportunity to engage in practices of their own. The result was Christmas time enactments among the Africans, such as the masquerade tradition. There is jonkunnoo in Jamaica, a different kind of jonkannoo in the Bahamas, masquerade in Guyana and the Mummies in St Kitts.
Among all the Caribbean indigenous folk traditions celebrated during the season, there is none, except one, that is in any way related to Christmas as a religious celebration of Christ’s birthday. That single performance is the musical tradition called parang in Trinidad. Serenaders, troubadours and contadoras dance through certain communities singing parang songs in Spanish to the rhythms peculiar to the tradition played by guitars and other stringed and percussion instruments. Most of these songs glorify the Virgin Mary, sing of the nativity and of gifts in songs called aguenaldos.
The parang has also developed its culture in Trinidadian villages to which it is native.