Christmas is a religious festival. Although it now falls under several other types, it is the most important calendar celebration for Christians. However, as a festival it never ceases to provide very interesting new material for study that is as evergreen as one of its main symbols. We will therefore attempt another brief study of it as a traditional festival.
Christmas is the greatest of all festivals in the world today; the largest, the most popular, the most many-sided and multi-faceted, the most multi-cultural and the most joyous. It has far outgrown its Christian religious roots and significance to become the most widespread secular and commercial festival in the world. Wherever it appears it still maintains the Western characteristics it has acquired over time, but it is celebrated by a much larger number of non-Christians than Christian believers and outdistances all other religious festivals in this respect. No other festival finds itself celebrated so vigorously outside of its religion as a secular event.
Even where its spiritual roots are concerned it is unique among the world’s most prominent religions. Unlike these other religions, the primary festival was not founded at the birthplace or homeland of the prophet/messiah/god(s) or spiritual home of the faith. It started in Rome, not Bethlehem, Jerusalem, Galilee or what is now Israel. The Islamic capital is Mecca, the home/heartland of Hinduism is Ajodhya or Uttar Pradesh. Furthermore its roots may be found in more ‘pagan’ than sacred origins.
How does Christmas compare with other major religious festivals of these other religions? How do they rival Christmas in reach, influence or popularity? The characteristics of religious festivals are relevant here. They originate in religious, spiritual, sacred belief. They are celebrations of these beliefs. The celebrations are of two categories – first, inclusive rituals, prayers, worship and practices in which only believers or devotees participate either privately at home or in places of worship such as churches, temples, mosques or other sacred spaces. Second are the more public celebrations which include outreach, exhibiting the beliefs in public events and broadcasting its messages. They make use of spectacle, myth, ritual, theatre, symbols, literature and performance. This outreach may also be ‘spreading the gospel’ – teaching the principles of the religion.
A very important characteristic is what normally evolves out of the public practice of these festivals. That is, a large degree of secularisation. Many added attractions, spin-off events and even common customs develop around and arising from the festival in the popular culture. These have occurred in, for example, the extensive street fêtes with rum and beer drinking where the celebrants remain on the streets and in open fields at the end of Phagwah day in Trinidad. They are also seen in the unruly street revels in parts of Georgetown on Diwali night.
Perhaps the largest single religious celebration anywhere in the world is the annual Haj celebrated by Muslims. Millions of Muslims observe a pilgrimage to Mecca and join in mass rituals and symbolic activities that must be the most spectacular of all religious performances. This includes a dramatisation of the journey undertaken by Ibrahim and Ishmail to the place of sacrifice, the interventions of Shaitan and the Stoning Wall. Nothing can rival that because of its overwhelming populous participation and grand spectacle all at one time in one place.
The Hindu celebrations of both Diwali and Holi or Phagwah also have their great spectacle, colour and public exhibitions. These will also include large numbers in populous locations in India for the explosions of colour in Holi ritual frolicking, or the symbolic array of lights in Diwali.
Millions of non-Hindus around the world will take part in Phagwah and go to see the lights wherever they are displayed. There will also be large-scale performances of chowtals and other music, dance and theatrics attracting large audiences. But these tend to be confined to the Indian diaspora. This diaspora is huge, involving millions in several parts of the world, but is nevertheless limited to wherever Hinduism exists. Comparatively, the Haj is Mecca, and any related Islamic activities are equally restricted to areas where Muslims live and the public outreach is not as great.
However, nothing even approaches the extent and popularity of Christmas in all parts of the world. It has the most thorough public outreach of all and has pervaded all cultures on all continents. Unlike the others, it is not confined to places where Christians live and is amazingly celebrated by members of other religions who observe it lavishly and participate in its secular traditions.
Although Christmas celebrates the birthday of Jesus Christ its origins are not that simple. A number of so-called ‘pagan’ practices, customs and spiritual beliefs contributed to it. One is the Saturnalia, a Roman celebration of epicurean and sensual nature which was adopted by the Christians who strove to change its bacchanalian characteristics into a more wholesome message. Being at the end of the year, it was also linked to other European traditions celebrating renewal and rebirth which came with the new year and conformed to one of the themes of the new dispensation and hope for mankind that came with Jesus’ nativity. Attached to these were the ancient worship of the evergreen trees and plants seen as having spiritual significance since they never died, never lost leaves and greenery in winter like other deciduous plants. This last was responsible for the significance of the holly and the ivy and much later, the Christmas tree.
There were several other additions and incorporations, many coming in the United Kingdom and Europe in the Middle Ages, including the Yuletide traditions and the Twelve Days of Christmas from December 25 to January 6; Christmas carols; gift giving and the name of the festival as used today, which derived from the Middle English language. Many of these developments included a growing list of non-religious traditions, feasting and drinking.
This celebration is also a traditional festival because of the wealth, depth and wide-ranging traditions and customs from which it grew and with which it has been associated. It is a national festival for many nations, being the largest festival they have, which belongs to all the population. It is a cultural festival because of the deep-rooted cultural practices that developed around it, including theatre, music, myth, literature, art, folk culture and popular culture. It is a strong cultural tradition in all these countries. Its simplest classification is that it is a calendar festival because it is fixed to a particular date each year and has a functional place on the national calendar.
Today, however, perhaps the most dominant of all the categories to which it belongs is its classification as a commercial festival. A very good example of this is Christmas in China. Well outside of any Christian reach or influence, Beijing and China’s other mighty cities ring with Christmas trees, decorations and Christmas music. This is so in places with an international presence, like large hotels, offices and organizations, quite likely in deference to the Westerners who are there. But that does not explain the visible and recognizable efforts to decorate and create the atmosphere on city streets and public places all around the urban centres.
Christmas Day is observed in China although it is not a public holiday. It is, however, a specially organized shopping day with activities on the day tailored for that activity. The multitudinous populations of Beijing and other cities recognize the day for its commercial opportunities and favourable shopping climate. That same atmosphere and climate obtains in practically all the world’s big cities. Even in ‘Christian’ countries where the significant day is December 25, sometimes lasting through to January 6, commercial concerns start whipping up the Christmas spirit from as early as October 31. That is because of the overwhelming degree to which the season has been thoroughly commercialized everywhere.
Mammoth industries have developed out of and around Christmas. These include the music industry, film, theatre, literature, Christmas cards, Christmas gifts, toys, decorations, lights, food, drinks and almost every other commodity or service that has been customised to suit the demands of the many traditions and observances in preparation for the season.
What supports all this commerce is the demand created by the many traditions that have evolved either from the main myth of the birth of Christ, the many traditions closely related to this and the spiritual meaning of the festival, as well as the very strong mythology, beliefs and customs that have nothing to do with any religious purpose. Those that relate to it include the giving of gifts. This is a part of the religious outreach in that it helps to popularise the religious beliefs and spiritual message. According to the belief, Jesus was God’s gift to the world for the salvation of mankind. The religious myth also included the three Magi or Wise Men from the East who brought gifts for Jesus to acknowledge him as King. Additionally, it is a season of good will, human kindness and friendship, and gifts and Christmas cards are exchanged in accordance with this. This is also a popular excuse for a drink. The Mediaeval custom of ‘wassailing’ included groups traversing from household to household singing carols and being rewarded with gifts, mainly of food and drink. This assists in the spreading of seasonal good cheer.
Among those that are totally secular is the largest of them all, the extensive collection of the popular mythology that Christmas has generated; the corpus of tales, beliefs (superstitions) and songs. Foremost among these is the myth of Santa Claus, with several claims to his actual historical or legendary existence. While this may be tied to the gift-giving outreach of the religion, Santa has generated his own mythology quite outside of this. This popular folklore is extremely extensive including the powers of the mistletoe, and the dramatis personae of elves and reindeer.
Another form of mythology may still be related to the religion, and this concerns the pastoral element. The story of the Nativity is often called pastoral because of the manger, the shepherd and the sheep, including the appearance of the star seen by the shepherds in the field which is part of the mythology. The pastoral is an ideal setting in the countryside with evergreen fields and shepherds living an untroubled life. The entire setting was so peaceful and idyllic it was fitting for Christ to come to earth.
All of these and many more are parts of the popular outreach of the typical religious festival. Much of it is tied to the religious belief, but in this case more of it is not. Like many religious festivals other activities evolve out of it with no connection to its origins, meaning and message. Since Mediaeval times Christmas has been known as a great feast, and much revelry has grown around it. Today the revelry has dominated and spiritual ritual has been taken over by spirituous ones. Christmas now abounds in most cultures worldwide as a popular secular festival.