Over time, the best and worst in people becomes concentrated and specified. The dual nature of Christmas is a superb example. When I was a kid we had very little money, and our lack of material possessions coalesced into the just the kind of devotion to buying things you don’t need you can observe at your local retail outlet. For a few years I was into robots, culminating in the appearance one year of a talking, three-foot plastic monster with multiple weapons systems. My mother must have pawned her engagement ring to get Big Loo.
Back then I didn’t understand that traditions like celebrating in late December, gift giving, and dancing around a decorated tree existed hundreds of years before Jesus lived. Long before history was written down, poor people slaughtered livestock in the dead of winter because there wouldn’t be enough grain to feed them until spring. For many, it was the only time of year they had fresh meat. Additionally, fermenting beverages sealed away in kegs and bottles at harvest-time would first be drinkable at this time. These seasonal riches, plus the prudent idea to celebrate your survival when there’s little food and it’s cold outside made for a potent party mix.
The notion of co-opting already well-established celebrations like Yule, Saturnalia and the Feast of Mithra came from the early church. You must admit it was smarter to encourage people to adopt ANOTHER reason for celebrating than it would have been to try banning non-religious reasons for observances of December 25th. Despite this initial good idea, there have been some problems courtesy of religious zealots. Oliver Cromwell and the Puritans tried to cancel Christmas in Britain, but it came back with the restoration of Charles II. The sacred and secular aspects of the Midwinter holidays eventually fused in the person of Santa Claus.
The Santa we know about is a good illustration of the way history and changing cultures refine legends from pieces of similar good stories and characters. St. Nicholas, the 4th Century Bishop of Myra, was a rich man known for giving gifts to the poor. Part of his post-sainthood legend is riding a flying horse, an aspect shared with Odin. Odin and Nick both had magical servant-helpers and long, white beards. The Dutch gift-giver Sinterklaas merged with the British Father Christmas. Then came THE poem (Night Before Christmas) and the Thomas Nast caricatures and the Coca-Cola ads, but that all happened a long time ago.
Christmas is not a pleasant experience for everyone. Not for those who are hungry or lonely. It’s a hard time of year for people missing loved ones they can’t be with. The orgy of buying makes those who can’t keep up feel ashamed. Children can’t understand why some have so much and some so little. I understand it, but I don’t like it either. However, Charles Dickens was right. It isn’t too late to change. You can own Christmas, the kind everyone deserves.
The common truth shared with us by Jesus, Scrooge and the Grinch is that being generous in spirit transforms the experience of living. That’s what’s in Santa’s sack, underneath the boxes. If you share the best of who you are with others, they will give the same gift back to you. It doesn’t cost a penny, and it’s priceless.