Last Saturday was Christmas Eve. Since you are still a “blank page” and not conditioned and patterned by cultural customs, yet, you probably don’t have any special connection to it. Being born and raised in Germany, however, I have a strong connection to it, since it is the “biggest” holiday throughout the year. Now I am in Taiwan. Here, people have a very different idea of Christmas. This made me think about “culture” and “customs”, which I’d like to share with you today.
First, a little bit of history: Christmas is celebrated by Christians as the birth of Jesus Christ. However, the Bible, the most important source book of Christian belief, doesn’t mention any date. So, why December 25th? In the Roman empire, it was not common to celebrate birthdays, except for that of the emperor. When in the 3rd and 4th century AD clerical leaders became more influential, they promoted and established the celebration of Jesus’ birth who – according to their belief – is the highest “King” of all. The first reported “Christmas” was held in 367AD. The choice of the date is a great example of the most impacting factor on human culture and customs: nature and its phenomena like weather, climate, seasons, etc. Civilised human societies tend to integrate natural symbolism into their rituals and customs to a large extend. This is the ubiquitous process of “constructing meaning from experience”, the basis of all life. Jesus was celebrated as their savior from suffering and sins, the bringer of hope and “light”. In Europe, the influence of the seasons (long warm days in summer, short cold days in winter) is stronger than in areas closer to the equator like Taiwan. From observations of the sun the people knew that days get shorter in autumn until a day known as “winter solstice”. In the “Julian calendar” used at that time, that was December 25th. From then on, days get longer again, symbolising the appearance of the bringer of light – a perfect day to celebrate Jesus! It also shows a human trait that is independent from all manifested forms of religious practice: the desire to have a pleasant life free from atrocities and suffering that arises from social and environmental conditions (cruel leaders, natural catastrophes, etc.), and the constant hope that “things get better”. This makes the members of a clan (e.g. a family) cooperative and supportive. Therefore, I tend to believe that it is not directly Jesus that made the people celebrate Christmas, but the human culture of giving each other warmth and hope in the dark times. Later, the Gregorian calendar substituted the Julian calendar as the commonly used one. Winter solstice, since then, was December 22nd, but Christmas was kept on December 25th, that’s why today the two events are on different days.
The element of “giving” is in one or the other way manifested in all cultural realms. Two more legends about giving and sharing are important for the history of Christmas. The first is that of the Bishop of Mira in Ancient Turkey, named Nikolaus. In times of drought and famine, he committed a miraculous act of providing enough food for the population of his town by unloading much more from a ship than could have been in it. In fact, the ship was almost empty when it arrived, but he told the workers to keep unloading and it took long time until it was actually empty. This miracle put him into the state of a “Saint”. He was also known for visiting the houses of poor families, giving gifts to the children. The Kids of the town, then, often indicated their biggest wishes by placing letters or other items in the windows of their room, so Saint Nikolaus could respond to their wish. His honorary day is December 6th, and until the 16th century it was a custom in Christian Europe that parents give gifts to children on that day (with the educational element of checking whether they behaved well throughout the year). The church reformer Martin Luther attempted to move this custom of giving gifts from Saint Nikolaus’ day to Christmas since Jesus is the more prominent “bringer of light/hope/love” than any Saint. Since then, Christian families give gifts on both days.
In Northern Europe, which is much colder and more snowy than the South, and also much darker in the winter time, there are different legends and tales about giving. The most prominent might be the one of “Father Frost”. Probably, this legend arose from a grumpy hermit living in the deep forest, surrounding himself with mysterious and sometimes scary stories. “Stay away from him! He eats children!”. He was depicted as a kind of beggar man with ragged clothes and a wild tousled white beard. But he was told to have a kind heart, and in the darkest and coldest nights of the year he sneaked into the villages, just to create something joyful, amusing or entertaining for the people, especially the Kids. Maybe he even made gifts.
Now we change the location, from Europe to North America. During the 18th and 19th century, millions of European tried to start a new life in the “New World”, crossing the ocean on ships, bringing European customs and traditions – or their interpretations of them – to America. Many of those emigrants, however, wanted to break with those old European traditions. Christmas lost its meaning. But people need narratives, something to belief in. During the 19th century, those above mentioned legends all mixed and merged into a new figure: Father Christmas, or “Santa Claus”. You can easily see the elements of Father Frost and the Saint Nikolaus in it, even though both have literally nothing to do with Christmas, except for their special trait of “giving”. In the late 19th century, the CocaCola company used Santa Claus as an advertisement figure and dressed him in the company’s colour red. As you can see today, this had a huge impact on the global perception of Christmas. US-American imperialism brought this form of “corporate Christmas” to all parts of the world, so that today even the non-Christian societies celebrate “X-mas”. This has two sides: Positively said, the idea of “giving warmth and love” is so universal that it does not necessarily have to relate to Jesus Christ, so for the “X” in “X-mas” you may insert your own personal belief or religion. Negatively said, however, we can state that a once meaningful and culturally deeply rooted and naturally grown custom is degenerated into a commercial “romantic” holiday that lost its original meaning. Today, people all over the planet watch American Hollywood movies presenting “the Christmas atmosphere” – something that has to do with snow, eating birds and having romances – and try to artificially create that same atmosphere even when the climate (no snow, not even cold), the local food culture (no roasted turkeys) and the idea of “romance” (e.g. in the more interpersonally distant Confucian societies) are entirely different. The “original desire to give and to form clan ties by establishing rituals and customs” is now replaced by the mindless and meaningless “longing for being like others” as a desperate try to be “as cool/fancy/funny/special as them”. Take Taiwan, for example: The big majority has no idea what Christmas is originally about. They know it from American movies. They think it is about Santa Claus, so they wear red hats, and the main element is “romance”, so it is comparable to our “Valentine’s Day”. The idea of clan- or family-internal giving of warmth and hope, of active creation of harmony and peace is lost.
For me, Christmas is strongly associated to childhood memories. My family is not religious, but in Germany it is impossible not to celebrate Christmas. Everybody does. Luckily (from a certain perspective), my family didn’t follow Christian rituals blindly, but we have always been aware of what Christmas is about: peaceful, cozy, heart-warming family time. When the sun sets at 4pm and rises at 9am, it just feels good to have a tree decorated with lights in front of the main door of our house. Preparing gifts for the other family members – self-made or bought – is as joyful as receiving the gifts from the others on Christmas Eve. This was the most special time of the year! Now, in Taiwan, I can’t have “Christmas mood”. My family (parents, grandparents, siblings) is not here, and the climate is different, too (not cold and dark enough). That’s why we could hold our annual “Gingerbread House Party” on Christmas Eve! In Germany, it wouldn’t work, because nobody would come since it is THE family festival of the year.
I was thinking a lot about what kind of traditions and family customs to expose you to. I am not religious and don’t want to indoctrinate you with biblical stories of Jesus that I myself don’t believe in. But even more, I don’t want to “teach” you that Christmas has something to do with red hats and buying expensive toys for you. Constructing meaning from experience. This should be the orientation for everything we decide to do. We experience love and the desire to make each other happy. Times are not always smooth and pleasant. Winter Solstice is a good example for the ups and downs of daily life: Days get shorter, darker, colder, but soon they will get longer, warmer, brighter again. And after all, it is us humans that make each other’s lives joyful, hopeful and happy. I hope, we can let you feel these experiences and their real meaning for our life. Then it doesn’t need Santas, reindeers, material gifts, church services or special meals. Then it is about love. Jesus would like that!