The crafters of what we call “traditional” were writers such as Charles Dickens, for the 19th century saw a revival of sentiment, and longing for the warm and cozy feeling we now consider integral to Christmas. Writers spoke to those needs in their stories, and with the improved circulation of printed matter, practices became rooted in the public mind. No surprise then that today’s Christmas traditions are increasingly formed by the media, for ‘twas ever thus.
Christmas traditions worldwide are many and varied. Like most traditions, they are dynamic, that is, cultures, individuals, and families alter them to suit. Nothing is sacred, and be assured that, were turkey to become very expensive,America’s traditional Christmas meal would change to accommodate. Many customs date back to the Romans and the Celts (gift giving, lighting fires). At times in the history of the Western world, Christmas was not celebrated at all. In 1659, Puritans in the American colonies imposed a fine of five shillings on anyone who observed Christmas by feasting or withholding labor.
The symbols (wise men, shepherds, Santa Claus, virgin mother, child savior, visions from God, Christmas trees, gifts, animals) are derived from the mythologies of cultures, in customs so old that they may be part of human nature or our psyche. Snow enhances the picture because of our longing to feel safe and warm in a cold world. People south of the equator, however, respond in their manner, and an Argentine ladies’ magazine may feature salad recipes for Christmas gatherings.
In the plethora of traditions, there is one constant, however, and that is the contrast between light and dark. There is the black of winter, of night, the black of shadows beyond the firelight. The Christ child represents light in a darkened world, hope in the face of the dark side of life. No accident that Hannukah is the festival of lights. We could even suggest that the proper color of Christmas is neither red, white, or green, but black, or perhaps black and white.
Our family gatherings are often the result of a healthy insistence on social effort even when we would prefer to refrain from dealing with our fellows. Indeed, stirred by longing for light and warmth, we gather, the specter of Scrooge reminding us of the consequences of withholding charitable interaction. So let us meet others this year, grateful for the opportunity to renew ties and mend anything that may be broken.
♪ “This little light of mine, I’m gonna’ let it shine.”