Saturday, December 15, 2007

Dispelling Myths about Christmas

Christmas is the only holiday that is both a legal federal holiday and a Christian celebration. That’s probably because Christmas is two holidays in one; it has a secular component that includes Santa Claus, presents, decorations, and parties. It also has a religious component, which includes church services and the celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ.

But both sides of the Christmas holiday are fraught with myths and urban legends. So I thought I’d dig a little deeper into the history of the season to uncover my top 10 myths about Christmas. I’ll start with five urban legends about secular Christmas.

Myth 1 – The image of Santa Claus as a fat jolly man with a white beard and red suit and driving a sleigh pulled by reindeer has always been associated with Christmas.

Actually, Santa Claus is loosely based on St. Nicholas of Turkey. He was the patron saint of children and sailors. He was very pious and generous, but he was not fat. He was a very thin man. He drove no sleigh that anyone knows about, and certainly there are no reindeer in Turkey. The poem usually attributed to Clement C. Moore, “A Visit from St. Nicholas” was published in 1823 and is the source of the modern conception of Santa Claus.

Myth 2 – The candy cane was invented by a candy maker in Indiana around the turn of the last century.

Candy canes were invented in France in the 1400s. They were solid white. A German cleric put the crook in the cane to make it look like a shepherd’s staff for the kids of the church. The red stripes were added in the early 1900s.

Myth 3 – Clement Clarke Moore wrote the poem, “’Twas the Night before Christmas.”

Actually, the title of the poem is “A Visit from Saint Nicholas.” And there is considerable doubt as to who its author is. Evidence also points to Henry Livingston Jr. as the author. Moore, himself, originally denied authorship.

Myth 4 – Poinsettias, the red-leafed houseplant that decorates many-a-home on Christmas, is poisonous.

Although it is not meant to be eaten, and it might give you an upset stomach if you did eat it, as would most other houseplants, the poinsettia is not particularly toxic. Mistletoe berries, however, are poisonous.

Myth 5 – Commercialism has spoiled Christmas.

Well, when you consider that prior to the Civil War, Christmas was a rather obscure holiday in America, which was scantly celebrated and at best was considered a minor holiday, commercialism may have actually saved Christmas. After the war, commercial interests found that by hyping Christmas as a time of giving, decorating, and having fun, they could increase their profit margins substantially. So, far from being ruined by commercialism, the fact that Christmas is now by far the most celebrated season of the year is thanks to commercial interests.

Now for the religious myths surrounding Christmas:

Myth 6 – Jesus was born on December 25 in the year 1.

Actually, no one knows when Jesus was born, nor even where he was born. The bible says that there was a census for the entire world, called by Emperor Caesar. In fact historically, there never was such a census, so it can’t be used to narrow down the date. Most historians believe he was born sometime between 7 and 1 BCE. And he was not born in December. Since shepherds didn’t watch their flocks by night in the winter, he was surely born sometime between April and October. The early church decided to hijack the pagan solstice celebration, which occurred in late December, and Christianize it.

Myth 7 – A bright star in the sky hung directly over the stable where Jesus was born.

There have been several hypotheses put forth as to what the star actually was. These include a comet, a supernova, and a planetary conjunction. But there are no astronomical events on record that could account for the star. The closest one is a planetary conjunction that took place in 7 BCE, but the conjunction did not hang in the sky over Bethlehem.

Myth 8 – Three wise men from the East visited the baby Jesus.

Actually, the bible doesn’t say how many visitors from the East there were. And biblical accounts (Matt. 2:11) suggest the visits were to a small child in a house, not a baby in a manger. So the visit must have occurred much later.

Myth 9 – The term Xmas is disrespectful to Christians because it leaves out “Christ.”

In fact, Xmas is derived from the Greek term, Xristos, which does begin with an X and is, indeed, a reference to Christ.

Myth 10 – Christmas has always been the biggest Christian holiday.

People always say, “Let’s put Christ back into Christmas.” But until the nineteenth century, Christmas was shunned in America. Early Protestants almost never celebrated it. In fact, for 25 years in the 1700s, it was against the law to celebrate Christmas openly in Massachusetts.


Jennifah said...

I just came back to Ohio from an internship in NYC, which pretty much drained me of money for shopping this Christmas. I've been trying to shake off negative feelings because I can't buy as many people gifts or even better gifts than I was able to.

I decided to read the scriptures explaining the birth of Christ, so I can focus on what the holiday celebrates. There are definitely ways to give to people that don't involve spending money. For example - I've raked leaves and shoveled the driveway for my mom because she has Fibromyalgia and her body tends to ache when it gets cold.

I moved on to search the origins of Christmas symbols in our society. I remember hearing that candy canes were a symbol of the staffs carried by the three wise men. I can't think of where I heard that, nor can I find it online anywhere.

I just found your blog randomly and decided to comment. Merry Christmas!

Megan said...

Note from an Historian: early Christians did not decide to hijack the pagan festival on 25 December. It was part of the strategic move by Constantine to enforce Christian religion in order to control his empire. Constantine never converted to Christianity, merely controlled it, whilst continuing to worship deities such as Baal in the temples underneath his palace. Interestingly, the early Christians never celebrated the birth of Jesus, as this type of celebration was a global characteristic of pagan worship, rather they celebrated the resurrection of Jesus. This explains the aversion to the celebration of Christmas in Massachusetts. :)