Is it the birth date of Jesus Christ and the day that Santa Claus comes or is it the day that the pagan Father Christmas visits during the winter solstice to give blessings? Could it even be the celebration of the life of a kindly 4th century orphan boy who became a saint?
When I thought of how to explain it to my child I realized how little I knew about it. I began to think that maybe some research is in order to make sure I get my story straight. Kids have a way of exploiting inconsistencies.
What is the meaning of Christmas I hear you ask? Well, here is what I found out….
The actual date of Jesus’ birth is unknown and December 25th was chosen by the Roman Catholic Church as the day to celebrate this event.
There was already a pagan festival on that day and the reasoning was that it is easier to keep the celebration and change the meaning rather than take the holiday away all together leaving a void. So Christmas is the celebration of the birth of Jesus, just not on his actual birthday.
Does Saint Nicholas have anything to do with the meaning of Christmas?
Yes. Good Bishop Saint Nicholas from 4th century Greece was son to wealthy parents who tragically passed away when he was only young. As a devout Christian, Nicholas used his whole inheritance to help the poor and needy children in an effort to obey the words of Jesus.
The Feast of Saint Nicholas is on December 19th in the old calendar (Dec 6th in modern times) which is the date of his actual death.
Legend has it that he would secretly leave gifts of gold coins to those in need by walking through the streets at night and throwing the coins into their open windows. The coins would sometimes land in the socks (or stockings) hanging by the fire to dry and so the tradition of checking your stockings and shoes for gifts was born.
What does Santa have to do with the meaning of Christmas?
Santa Claus is an Americanization of the Saint Nicholas story. In the 19th century an American poet wrote the poem “The night before Christmas” about Saint Nicholas, portraying him as a jolly, rounded fellow dressed in fur with ruddy complexion and long white hair and beard. This lead to many drawings and cartoons of the Saint looking more like a caricature than a real man and a legend was born.
Father Christmas is the British version of Santa Claus and thus has inherited all of the same attributes.
Originally Father Christmas came from the pagan winter solstice celebrations (or shortest day of the year) where he would visit houses to receive food and drink and bless the inhabitants for the rest of the winter.
So what is the meaning of Christmas? For us it will be the story of Jesus and the modern good Bishop Nicholas (Santa) who followed in his footsteps.
Religion and legend aside, Christmas is the time of year when we celebrate the goodness, generosity and love that has been present in the world in whatever form that may take.
Ho ho ho…