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Christmas Traditions

| by Victor Cherubim

( December 20, 2014, London, Sri Lanka Guardian) Many of our Christmas traditions from Christmas trees, Christmas cards, the Crib, to crackers and carols, we inherited from our Colonial times, were in turn “invented” by Victorian England.

Do you know that Christmas was banned in England during the time of the Puritans (1652-60) as it was a pagan festival, until the restoration of the monarchy with the Stuart kings?

Do you know that Christmas Day was first celebrated on 25 December, in the 4th century AD after the proclamation of the Council of Tours, France, in 567, by Christians in the Western Roman Empire; while Christians in the Eastern Roman Empire preferred the 6 January? This period spans, “the 12 days of Christmas,” beginning with Christmas Day and ending with the Epiphany, or Christ, as Son of God.

Do we need to know or are we caught up in the conformity, we call Christmas?

The real meaning of Christmas?

Christmas, translates as Christ’s Mass, it is more about receiving rather than giving of gifts. The run up to Christmas is known as Advent, from the Latin “adventus,” meaning the coming of Christ into the world. The four week fast during Advent, in preparation for the coming of Christ was observed. Of course, it was all very well for people who had plenty of food to choose from and a meagre time for those who had little to eat, on whatever they could get. The act of sharing thus began. It was the sharing of joy, which was priceless.

The magic of Christmas

To recapture the magic of Christmas, we have to understand the tradition of the seasons in the Northern Hemisphere. It has been celebrated at some time, purely within a religious context, while at other times it has been so engulfed and entangled in Pagan rituals. Before Christendom, the seasons guided celebration. With the arrival of the Industrial Revolution in the mid 1700 to mid 1800, history tells us of the transition from rural to urban settlement and employment. The order of the day was separated families, as workers moved into town to get employment and backbreaking long hours of work. Christmas was Homecoming.

Many Victorians were determined to revive Christmas when scattered families and friends reunited to enjoy a traditional festive season. It was at this time that the religious, the charitable, the merriment, the feasting and sometimes fasting, and the good cheer all combined and brought together as one act. We see this depicted in pantomimes, we see it in practice.

Christmas customs

Many of the popular Christmas customs originated with Queen Victoria’s consort, Prince Albert who brought the idea of Christmas decorations and Christmas trees from his native Germany.

Charles Dickens’ classic story “A Christmas Carol” continues to spread Christmas cheer. Many of the carols date from that era including, “Silent Night”, “Away in a Manger,” “The First Noel” and “God rest ye Merry Gentlemen”.

Father Christmas, or “Santa Claus”, was, and is today, an integral part of the secular aspect of Christmas for many and particularly, for children. The developed traditions that revolved around St. Nicholas, concerned Santa leaving gifts for children, dropped down into stockings hung by the chimney. Writing for gifts to Father Christmas in Lapland as he rides Rudolph, the reindeer, delivering presents for well behaved children, may sound a fairy tale. But, this custom also dates back to Victorian times when Christmas was a time of charity, of giving and exchange of presents.

My Christmas in Sri Lanka and in London

There is perhaps, a distinct feel or dimension to Christmas in Sri Lanka and Christmas abroad. While many back home may disagree and long for Christmas abroad, a fever of anticipation, festivity and genuine frivolity, I experienced at home in Sri Lanka, is hardly seen or expected. Why, I wonder, it is nostalgia? Is it part of our insularity?

Notwithstanding the difference in climate, a noticeable lack of camaraderie or the religious feel to Christmas is seen wanting. For the Victorians, a family relationship, with emphasis on indoor entertainment, closeness, was important. The popular trappings of Christmas, “pantos”, “bonbons”, mince pies, Christmas pudding, mistletoe and wine, encapsulated the real warmth of the homecoming at Christmas. .

In contrast today we comfort ourselves by texting “cool” to go outdoors and have the cold look of our recognition of tightened budgets passing off as “merriment”. There is a mad rush on the Underground and on crowded buses to buy last minute Christmas presents at Oxford Street, by following the crowd. It is a battle of wits, braving the weather, the monotonous din of Christmas carols; canned music which has lost any symbolic meaning. The holly, the ivy and the mistletoe, all of Mother Nature, have sadly been replaced outdoors by the glitter of tinsel and tawdry decoration.

Kissing under the mistletoe, the plant most revered by the Druids, which played a major part in their winter solstice celebrations, is still an accepted tradition. But under caution, the liberated are hardly approached, unless they speak a different “lingo”.

London today at Christmas time is home to those from the Continent, who are virtually the “New Victorians”. According to tradition, every time a kiss was smacked, a berry was plucked off the mistletoe. When there were no more berries, there was no more kissing. Sadly, the available mistletoe is made of plastic and without the berries.

Nostalgic Christmas

Gone are the days when Mum would sit by the piano after midnight Mass, with her rendition of Christmas carols, with the entire family joining in music and song. Gone are the days when Dad would escort the entire family to receive the wishes/blessings of the elderly relatives, touching their feet on Christmas morning. Gone is the feeling of excitement of opening Uncle’s special Christmas present, with convulsions of laughter and good cheer, as we run our fingers through his curly locks in grateful thanks. People will tell you that Christmas is not what it used to be. Perhaps, that is “the” difference.
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