Reconnecting with the innocence of childhood
by Douglas Lockhart
It is interesting to note that in the early history of the United States, the tradition of Christmas was suppressed, and that in England it is only since the middle of the 19th century that the Puritan objection to Christmas as being pagan in origin has been overcome. Becoming increasingly popular, Christmas has been commercialised and turned into a event of significant economic importance, the figure of Father Christmas dominating the whole season. Also known as Santa Claus, Father Christmas has been changed into a benevolent magician, his arrival and departure in the early hours of December 25 with presents for the young a mystery indulged in by adults and children alike.
But there is in fact much more to Father Christmas than meets the eye, for he was, originally, a Greek-speaking bishop of the Christian Church, and as early as the 6th century was recognised as a saint – St. Nicholas. In this role, 25 churches were dedicated to him in Constantinople, 45 in Rome and 40 in Iceland. Made the patron saint of Russia and Lorraine, he was invoked by charitable fraternities and merchant guilds in France, the Netherlands, Germany and England.
Famous for his miracles and the subject of many legends, it was believed that St, Nicholas had brought three children back to life after they had been chopped up by a butcher and put in a salting vat. A friend of the poor, the sick and the unhappy, his reputation grew century by century, and was eventually transformed into the jovial, slightly tipsy-looking character of present-day Christmas cards. Thought to have been the bishop of the Roman province of Myra in Lycia (Asia Minor) around the end of the fourth century, this remarkable man was eventually changed into Santa Claus by the Netherland Protestant settlers in New Amsterdam (New York), and into Father Christmas or Father January by the reformed churches of Germany.
Moving his Feast day from December 6 to that of the 25th, these reformers unwittingly set in motion a tradition which would all but eclipse the meaning of Christmas in relation to Jesus Christ. For important as the babe in a manger remains, it is the figure of Santa Claus which now dominates the imagination of children world wide.
Date of Christ’s Nativity has no historical validity
Tradition has it that Jesus was born in a stable on December 25, but this date has no historical validity. Both the Western and Eastern Church were in early disagreement on a date for the Nativity, the most likely date being 8BC. The reason for this is that in Luke’s Gospel the Nativity is placed during the Census decreed by Caesar Augustus, and that Census took place in 8BC. Also, Matthew’s Gospel tells us that Jesus was born during the reign of King Herod, and Herod died in 4BC. As Herod seems to have been in full flight during Jesus’ first year of life, the date of 8BC is again likely.
The first known celebration of Christmas is dated as late as the second quarter of the fourth century in Rome. Choosing December 25, Western Christians linked into the already well-established Roman celebration of the old Roman feast of Sol Invictus (the Unconquered Sun), and in doing so quite consciously aligned Jesus as “sun of righteousness” with the pagan “day of the unconquered sun” – a festival inaugurated by the emperor Aurelian in AD 274. Why? Because it allowed Christianity to replace the Sol Invictus cult with their own version of divine events. The pre-Christian, mid-winter pagan festival celebrated on December 25 perfectly suited Christian purposes, and by 500AD it was accepted by the whole of the Western Church as an official date for the Nativity.
Pagan origins of Christmas festival are plainly evident
The pagan origins of the Christian festival are plainly evident in the secular customs which surround the birth of Jesus, customs which have now largely overtaken that event. Celebrating the sun’s renewal of strength, the citizens of Rome indulged in merry-making and an exchange of presents. They also decorated their houses with greenery and lights, and gave presents to children and the poor. Under the later influence of the Germano-Celtic tribes the Church added the tradition of feasting to Christmas, replaced the sacred oak of Odin with a fir tree dedicated to the Holy Child, and incorporated both Yule log and Yule cakes into its celebrations.
Absorbing the Yuletide custom of Teutonic good will and friendly greeting during the solstice period, it combined these quite natural exhibitions of good will with the midwinter festivities of the Romans and produced a season of merriment and light-hearted thankfulness dedicated to Jesus. And so Christmas became, as attested to by St John Chrysostom in a sermon in AD 387, chief among the Christian festivals, a festival of light, love, good will and openness.
Reconnecting with childhood innocence
Our memories of Christmas as children are probably among the strongest we have – they are filled with a kind of magic, a magic which no other season can match. Mesmerised by a sense of impending delight as the day approaches, children are overtaken by visions of a white-bearded, red-robed and over-weight Father Christmas struggling down chimneys complete with bulging sack. And all around are the symbols and sounds of Christmas which help hold this hallucinatory state of mind in place, a state of mind within which fir trees, lights, bells, reindeer and a sleigh laden with coloured boxes coalesce with carols, angels and nativity scenes.
In shop windows and in churches the baby Jesus can be seen lying in his manger, his parents kneeling reverently nearby, shepherds and wise men and animals completing the scene. Angels look down from above. A bright star hangs in the inky blackness of the heavens. In a child’s mind the whole conglomerate congeals into a breathless waiting. Santa Claus is coming, and so too is Jesus, it seems.
There is delight in watching the very young immerse themselves in this tide of wonder and colour, but also a sadness as we see the pragmatism of older children cause these youngsters to doubt. And within ourselves the sadness of having lost our own childlike simplicity, our capacity to be arrested by myth. Don’t tell the youngsters that Santa doesn’t exist, we say to the older children. Leave them be.
But what of Jesus and the story of his miraculous birth? In our daily brush with modernity, has Jesus gone the same way as Santa Claus? Has the glare and blare of so many commercial Christmases disoriented our senses? Are our faces as blank as any ten year-old’s confronted by a sibling’s untarnished enchantment?
As with Santa Claus, we’ll probably go through the motions. In fact we may go to church with the express intention of going through the motions whether we have children or not. Which is a little bit like dressing up as Santa Claus, creeping into the lounge and leaving presents beneath the tree for ourselves. We know what we’re doing, but ignore the incongruities of the act. We’re trying to recapture something, and where better to recapture that lost something than in the company of others with the same need, the need to reconnect with childhood innocence.
But what is this thing called ‘innocence’ that we prize so much? The Macquarie dictionary’s definition of the word is of someone free from moral wrong, someone untainted by sin. A pure person. A guiltless person. Someone who will not cause physical or moral injury. A harmless, guileless person. A young child. Which would brings us full circle but for two further qualifications: a simpleton or idiot. A return to innocence would require us to become either perfect in word and deed, or, alternatively, mindless. Not much of a choice given the impossibility of our attaining the first state, or the obvious undesireability of the second.
Unconditional trust and openness
Reconnecting with our childhood has, then, little to do with innocence in this sense – it has more to do with touching something deep down in ourselves, something forever present but mostly held at bay through our being adults in an adult world. Fed up with adult cynicism, with adult lying, and with adult greed, we detect in the innocence of a child’s gaze a capacity for unconditional trust and openness. What we’re trying to recapture as we decorate our Christmas tree, attend a carol service or tip-toe into a child’s bedroom, is a strengthening of these very factors in ourselves. We are perhaps unconsciously positioning ourselves in the hope that the barrier of adult distrust will melt away, that we will experience, even if only fleetingly, reconnection with the more expansive elements of our nature.
In its pagan aspect, Christmas carries an anciently worked example of friendship and sharing, and in its Christian aspect a reconnection of the human with that which transcends the limitations of the human. Whatever one’s beliefs, and however distracting the blaze of the Christmas season might be, there is undoubtedly something extra in the air during this time of goodwill and good humour. Perhaps it is the recognition that a door has opened within us. Perhaps it is the realisation that we now have to reach inward, as well as outward.