In recent years there seems to be more of an effort by a few to make Christmas more politically correct. Given the ethnic and cultural diversity of the United States some schools have even went so far as to eliminate Christmas carols from their classrooms and some people feel we should rename the holiday, taking the word Christ out of it.
Cultures throughout the Western world have celebrated this chilly time of year forever it seems, perhaps the most famous early Western observance being the Roman festival of Saturnalia, a time of feasting and gambling. As with Saturnalia, ancient winter observances cluster curiously around the winter solstice, a kind of seasonal apex falling on Dec. 21 or 22, after which, the days grow increasingly long as the sun rises on the horizon.
Northern European tribes were no exception, bringing in many of the Pagan symbols and practices originally intended to celebrate the coming spring and now associated with the modern Western Christmas celebration. These including holly, ivy, mistletoe, the yule log, the giving of gifts, the decorating evergreen and the magical reindeer to name only a few.
Whatever name people choose to call this joyous time of the year, the real truth is that its a holiday with many traditions, all gathered from dozens of cultures and accumulated over centuries. Like any holiday, the name is but a small part of the celebration. Christmas in America is celebrated hundreds of ways with at least as many traditions. In my opinion none of these traditions are not necessarily right or wrong, they just are.
People with strong Christian ties tend to make it a more religious holiday, serious and solemn, based on the humble beginnings of the story of the birth of Christ. However, down the street, other families have turned the holiday into a gift-giving, child-centered extravaganza, centered around Santa Claus, his herd of festive reindeer and the multitude of traditions far removed from the manger.
Just because we don't believe a certain way or have chosen a different tradition to celebrate this time of the year doesn't mean that others don't have the right to their beliefs.
The first Christmas tree in recorded history appeared in 1611 when German farmers decorated them artfully in grateful tribute to a generous earth. Martin Luther, the German monk and church reformer first started the modern concept of indoor tree decorations. Christians have associated the tree with the birth, believing that on the night, all kinds of creatures came to Bethlehem with gifts.
And speaking of gifts the custom of Santa Claus coming along with a sack of gifts is related with the life of Saint Nicholas, a generous saint who lived in Turkey. He was very fond of children and apparently kind to the poor and downtrodden.
Other traditions that our society has continued include the poinsettia, the legend coming from Mexico. The story, as I remember it, tells of two children on their way to a village church to celebrate Christmas and gathered a handful of weeds and decided to take these as a gift to the baby Jesus.
For centuries, holly has been the subject of myths, legends and customary observances. Holly is a symbol of good luck and by decorating the home during this time of the year, it is a symbol of delights and merriment. Even the candy cane takes on a symbolism, representing the shape of the staff.
And Rudolph joined the Christmas tradition in 1939 when Montgomery Wards Executive Robert May wrote a book called "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer." Santa's in the stores gave away more than two million copies and in 1949, Gene Autrey, country singer, composed a musical rendition of the book, making it an overnight best-seller.
The wonderful thing about this holiday is that it's whatever we want to make it. It can be the most wonderful day of the year or the worst. It can be based on many peoples' religious roots or it can be built on modern commercialism and have no ties whatsoever with the birth of Jesus. It is a time where children seem happier than any other day of the year or it can be the holiday that brings out the worst in people. It's certainly the one holiday that has taken on a life of its own and I can't imagine how renaming it would solve any of the concerns.
So whatever traditions you have taken on and for whatever reason, relish in them, they are yours.