Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Seasons Greetings!

Cultural Anthropology is one of the largest subfields of our discipline, studying the ways of living, knowing and believing of people around the world. With that in mind, I thought a post about the origin of Christmas, which I personally celebrate, would probably be appropriate on a day like today......(forgive my cheekiness. It's Christmas.)

While I personally identify with no particular religion, I can say I personally believe in God (and honestly, Gods) even though I ascribe to no particular way of celebrating them, other than my own. Celebrating Christmas is something I have always done with my half Roman Catholic half Lutheran (and thus United) family, and it means a great deal to me personally - so how did it really start? What's the story of the origin of Christmas?

Christmas is the annual celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ, observed worldwide by billions of people. Traditionally, Christmas is the first of the 12 days of Christmastide, which ends with Twelfth Night. It is also celebrated by non-Christians, having become a civil and commercial holiday in many countries - as well as an excuse to spoil your loved ones with gifts.

Jesus is believed to have been born between 7 and 2 BC, and the 4th century most churches in the West had placed that date on December 25th. It's possible that Christmas Day was chosen to be 9 months after Christ's conception, but there is also a connection to many polytheistic festivals such as Saturnalia, the Roman winter solstice celebration.

Today, Christmas comes with a group of older and modern traditions. Exchanging holiday cards, festooning houses and trees with Christmas lights and decorations  (I'll be honest, at my house we have one of those fantastic and somewhat obnoxious inflatable decorations, which features Santa in helicopter), 'Secret Santa' gift exchanges, and putting up and decorating Christmas trees (usually of the Pine or Spruce variety) are only some of the ways many people celebrate this day. The practice of decorating houses goes back to the 15th century, with ivy and bay branches being swagged about houses in London, England.
The White House Christmas Tree

The Christmas Tree is one of my personal favourites. In my family, we go to the farm we've gone to for about 20 years now, cut down our own tree, tie it down to our car, and bring it home to put up in a wrought iron tree stand that I could barely haul up from the basement as a child. Christmas trees started out as a pagan tradition stemming from the celebration of the Winter Solstice that was first adopted by Christians in Germany after Saint Boniface chopped down an Oak tree dedicated to Thor and declared that firs were more suitable reverent objects than oak trees. Firs point to heaven and have a triangular shape, symbolizing the Holy Trinity. From Germany the custom spread to Britain by Queen Charlotte, wife of George III. They became popular under the reign of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, and by the 1870s the custom was common in the United States. Sleighs, snowmen, candles, wreaths, nativity scenes, garlands, and Christmas Villages are also common decorations to see at Christmas.

Christmas also includes several mythical figures that bring gifts to children who have behaved well all year, that go by the names of Santa Claus, Father Christmas, Saint Nicolas, Chris Kringle, etc. Santa has names in most languages that celebrate the custom, and each "Santa figure" comes with its own backstory. Another common tradition is leaving a glass of milk, cookies for Santa, and carrots for the Reindeer beside the fireplace before a child goes to bed. Santa always appreciates a snack, and sure enough the food will be gone in the morning.

Christmas music and carols are also an important part of the season. Many have religious meaning, such as Hark the Herald Angels Sing or Away in a Manger. Still others are silly songs that celebrate the season itself, such as Jingle Bells or Deck the Halls.

These are some of the things that I celebrate and take part in at Christmas, what does your family do? Anyways, I'm off to drink a hot cider and open some presents. No matter what you do on December 25th, whether you celebrate Christmas or just head out to a movie, I wish you safe travels and good cheer this holiday season.

Happy Christmas, from Inside Anthropology.


  1. Very nice article and blog overall. It is simply fascinating to witness the diversity of cultures in the world. Just as deep one can go trying to completely understand one religion and the people who follow it, one can just as easily get immersed into another one with just as much interest, I personally find.

  2. Thanks for commenting! Glad you liked the article :) Hope you keep reading!