This is my favorite time of year. It is also my wife’s and my children’s favorite time of year. We celebrate Christmas not so much because we all believe the mythology, both Christian and other, that has become so totally embedded in Western/American culture. You do not have to be any kind of fundamentalist Christian to celebrate the spirit of Christmas.
Exactly what is the spirit of Christmas? Christmas, for me and mine, is about family first and foremost. It is, for many families, the only time of year that everyone in the family gets together either in person or through some communication media. The most important family members a Christmas are the children. When the children are small, Christmas for them is pretty much all about presents. As they get older, children learn to appreciate the real spirit of Christmas. I have two sons who still live at home, and a daughter I have not seen in 5 ½ years. The older of my two sons is autistic and he just loves Christmas! Because of his autism, he is very much like a large three-year-old. And I mean large! He is 6 foot three and weighs about 260 pounds. He just loves opening presents on Christmas morning. It doesn’t matter to him what the present is, just as long as there are presents. His name is Ian, in case you did not know, and he is 22 years old.
My younger son, Michael, will be 21 a few days after Christmas. For him, Christmas is about being together with your family and about all the delicious food that are traditionally cooked and baked in my house at Christmas. My wife, Elizabeth, loves to cook and bake! She loves cooking so much she does it for a living. Like me, Elizabeth is half-German. The other half is Polish. There are a lot of similarities between German cooking and Polish cooking. No surprise there! After all, the two cultures had been neighbors for millennia. One of the traditional German foods for Christmas is something called stollen. Stollen is a sweet yeast bread full of candied fruit, raisins and chopped nuts. It is served with powdered sugar sprinkled on top or a sugar glaze. My mother made stollen every year at Christmas when I was growing up. My wife makes it every year and has done so for just about every Christmas we have been together (28 of them). For us, it is not Christmas if there is no stollen!
Another ancient (read pre-Christian) central European tradition is ham at Christmas. Originally, the ham was served still attached to the rest of the boar! 🙂 Both German cuisine and Polish cuisine are well-known for their hams. Given that my wife is both Polish and German, it goes without saying that she serves a mean ham at Christmas! 🙂
One last central European Christmas culinary tradition that even most Americans follow is cookies – that is, homemade cookies! My wife takes her vacation around Christmas so she can do her Christmas baking and decorating. This year she is getting some help. Our son Michael loves to cook and bake almost as much as his mother. He is helping Elizabeth by making three different kinds of cookies all by himself. One of the cookies Michael is baking is a traditional Jewish treat called Rugelach. One of the other two is my personal favorite, gingerbread. And the third is an old German classic – snickerdoodles! He’s putting a bit of a twist on them, though, my making them into Nutella sandwich cookies. My wife is making chocolate chip and oatmeal raisin cookies. Not your traditional Christmas fare, but they are Ian’s favorites. The fact that both Michael and I love them is not as important as the fact that he loves them. Ian is not really into exotic cuisine, so they may very well be the only cookies he eats this year, haha!
A non—culinary Christmas tradition from central Europe that predates Christianity and that is very important in celebrating Christmas at our house, especially when the kids were little, is Santa Claus. For most of you, that probably applies to your house as well. Ian still loves Santa Claus, but that is to be expected of an overgrown three-year-old! 🙂 How many of you really know the cultural background that produced Santa Claus?
I am guessing most of you are familiar with the Christian mythology of St. Nicholas, the 4th century bishop of Smyrna. But the bishop of Smyrna did not look like Santa Claus. He may or may not have had long white hair and a long white beard, but he certainly did not ride in a sleigh drawn by flying reindeer, or any other sleigh, for that matter. Smyrna is in Asia Minor, in a region not known for significant snowfall. Nor does it have indigenous reindeer and I seriously doubt those people imported reindeer from Lapland!
As I have pointed out in years past, Christianity is highly syncretic, as are many other of the great religions. Much of what we commonly seem to think are Christian traditions are really traditions adopted from pre-Christian pagan traditions. Doing this made it easier to convert the pagans to Christianity. Pretty smart idea, if you ask me! However, the idea of Christian syncretism does not sit well with some Christian fundamentalists. As far as I’m concerned, that’s their problem. Culture has always been syncretic and will always be syncretic. That is one way cultures evolve, change and grow. But then, Christian fundamentalists do not to believe in evolution, nor do they favor change or growth. They seem to want to keep things the way they were at the way they have always been, whatever that is. There is no such thing as “the way things have always been.” Things are always changing, and they will continue to change for all eternity.
There is a very ancient northern European tradition about a long-haired, bearded man riding around the sky in the middle of winter in a sleigh drawn by reindeer. It is called “Odin’s Wild Ride.” It seems that Odin, the chief Norse God traditionally called the All-Father, would ride through the sky during the winter solstice. Odin was extremely important to the ancient European barbarians. Incorporating him into Christian mythology makes a lot of sense. I personally have no problem with Christian syncretism. I am sure you figured that out reading this post. 🙂
Let me close by wishing you all a very Merry Christmas, no matter what Christmas traditions you celebrate. Just remember the reason for the season! Christmas is about peace, love, family and friends. May the peace that passeth all understanding be with you this Christmas and the whole year round!