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How Christmas came to be

  • Published at 12:05 am December 13th, 2019
Christmas

Can the true spirit of this holiday be felt in Bangladesh today?

My first memories of Christmas are those of the late 1940s and early 1950s in the UK when post-war (Second World War) food rationing was still in place. Our mother saved ration vouchers for sweets and chocolates for Christmas and birthdays, so as children my siblings and I looked forward to Christmas very much. 

We used to have the traditional Christmas. We would decorate the Christmas tree as soon as our school terms finished, about a week or ten days before Christmas Day, and on Christmas Day itself the family opened Christmas presents that had been piled up around the Christmas tree.

Around that time our maternal grandmother lived with us and it was she who made sure we understood, from the Bible, the details of the birth of Jesus. She told us that the giving of gifts to each other was connected to the giving of gifts to Jesus by the three kings who were supposed to have reached Jesus 12 days after Christmas at Epiphany, January 6, Twelfth Night.

My great-uncle, who spent most of his life as a missionary in Ethiopia, and initiated the building of St Matthew’s Church in Addis Ababa, used to come on leave to the UK every five years or so. 

On one occasion, while telling me how Roman coins were found when digging the foundations of his church, he told me that nobody was sure when Jesus was actually born. Because the Bible tells us that shepherds were watching over their sheep at night, my great-uncle said it was more likely to be the autumn or spring, and not mid-winter. 

He explained that immediately after the passing of Jesus, it was the death of Jesus on Easter that was celebrated, and not his birth. It was not until the 4th century AD that the Roman leaders fixed December 25 as the birth of Jesus. 

My great-uncle explained that the non-believers of that time, who worshipped the Sun, celebrated the longest and shortest days of the year, and according to the Roman calendar at that time the winter solstice occurred on December 25. 

The Roman leaders felt that if they declared the birthday of Jesus as December 25, more non-believers would embrace Christianity. The non-believers of that time worshipped the Roman god of agriculture (Saturn) and the Persian god of light (Mithra) on the same day and celebrations for both were held on December 25.

However, there is also another, possibly more theological reason, for choosing the date of December 25. 

Historians have reckoned that the world was created on the spring equinox and four days later, on March 25, light was created. Since the existence of Jesus signaled the beginning of a new era, or new creation, the Biblical chronographers assumed Jesus’ conception would have also fallen on March 25, placing his birth in December, nine months later. 

It was only 500 to 600 years ago that the birth of Jesus was celebrated on December 25, and even up to the 1800s, Christmas in Europe was not widely celebrated because partying and merry-making was seen as unchristian. Indeed, it was only in 1870 that Christmas Day was declared a national holiday in the US.

Much earlier in the UK, Oliver Cromwell had “cancelled” Christmas and the Puritans in the American colonies also banned the celebration of Christmas in Boston. Those found celebrating were fined five shillings.

My knowledgeable great-uncle also explained how Christmas trees became popular. According to him, the ancient Egyptians felt that evergreen trees symbolized eternal life. However, in the UK, it was Queen Victoria’s German husband who introduced the Christmas tree to Windsor Castle in 1846.

And of course, there is Father Christmas, or Santa Claus, who brings so much joy into the lives of young children, delivering presents to children all over the world and all in one night. 

As a child, I would hang a big stocking by the open fireplace on the night of December 24. My sisters and I would make sure to leave some cake and biscuits on a plate for Santa and also a glass of Sherry or Port, both guaranteed to warm his very cold body. I would also leave some carrots for Santa’s reindeer. 

On Christmas Day morning my sisters and I would come and find our stockings filled with gifts and a tell-tale trail that Santa and reindeer had been around. The glass of blood-warming liquid was empty, only crumbs remained on the plate, and the carrot was almost gone, just a gnawed one left behind.

So, this is all about Christmas and it is well to be reminded how Charles Dickens described the Christmas holiday: “A good time -- a kind, forgiving, charitable, pleasant time -- the only time I know of in the long calendar of the year, when men and women seem by one consent to open their shut-up hearts freely, and to think of other people below them as if they really were fellow-passengers to the grave, and not another race of creatures bound on other journeys.” 

This should be the very essence of Christmas today -- not at the greedy commercialized level, but in people’s hearts and homes. 

And in conclusion, I remember Christmas in the refugee camps of India in 1971. The Muslims and Hindus made sure that if there were a few Christians in their camps, they would celebrate Christmas with them. After all, they had all just celebrated Victory Day and were all preparing to go home to Bangladesh. 

Some said that a new and different life was about to begin. Can this same spirit be felt in Bangladesh in 2020? I hope so, and I hope and pray that the Christmas spirit can also find its way to brighten the lives of the Rohingya Muslims in the refugee camps in the Cox’s Bazar district. 

Julian Francis has been associated with relief and development activities of Bangladesh since the War of Liberation. In 2012, the Government of Bangladesh awarded him the ‘Friends of Liberation War Honour’ in recognition of his work among the refugees in India in 1971 and in 2018 honoured him with full Bangladesh citizenship.

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