A flurry of criticism was directed at MP Scott Brison of Kings-Hants after he sent Christmas cards to his constituents featuring a photo of his family. Criticism stemed not from the fact that Canadian MPs are sending out Christmas cards in such a culturally diverse country. Instead, Brison has come under attack by a vocal group who judge his sexuality. It has been suggested that Brison’s cards were particularly inappropriate given that the cards were sent to mark a “Christian festival.”
The history of Christmas, however, shows that its roots in Christianity have always been tenuous; the holiday as it is celebrated in modern times is a product of an ever-deepening chasm between Christianity and Christmas. As Christianity has never solely defined seasonal celebrations, it is more appropriately marked by sending holiday, rather than Christmas, greetings.
December 21st marks the winter solstice in the northern hemisphere, the day when the sun makes its lowest and shortest appearance. Long before December 25 was chosen to commemorate the birth of Christ, many people across the world celebrated this event; hundreds of structures built thousands of years ago to line up with solar and lunar activity remain standing to this day . Examples of these include Newgrange in Ireland and Stonehenge in England. As attempts to spread Christianity were made through the Roman Empire and beyond, pagan practices were often fused with Christian ones to make the latter more appealing.
Many of these pre-Christian customs have been surprisingly persistent. They include such activities as feasting, the worship and decoration of trees, decorating homes and altars with evergreen boughs, mistletoe and holly, and burning the Yule log, to name a few.
St. Nicholas, commonly known in English-speaking North America as Santa Claus, may have Christian roots. He was canonized for acts of charity, such as giving his inheritance to the poor and downtrodden. This is significantly different from contemporary times, where the poorest of children are lucky if they receive any gifts at all, regardless of whether they have been naughty or nice.
Santa Claus as he is now known is very much an invention of nineteenth-century America, and traditions carried with Dutch immigrants to the “New World” – he bears many similarities to the Germanic god Odin. Santa’s modern image was popularized in 1863 in Harper’s magazine; circulated in the midst of the Civil War, it features a pro-Unionist Santa stringing a “toy” before a group of soldiers. By the 1900s, Santa Claus and gift-giving grew increasingly synonymous with Christmas celebrations. Throughout the twentieth century, popular celebrations of Christmas changed considerably – particularly surrounding traditions of gift-giving – while Christmas emerged as a major pillar in an increasingly global economy.
Eaton’s published the first Christmas catalogue in 1897; by the 1950s, its Christmas catalogue had grown to 200 pages. In the early nineteenth century, Christmas was still a very modest affair. Small, practical gifts were shared; children were ordinarily allowed one gift. Particularly following the Second World War, during an unprecedented expansion of mass production and consumption, Christmas became an increasingly commercialized affair. Virtual exhibits from The Canadian Museum of Civilization and The Archives of Ontario illustrate the important role Eaton’s has played in shaping Canadian Christmas celebrations. These exhibits also show the increasing centrality manufactured toys came to play in defining the season:
Christmas celebrations have since pumped billions of dollars into manufacturing and retail. The growth and spread of the availability of credit has enabled many families to celebrate the holiday season by accumulating debt, so that payments can be put off into the New Year, and often far beyond. Critics of the commercialization of Christmas suggest there is little left of “Christ’s mass” in contemporary popular festivities.
Yet there remain many wonderful things about the holiday season. Peace, joy, light, charity and goodwill – these are themes that are not specific to Christianity, but can be found across multiple faiths, beliefs and cultures. “Christmas Day” is a public holiday in many nations across the world because many nations, like Canada, have a long history of Christian colonization. This means time off work for many – excepting perhaps those in the emergency services and retail – and thus, an occasion to celebrate.
I think that it was commendable of Scott Brison to circulate pictures of his family widely, at any time of year. What is more discouraging, however, is that it seems to be common practice for MPs to send out Christmas cards. If self-promotion is a seasonal must for MPs, hopefully they will at least have the courtesy to be inclusive and wish all Canadians a happy holiday regardless of the seasonal, religious and/or cultural festivities they celebrate.
Most discouraging of all, however, are the vitriolic statements made about Brison by vocal self-professed Christians. The winter season, like any time of year, is a time to spread love and acceptance, not hate and intolerance.