Christmas at its core is about sharing hope
Christmas is upon us — the event that keeps children good and parents maxing out their credit cards.
The fortunate will break all their diet vows and celebrate their absolutely necessary gifts.
Those with lesser means will stare at the bright sparkling decorations in shops and homes, and wonder what it feels like to have full stomachs and gifts of their own under a plastic tree.
It wasn’t always this way. The Mass of Christ — according to various sources — first took place in 336AD, a full three centuries after Christ walked on the earth.
One prevailing suggestion is that the Roman Emperor Constantine, in seeking to incorporate the growing Christian influence and thereby extend his own political reach, rebranded an existing Roman holiday.
There were two Roman holidays at the time, both in theory set to align with the winter solstice in the northern hemisphere.
The first, between December 17 and 23, was the holiday of Saturnalia, which was held in celebration of the Roman god Saturn.
The second was the holiday Dies Natalis Solis Invicti — “birthday of the unconquered sun”, which was to celebrate the birth of the Pagan Sun god Mithra and took place on December 25.
Another popular theory holds that the teenager Mary, Jesus’ mother, was informed of her being with child by the Angel Gabriel on March 25 and that Christmas is simply therefore nine months later.
Unless of course your church or country works off a different calendar.
Most of the western world works off the Gregorian calendar, but Orthodox and Coptic Churches remain on the Julian calendar and thus, if you’re in Armenia, Christmas will be on January 6, and on January 7 in Russia.
It will entertain children for hours, and their parent’s bank managers, on working out how to start Christmas somewhere on the 25th and then travel to Armenia for Christmas on the 6th and Russia on the 7th — scoring three rounds of presents.
But that round trip only became possible in 1991 with the collapse of the Soviet Union — up until then Christmas had been banned by the atheist Soviet state.
Since Emperor Constantine’s shrewd political merger of the Pagan and Christian holidays, the celebration has acquired a few extra bits along the way.
We’ve added Christmas trees, replica pine trees supposedly to remind snowbound northerners that their white winter-land wouldn’t last forever.
We’ve added the tradition of giving of gifts, supposedly emulating the gifts brought to baby Jesus by the Three Wise Men.
We’ve added Santa Claus, which has morphed into the white-bearded, red-onesie Father Christmas and his reindeer that visit every chimney in the world within 24 hours to deliver presents to good children.
This is a speed-of-travel feat that Elon Musk would love to add to his I-was-a-good-boy wishlist.
Christmas somewhere along the way adopted the tradition of exchanging cards, which now are electronic and swamp e-mail in-trays.
There are advent calendars and angels on top of the tree, bright lights in astounding configurations on neighbours’ houses, and choirs of all shapes and sizes singing carols that are etched into every person’s brain.
Which brings us to shopping malls and the on-repeat Boney M classics about Michael rowing his boat ashore, while others sit down at the rivers of Babylon and little drummer boys dream of a white Christmas.
The irony of course being that, while many of the Christian faith will spend time in their local church honouring the day’s original intent, the majority of us will spend days fighting our way through crowded malls being driven mad by Boney M and ultimately honouring some corporate entity’s balance sheet.
Only a few weeks back, we were celebrating the Day of Reconciliation.
It’s a new South Africa reframing of the Day of the Vow, a day where a river flowed blood and gave birth to a repeating loop of binary conflict — the never-ending us-and-them story.
One telling has the Voortrekkers as God’s Chosen, with the Zulu adversaries cast as bloodthirsty savages.
The other telling has the Zulus in the role of our first freedom fighters, sacrificing themselves in defence of God’s gift that the land-grabbing Voortrekkers sought to steal through their guns.
In essence, the two stories are the same, you came to take what was ours, but God was on our side and through violence we triumphed?
Every SA holiday presents many opportunities to fill our stockings with cynicism.
What’s the point of these days, what’s the point of Christmas?
We now live in a country under a constitution that allows you to make of Christmas what you will, and prevents others from making it what they will.
When the Soviets tried to ban Christmas, people celebrated in secret.
Emperors, politicians, churches, and corporates have all tried their hand at insisting on what Christmas should be.
They have certainly shaped the practice, but not changed the core idea of Christmas.
And in its essence this celebration remains the same — sharing the gift of hope with others.
It is the most precious gift of all.
And a gift that multiplies in its sharing.
As we face an uncertain future on many fronts, it’s a gift most needed.
You may argue that hope doesn’t feed hungry bellies, that hope is a dangerous chimera, that cynicism is the gift of the real, the only one we can trust.
Yet every night we go to sleep in the hope that the sun will rise again in the morrow.
Hope is essential to the human endeavour.
It’s fitting that the day celebrating hope follows shortly after the day that reminds us of the violence between us.
And that the day of hope in turn is shortly thereafter followed by New Year, the day celebrating renewal, new beginnings, fresh starts.
Take the time this festive season to reflect on the gifts we are given and the opportunity the New Year provides.
Merry Christmas, everyone.