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Sunday, 24-Nov-2002 08:35:45 AUS Eastern Daylight Time Space Christmas: a multicultural festival
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    A multi-faceted festival in a multicultural society
    Now the Silence, Now the FeastOn 25 December, Christmas is observed throughout many parts of the world. As a cultural celebration, it's a peculiar mix - part myth, part magic, and part religion.

    In this article we'll discuss the changing face of Christmas; we'll look at its origins, its traditions, and its future; and we'll see how Australians celebrate Christmas.

    The Birth of Jesus

    The pagan origins of Christmas celebrations

    Christmas traditions and symbols

    Christmas Down Under

    A Cultural Christmas

    Other Seasonal Celebrations

    Christmas Art Links

    Christmas Links


    The birth of Jesus

    Christmas is a celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ.
    And Joseph also went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth, into Judea, unto the city of David, which is called Bethlehem (because he was of the house and lineage of David)

    to be taxed with Mary his espoused wife, being with child.

    And so it was, that, while they were there, the days were accomplished that she should be delivered.

    And she brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger; because there was no room for them in the inn

    Luke 2: 4-7

    The Christmas festival lasts for twelve days, from 25 December (Jesus' birth) to 6 January (Epiphany). The story is simple - Jesus is born, angels announce his birth to shepherds in the fields, and he is visited by three Magi (wise men from the East), who offer him gifts. The significance of these events for Christians is their belief that Jesus is 'the Son of God', the Messiah sent from Heaven to save the world from sin.

    In the first few centuries AD, Christmas as such did not exist - the Christian Church only celebrated the festival of the Resurrection (Easter). According to a Roman almanac, Christmas was being celebrated in Rome by 336 AD. In 354 AD Pope Liberus instituted the Nativity on 25 December. (In the Armenian Church, Christmas on 25 December was never accepted; Christ's birth is celebrated on 6 January.)

    After Christmas was established in the East, the baptism of Jesus was celebrated on Epiphany, 6 January. In the West, however, Epiphany was the day on which the visit of the Magi to the infant Jesus was celebrated.

    Source: Encyclopaedia Britannica

    The pagan origins of Christmas celebrations
    Sent Forth By God's BlessingThe reason Christmas came to be celebrated on 25 December remains uncertain, but the most probable reason is that early Christians wished the date to coincide with the various pagan festivals which celebrated the winter solstice.

    The winter solstice (22 December in the northern hemisphere) has traditionally been a time of celebration in most cultures. The lengthening daylight is seen an affirmation of the continuing cycle of the seasons, the beginning of the end of unproductive winter and the precursor to the growing seasons. The symbolism of the solstice - light emerging from darkness (ie. truth emerging from ignorance) - provided the basis for many explanatory renewal myths.

    In ancient Greek mythology, the Halcyon Days (a two-week period of calm and goodwill) fell at the time of the winter solstice. During this time, according to myth, the gods calmed the seas so that kingfishers (who were thought to nest on the sea) could lay and hatch their eggs.

    In the Roman world the Saturnalia (17 December) was a time of merrymaking and the exchange of gifts. Romans also celebrated the "birthday of the unconquered sun" (natalis solis invicti) during the winter solstice. December 25 was also regarded as the birth date of the Iranian mystery god Mithra, the Sun of Righteousness.

    Sources: Encyclopaedia Britannica, Bulfinch's Mythology

    Christmas traditions and symbolsSon of God, Love's Pure Light
    In pagan times, in the Roman New Year (January 1), houses were decorated with greenery and lights, and gifts were given to children and the poor. From Northern Europe came German and Celtic Yule rites, which were cobbled onto the pagan/Christian traditions when the Teutonic tribes penetrated into Gaul, Britain, and central Europe.

    Food and good fellowship, the Yule log and Yule cakes, greenery and fir trees, gifts and greetings all commemorated different aspects of this festive season. Fires and lights, symbols of warmth and lasting life, have always been associated with the winter festival, both pagan and Christian.

    Christmas has come to be regarded as the festival of peace and goodwill, when families are reunited, houses are gaily decorated and gifts are exchanged. The exchange of gifts had been a part of the season since Roman times, and was not specifically linked to Christmas until the Middle Ages, when legends surrounding the humble generosity of Saint Nicholas, a 4th century Christian leader from Myra (in modern-day Turkey) came to be associated with Christmas. The proximity of his feast day (6 December) to Christmas probably caused the two events to be linked.

    Saint Nicholas gradually transformed into Santa Claus. The fat, jolly, red-clad, white-bearded Santa of today is really a 20th century invention, a creation of Haddon Sundblom, an illustrator for Coca-Cola, who created him in this image in 1931.

    Other modern creations - Ebenezer Scrooge, the Little Drummer Boy, Rudolf the Red-Nosed Reindeer, holly and ivy - have all become essential components of the way Christmas is celebrated throughout the world. And although each of these new characters and symbols takes us further and further from the Christian story of Christmas, nevertheless each one of them illustrates an aspect of the true Christmas message - peace, generosity, humility, and goodwill to all.

    Christmas Down Under
    Let Heaven and Nature SingChristmas traditions and symbols have come from many different cultures over the centuries. When you add that mix to a multicultural society like Australia's, and add to that our hot climate, you get a Christmas that is even more of a mixture.

    Australia has largely adopted the winter-based traditions of the northern hemisphere - but we've added a few unique touches. Most obviously - since our Christmas comes in the middle of summer - many of us don't do the full hot roast dinner. Many families pack up for a picnic or a trip to the beach. If we stay at home, it might be salads and cold meats. But the steaming Christmas pudding with hot custard is still common.

    Some interesting local variations on the traditional Christmas dinner have arisen. These include:

    A recent Australian phenomenon is the rise of "Christmas in July" celebrations, where a traditional Christmas meal with all the trimmings - decorations, hats, bonbons, carols, open fires - is served to those of us who, through either nostalgia for (or envy of) the northern hemisphere's "White Christmas", feel that cold weather is appropriate to the season.

    In the days leading up to Christmas, many Australian families take advantage of the warm summer evenings to take a rug and some candles to a Carols By Candlelight concert, which attract large crowds to parks and outdoor stadiums across the land. The odd Australian Christmas carol will find its way onto the song-sheet: most often it's John Wheeler's "The Three Drovers". On a lighter note, Australians may join in a chorus of Rolf Harris's "Six White Boomers", or Colin Buchanan's "Aussie Jingle Bells".

    On Boxing Day, a couple of uniquely Australian events have come to the fore in recent years, appealing to Australians' love of leisure and sport. In Melbourne, cricket fans flock to the Melbourne Cricket Ground to watch the opening day of the "Boxing Day Test". And in Sydney, the beautiful harbour is packed with pleasure craft watching the start of the Sydney-to-Hobart Yacht Race. Elsewhere in Australia, these events are watched live on TV.

    But there is no such thing as a "typical" Australian Christmas. Australia is a diverse society, and the Christmases we celebrate are just a part - albeit a large and significant part - of the range of spiritual and cultural expressions to be found in Australia. That range takes us from the ancient totemic dreamtime of Aboriginal Australians through to Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Buddhism and Hinduism, with many variations and offshoots along the way. It's a rich tapestry, reflective of the variety of our people. Household Christmas celebrations in Australia take many forms, as old, new and various traditions blend.

    Indigenous Australians
    Although indigenous Australians do not have any traditional cultural celebrations that mark the summer solstice or Christmas, many northern Australian aboriginals will be noting the renewal of their six-season cycle in late December, as their sixth season, Gunumeleng, draws to a close. The streams begin to run and waterbirds disperse as surface water and new growth becomes more widespread. Barramundi move out of the waterholes and downstream to the estuaries. People move camp from the floodplain, to find shelter from the violent storms of the wet season, Gudjeuk. The cycle begins anew...

    A cultural Christmas
    In the Shadow of Your WingsSome of the most memorable and beautiful works of Western art, music and literature have been inspired by the story of Christmas. From Roman-era mosaics, ornately illustrated mediaeval manuscripts, and magnificent stained-glass windows, through the high art of the European Renaissance to the modern era, the Christmas story has provided artists with a wealth of inspiration. Click here to see some wonderful examples.

    In music, Christmas carols and songs have provided inspiring words and music to celebrate the festive season. Community carol singing, and its increasingly commercial derivative, Carols by Candlelight, are essential elements of Christmas time.

    Handel's Messiah, although its biblical text is not specifically about the birth of Jesus, has also come to be associated with Christmas, particularly vast "people's" performances, featuring huge orchestras and choirs made up of anyone who wants to have a go.

    English poet, John Milton, in his "Hymn on the Nativity", alludes to the Greek fable of the halcyon days:
    But peaceful was the night
    Wherein the Prince of light
    His reign of peace upon the earth began;
    The winds with wonder whist
    Smoothly the waters kist
    Whispering new joys to the mild ocean,
    Who now hath quite forgot to rave
    While birds of calm sit brooding on the charmed wave.
    And who has not been moved by Charles Dickens' memorable tale, "A Christmas Carol"? It has become a prototype of popular Christmas entertainment. It's plot - a miserly curmudgeon comes to know the true meaning of Christmas through mystical insight - is an essential element in virtually every Christmas story and movie.

    Other seasonal celebrations
    Joyful We Adore TheeThroughout the world, Christmas is the most universally recognised holiday, transcending language, culture, and even religious beliefs. But it is by no means the only festival occurring at this time of the year. While Christmas celebrations are under way in the Christian world, Jewish people are commemorating Hanukkah, Muslims are observing Ramadan, African Americans are celebrating Kwanzaa, and in Hong Kong, the festival of Ta Chiu is held.

    In the Jewish religious calendar, the festival Hanukkah (the Hebrew word for "dedication") commences on the 25th of Kislev, and continues for eight days. It is also referred to as the "Festival of Lights" and celebrates a victory by a small Jewish army, led by Judah Maccabee, over the Greeks in the second century BC

    On Hanukkah, children play with a dreidel or sevivon ("spinning top"), and also receive gifts of "Hanukkah money". Special feasts for the children and competitions for youths are arranged. In countries where Christmas is celebrated, Hanukkah, particularly among Reform Jews, has assumed a similar form.

    In North America, Kwanzaa is a holiday celebrated by many African-Americans. It is held from 26 December until 1 January. It was started in 1966 by Dr Maulana Karenga, an American academic.

    The seven-day celebration encourages African-Americans to think about their African roots as well as their life in present day America. Kwanzaa - the word means "first fruits" - is based on African festivals.

    In 2002 in Australia, the Islamic month of Ramadan begins on 5 November and ends on 4 December. It is the Islamic month during which Muslims (believers in Islam) fast daily from dawn to sunset as part of an effort towards self-purification and betterment. This holiday is known as Eid ul-Fitr (Festival of Breaking the Fast).

    Ramadan is important for Muslims because it is believed to be the month in which the first verses of the Koran (the divine scripture) were revealed by Allah (God) to the prophet Muhammad.

    As the Islamic calendar is only 354 days long, Ramadan moves forward in relation to the Gregorian (Western) calendar. This year, and for the next few years, Ramadan will overlap with Christmas and Hanukkah celebrations.

    There is a significant population of Muslims in Australia, and many Australian Muslim families will observe their traditional Ramadan practices while the Christian and secular Christmas festivities are in full swing.

    Ta Chiu
    Ta Chiu is a Taoist festival of peace and renewal that takes place on 27 December in Hong Kong. The participants summon all of their gods and ghosts so that the gods' collective power will renew their lives. Images of patron saints from all the temples are gathered into one place, and people come to make offerings. At the end of the festival, priests read aloud the names of every person who lives in the area. Then they attach the list of names to a paper horse and set it aflame, letting the names rise to heaven.

    Many Australians were formerly citizens of Hong Kong, so although this festival is not publicised in Australia there will no doubt be many Ta Chiu observances throughout the country on 27 December.


    Top | Christmas Art | Christmas Links

    The illustrations on this page are by
    David J Hetland/Hetland Ltd and are
    reproduced with permission.

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