Gerry Bowler’s Christmas Encyclopedia

Gerry Bowler, St. Benedict’s Day, 2000 A.D.

A few years back Gerry Bowler was encouraged by friends to write a book about all things “Christmassy” and the result was “The World Encyclopedia of Christmas” (ISBN 0-7710-1531-3, McClelland & Stewart Ltd, Toronto, Ontario). I pull his book out every Christmas season as it contains a wealth of knowledge about this, the “most wonderful time of the year.” Here is the introduction by Gerry: enjoy.

In the Czech Republic a child gazes at a carp swimming in her bath tub; in Portugal a man is trying to make a turkey drunk. In Ethiopia men are shouting and waving hockey sticks; in New Zealand a family is barbecuing on the beach. In Denmark they are lighting a candle, while in Mexico they are strolling behind a young couple searching for a place to stay. In Austria costumed figures are driving demons away with brooms, while in Canada warmly dressed singers are trudging door to door through the snow. In Japan someone is reserving a table at an expensive restaurant, while in China someone is reserving a seat in a cathedral. Children everywhere are yearning for the annual visit of Santa Claus, Father Christmas, Mother Goody, Grandfather Frost, Père Noél, Befana, Baboushka, Saint Nicholas, or the Old Lady of Bethlehem. A myriad of different activities indicates that it is Christmas time on planet Earth.

There can be no doubt that Christmas is the world’s most popular holiday. It is celebrated on every continent, by Christians for whom it is the second most sacred date on the calendar, and by increasing numbers of people of other faiths and folk with no religious faith at all. Stores specializing in Christmas items now do business all year round; Christmas buying fuels much of the industrialized economy; and every year the festival penetrates new cultures, accruing new meanings and importance.

All over the world, the month of December is scarcely long enough to prepare for all that must be done: baking, cooking, shopping, brewing, wrapping, rehearsing, travelling, decorating, writing, meditating, fasting, and hoping. All around the world people will mark the occasion with celebration: eating, drinking, spending, parading, praying, playing, singing, dancing, gathering, and giving. And what a host of symbols has accumulated about this holy and merry time: bells, stars, snowmen, elves, robins, lights, logs, holly, ivy, gingerbread men, prune people, candy canes, evergreen trees, goats, oxen, asses, camels, reindeer, fat men in red suits, angels, shepherds, weary astrologer-kings, a Virgin, and a baby in a makeshift cradle.

Christmas could not have gained or maintained this astonishing hold on people’s lives if it had not developed a number of important, and differing, meanings and claims over time. Its original meaning — and still its deepest — was the celebration of the birth of the baby Jesus in Bethlehem and the solemnities surrounding the profound mysteries by which God took on human form. Marking this event would require of believers two distinct attitudes of the heart: the disciplined preparation that would grow into the season of Advent, and the festive joy that would become the Twelve Days of Christmas.

From its earliest days, Christmas took on different aspects and was a holiday whose meaning could shift with time and place. Centuries of complaints by church councils and reformers attest to the tension between the demands of a sacred season and those of a midwinter festival. At times celebrations have been centred on the whole community, with Christmas coming to stand for neighbourliness and hospitality; at other times the emphasis was on the individual family.

In various countries the focus will be on outdoor worship and merriment; in others Christmas is kept indoors. The holiday has stood for international good will, and on the other hand, as in Soviet Eastern Europe, for national identity and resistance. It has been child-centred and adult-centred; alcohol- centred and toy-centred; raucous and domestic; holy and profane. Everywhere, however, and at all times, it has been the season of miracle and surprise, the time closest to the hearts of the people who keep it.

Article Submitted by Jim Loyer

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