Of the many ways to count down to Christmas, the most popular one is marking off the days until Santa and his reindeer lift off from the North Pole. But some smart kids still have trouble figuring out how all his presents will be delivered to millions of kids around the globe on one night, Christmas Eve, and little wonder.
Santa’s delivery service didn’t always have to cover so many miles and chimneys. When he was still called Saint Nicholas, his celebration began in southern Turkey and spread to other nearby countries and from there to northern Europe and Scandinavia eventually. Then he moved his workshop to the North Pole for a more central location, but he may have to move it again to a barge if the polar ice continues to melt.
Another change was his name. Originally, his name was Nikolaos when he was a bishop in Turkey about 1,600 years ago, when he was credited with performing miracles such as healing sick people. From this gift began the religious celebrations in his honor.
Santa Claus’s reputation without the religious link was becoming widespread by the time of Charles Dickens, England’s great storyteller who wrote “A Christmas Carol.” That was a period when people like the Cratchet family and hordes of others like them were having a tough time surviving economically during the Industrial Revolution and even small children had to work in icky factories.
Dickens with his ghost story wanted to say something about such conditions and how they could improve, and the Cratchets really needed a good dinner and some nice presents. It was mean old Ebenezer Scrooge who brought gifts and made the Cratchets happy after he himself saw the light, so to speak, and had a change of heart. It’s a good story for this day and age, too.
The story about the birth of baby in Bethlehem is an even more enlightening one, although it often gets lost in all the hullabaloo about Santa Claus, and the real reason for the season often gets overlooked during the countdown to Santa’s big gig. We have set dates to help us remember, during the shortest days of winter.
In most of our church calendars, Advent leads up to the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem and then continues until Epiphany in January, making a full 40 days. For religious folks, it’s a period of time to meditate and pray, although those activities might not sound like as much fun as the countdown to Santa.
In the Orthodox Christian Church, Advent begins on November 15 and lasts until Christmas, for 40 days. It is hard to find a 40-day Advent calendar, although there were some for sale if you tried hard or made your own. More readily available were the Advent calendars showing 24 days, December 1 through December 24. Advent calendars can be fun, especially for families with children who can open a little window each day to see an object like a Christmas ornament or some other thing like a store, a Christmas tree, a barn, or finally the manger.
During Advent, churches use liturgical calendars that schedule the correct rituals on correct days. This year December 3 was the first Sunday of Advent in most churches when the first of four candles was lighted, and three more will follow on each Sunday until Christmas Eve.
The light of a candle has a symbolic role in many spiritual practices. Long before that, Druids were burning Yule logs, and people of the Jewish faith also are observing their Hanukkah this year from the evening of December 12 to December 20 by lighting the Menorah, a nine-branched candelabrum, a celebration related to their return to Jerusalem and the Second Temple. In the dark of winter, everyone wants light.
Another tradition that once was observed commonly was Christmastide from Christmas Eve to January 5, which was mostly a secular event. On each of the 12 days until Twelfth Night, small gifts were given in fancy packages. This period is the reason for having a performance of a play like Shakespeare’s “Twelfth Night” in Merry Olde England.
In churches, January 6 is Epiphany or Three Kings’ Day, signifying when their journey has ended at the manger and their gifts are presented. And that is the end of churches’ Christmas season, while Santa already has been sleeping for 12 days and nights and the dark hours of winter are slowly getting shorter.