Giving Christmas a reality check

Academia: A lot that we "know" about the holiday isn't true, say two men who study Christmas.

December 24, 2004|By Greg Barrett | Greg Barrett,SUN STAFF

When 19-year-old Kerri Firth signed up this fall for Loyola College's History of Christmas class, she felt a sense of dread. Like when she was 6 or 7 and suspected that Santa Claus maybe wasn't real, but no one told her otherwise.

Then her grandmother blurted out the truth, and that window of fantasy closed.

"I found out that when you know the truth, though, the magic can still be there," Firth said. "You know your parents love you so much that they gave you all those gifts."

So it is with professor Joseph J. Walsh's popular Christmas class. He thinks it's time students knew the truth and that they will be the better for it. Through the centuries, he tells his Loyola classes, this religious holiday has been trimmed with so many traditions and tales that facts are lost in fiction.

His is not the traditional Christmas story.

For starters, he says, many modern Christmas decorations are rooted in pagan tradition. Greenery, for one, was a staple of winter solstice festivals even before the story of Christ's birth.

Another holiday symbol, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, is the product of a 1939 Montgomery Ward marketing scheme, Walsh says, and the first carolers, or wassailers, as they were called, were not exactly cherub-faced choir children. They were roaming bands of poor drunkards going door-to-door in the late 16th century or 17th century to hustle money and food in exchange for song and ale.

The wealthy classes tolerated the wassailers at Christmas because, Walsh says, "They thought, we'll just let them go crazy for a little while, and then when they are hung over we'll put them back in their place."

Walsh, 51, an easygoing, fast-talking ancient historian, is believed to be one of two U.S. professors teaching formal college classes on the history of Christmas. The other, Joseph F. Kelly of Cleveland's John Carroll University, reacts to the holidays much as Walsh does. He celebrates, decorates a tree, travels to see family and arrives with an armload of gifts. They are academics, not Scrooges.

"We just play the role of the bad guy," said Kelly, 59, a professor of religion and the author of The Origins of Christmas.

Because most people don't read the Bible, Kelly said, they're shocked to learn that the Christmas story they know isn't always supported by strict readings of Scripture. One part of it, the tale of three kings or wise men paying homage to the baby Jesus, is a yarn sewn from disparate threads of the Old and New Testaments.

In his book Were They Wise Men or Kings? The Book of Christmas Questions, Walsh argues that they were neither. He contends that they were shepherds or, more likely, magi, who were involved with the occult.

Magic, and especially astrology, were respected in biblical times. Astrologers were considered scientists. Who better to spot the Star of Bethlehem? Walsh asks.

Isaiah and various interpretations of the book of Psalms - both in the Old Testament - elevate those visitors to the Nativity to kings.

"European royals enthusiastically embraced the vision, henceforth able to claim that their counterparts were there with Jesus at the very beginning," Walsh writes.

Neither is the much-celebrated Dec. 25 birth date found in Scripture. The best guess of historians such as Walsh is that ancient Christians picked the date to compete head-on with pagans of the Roman Empire, who celebrated the birthday of their sun god, Sol Invictus, on Dec. 25. That way, if pagans wanted to convert to Christianity, they could do so without losing a holiday.

When surprised students go slack-jawed from these lectures, Kelly, a Roman Catholic, tries to soothe them. "The word of Jesus does not depend on three kings visiting him or his birthday being on Dec. 25," he says.

Nor does Christmas hinge on literal interpretations. The euphoria of the season springs from many things religious and secular - family and friends, prayer and song, gifts given and gifts received. It's the ultimate blending of reflection and celebration, Walsh said.

"We all land into this thing that has very complex roots," he said. "Understanding it gives us a better sense of how to live in it, how to navigate it."

Walsh appears to treat Christmas with its intended spirit - giving. He, his wife, Gayla McGlamery, a literature professor, and their 11-year-old son, Joseph M., never celebrate the holidays at their Baltimore home. They travel to visit Walsh's and McGlamery's widowed mothers, his in Long Island, N.Y., hers in Stillwater, Okla. When Joseph was younger, he wrote Santa each year with a special request:

"Please come early."

The toys would magically appear two days before the family left on the holiday sojourn.

"We have no reservations about giving gifts. Christmas is a perfectly legitimate human celebration," Walsh said. "The trick, at least for us, is balance."

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