Giving Christmas a reality check


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."

The parallel strains of Christmas - religion and shopping - are nothing new, Walsh said. Advertisements for holiday presents appeared in European magazines as early as the 18th century, and the commercialization of Christmas is traceable to the 19th century, at least 100 years before Norman Rockwell's snow-flecked paintings.

As early as 1867, Macy's department stores were keeping their doors open until midnight Christmas Eve, and F.W. Woolworth considered the holiday a perfect opportunity to unload "unsaleable products on a desperate and gullible public," Walsh writes.

English playwright George Bernard Shaw wrote in 1897 that "Christmas is forced upon a reluctant and disgusted nation by shopkeepers and the press; on its own merits it would wither and shrivel in the fiery breath of universal hatred."

That was just the sort of bah-humbug rhetoric that Kerri Firth feared when she signed up for Walsh's class. She didn't want reality to strip away the magic. In her 10-page final essay, she discussed Christmas in analytical terms, very dry, just as Walsh intended.

"I don't want emotion, I want clear thinking," he had told the class. "We encourage students to feel and to express all the time, but we don't always encourage clear thinking."

But Firth's spirit clearly wasn't dampened.

"Human nature requires a period of rejuvenation and celebration, and the Christmas season provides the opportunity for exactly that. ... The excitement and joy embedded in the season will be ever present, as long as we keep the promise of Christ alive in our hearts, and remember, Santa is watching," her essay concluded.

After turning in the essay, Firth went home to Forest Hill to celebrate Christmas with her family.

"Finding this stuff out only enhances Christmas for me," she said. "I can't wait to tell my family."

Meanwhile, in a dimly lighted attic office in a large Tudor-style campus building last week, Walsh collected the essays from his students. The shadows and cluttered bookshelves and A-frame ceiling made his room feel like something out of a Charles Dickens' novel.

Firth called the Christmas professor tough but good.

"The goal is not for the students to like me," Walsh said. "The goal is for them to be smarter, more disciplined, more engaged people."

That is his Christmas gift to them.

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