Christmas is once again upon us. It is to herald the birth of Jesus Christ, born possibly 4-2 B.C., now more than two thousand years ago. Yet, there is nothing in the Gospels to say we should honour His birth and certainly no instruction to do so. Indeed the first Christmas, as we know it, was not observed until the time of the Roman Emperor, Constantine the Great more than three hundred years after Christ’s birth. Some Christian denominations do not honour Christmas Day at all, believing December 25th has its basis in a pagan event thousands of years ago. Historically they are right.
Nonetheless, today in the year 2019 right around much of the world we will celebrate Christmas day on December 25th except for the Orthodox Christians who will do so January 4th. The festivities which accompany Christmas, such as the tree, Father Christmas (Santa Claus) and the giving of presents came much later and are really a product of modern times and may I add, commercialism.
Therefore Christmas in its varying forms has been with us (i.e. Christian-based nations) for near seventeen hundred years. A long time. In Australia we still observe the day even though, increasingly, we are becoming a secular society and the number of those professing to be active Christians, diminishes. We live in a post-Christian era. There has been a rise (and census returns will prove this) in those claiming to be atheists, certainly agnostic and of non-Christian religions. For instance, those soldiers who left our shores to fight during WWI, 97 per cent claimed to be Christian. Today it is down to about 60 per cent. That is a dramatic drop and it does affect the meaning of what Christmas is all about.
Over the decades, growing up in the 50s 60s and even 70s, there has been a substantial change in people’s attitude towards Christmas. For the first ten years of my life there was no television in Tasmania. For a number of years of its early existence, television on Christmas Day screened programmes of a religious nature and the wireless (radio) played only (again) religious and Christmas music. All shops and service stations were closed and certainly no sport was played, except for those children who were already enjoying their Christmas gifts that may have been of a sporting nature. It was indeed a day of reverence and quietness and those who wished to do so went to church. Oh, how it has changed. TV and radio air nothing special, shops and service stations are open, the roads are full and the serenity and the respect of the special meaning of the day has long since gone. True we still have the Carols being sung at the various community venues, which is good to see. However, already, there are questions over their relevance. For instance, Mitchell Council in Adelaide decided to ban them all together, but back-tracked their decision because of public backlash. This was positive, but the movement has begun with the excuse that Christmas does not reflect the diversity of modern Australian society. Yet, as one who has many agnostic and atheistic friends, never have they once complained about the observance of Christmas. Nor have I heard Jewish friends being offended. It is part of our annual calendar and while they may not put any religious meaning to the event, it can be enjoyed by being with family and friends and not forgetting those who may be alone or ill.
As stated, we now live in a very secular society and the influence of the church in our lives has lessened over the years, certainly from when I was a boy. Christmas then, is a legacy of the past and part of our national heritage. Christmas came to our shores from Britain with the First Fleet in 1788. The first Christmas held in Australia was on December 25th 1788. Christmas was brought to Tasmania by Lt John Gordon Bowen Royal Navy who settled at Risdon Cove, September 11 1803. He was instructed by Governor King from Sydney to observe all Church of England rites and while there is no documentation that I have come across of the first Christmas, there is no doubt it would have been held at Risdon, December 25th 1803. It must have been a bland affair, perhaps dining on opossum and wallaby, even native hens. In February the following year David Collins arrived and moved the settlement to the present site of Sullivans Cove, Hobart. With him was the Reverend Robert (Bobby) Knopwood who conducted the first Christmas in Hobart December 25, 1804. In the north of the island, Colonel William Paterson had settled in November 1804 and while, again, I cannot find any documentation pertaining to the event, I am sure Christmas was held.
Consequently, Christmas in Tasmania has been observed continuously for 216 years and in Australia for 230 years. Its meaning and respect over the years, particularly of late, may have changed, but I hope Christmas will continue. I am fully aware of course, there are Scrooges who utter, “Christmas Humbug!”. Even so, it is a special day and it should be a reminder that there is meaning to life and that there is HOPE.