Relax, Christians, nobody is trying to take Christmas from you. There is no “WAR ON CHRISTMAS” (cue the ominous music and Fox talking heads). Nobody wants to impair your own personal enjoyment of the season, or detract one bit from the significance you assign it. Nobody is trying to minimize your ritual observation, or mock your mythology. Listening to the loudest voices on Fox News, you’d think Christians in America faced inhuman persecution around the Holidays, forced to carry out their holy rituals in clandestine meetings, lest they be discovered and exposed. The problem is, now the “mainstream” Christians are starting to pick up on these talking points and are mindlessly repeating them without stopping to think too hard about it.
There is a long list of myths and wrong-thinking surrounding this holiday season and lately they’ve really been getting under my skin. Christmas traditions vary all over the world, but I’m going to address the ones I hear people complaining about – the North American traditions. Almost everything commonly considered to be “traditional” about the Christmas season are either not long-standing traditions, are not originally Christian traditions, are stolen from other religious or cultural traditions, and/or are no tradition ever recognized by the first generations of Christians. I’ll start with the most common gripe I hear from Christians about this time of year…
The first salvo often fired in any grumbling about the state of Christmas these days is the gripe over the use of “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas”. The objections vary from it being “political correctness run amok” to it being the front line in some sort of global conspiratorial plot to erase the Christian seasonal celebration. Not so in either case.
The phrase “Happy Holidays” is an inclusive designation. Subway’s “cold cut sub” is not the beachhead in a war on sliced salami. A waiter’s admonition to “Enjoy the fish!” does not water down the significance of the salmon you’re about to savour. Is macaroni marginalized when someone expresses how much they like “pasta”? When someone wishes you a Happy Holiday, they ARE wishing you a Merry Christmas, a Happy Hanukkah, a Crazy Kwanzaa, a Warm Winter Solstice, a Fantastic Festivus, a Happy New Year, or any other late-December observance, whichever one applies to you – including no particular celebration at all.
When someone wishes you a Happy Hanukkah, what do you do? You probably say to yourself, “Well that’s a bit presumptive, I don’t celebrate that”, but then you smile and return the greeting, wishing them a Happy Holiday or a Happy Hanukkah in return as well, because you recognize the sentiment of good wishes. If you can do that for Hanukkah, why does someone wishing you “Happy Holidays” grate so?
The Christmas Turkey Dinner
One of the highlights of many xmas family celebrations is the feast. Family members (traditionally the mother) will slave, sometimes starting a day or two in advance, over a meal centred around a roasted turkey – a relatively flavourless bird, compared to the smaller goose it replaced. If preserving tradition is that important to you, try the goose, it’s much more tasty. …or go back further into history. North America’s Christmas dinner traditions are rooted in the UK tradition, and roasted peacock or boar were documented as the tradition in the UK in the 1500s before King Henry VIII was reportedly the first to break with that particular tradition. Christmas baby-back ribs. Now there’s a tradition I can get into.
Straying from the whole “jesus” thing for just a moment, the shared image that much of the world has about Saint Nick of the jolly fat fellow with the bushy white beard and white-fur-lined red suit is the creation of some well-done and beautifully painted Coca Cola advertising.
The Christmas Tree
Those who celebrate Christmas and bemoan the plastic trees from Wal-Mart or lingering around xmas tree lots often pine about how much they cherish the ancient tradition of hiking miles into the snow-laden woods, choosing the perfect tree to sacrifice to the tree stand in the living room. You know, the way the great tradition used to be. Truth is, the Christmas tree is probably one of the newest traditions around the season. The introduction of the tradition to America, however, was a very tough sell. There are records of attempts to start the tradition from the late 1700s through the 1850s, but it was largely resisted until almost the 20th century in North America.
And then there’s “Xmas”…
Some Christians protest the shortening of “Christmas” to “Xmas”, braying again about “taking Christ out of Christmas”. Let me explain what (in my younger days) my minister carefully illuminated one Sunday morning from the pulpit. Christian symbology includes an icon known as a “Chi Rho” (pronounced the same as Cairo, that place in Egypt) and is what’s called a “christogram” – a symbol that Christians use to refer to their “christ”. You’ll find the symbol somewhere in just about any church sanctuary you enter, often on clothing of the clergy. It looks like an X (X is “Chi” in the greek alphabet), intersected by a P with an extended stem (and P is “Rho”). It represents the first two letters of “cristos” in the greek alphabet). It is considered to be the earliest christogram, and is still used today by some Christians to represent their “Christ”. The chi is sometimes used alone as a bit of shorthand for “christ”, as in “xians” for “Christians”, and, yes, “xmas” for “Christmas”.
The reason for the season?
Christians with short focus get carried away with the holiday spirit, and become infatuated with putting all the emphasis and energy into Christmas, but they often lose sight that the really important and significant Christian holiday is Easter. Certainly you don’t think that Jesus had birthday parties, and he certainly left no instructions that his birthday should be celebrated. Christmas is actually a pretty unremarkable event, and wasn’t even thought to be worth noting until the 4th century when the Roman Catholic Church decided they needed to appropriate the other winter celebrations. More on that later. Everybody has a birthday, but how many people rose from the dead? Easter is the real deal for Christians. Did you know that the Puritans both in England and in “New England” once banned Christmas celebrations, calling them “too pagan” and “a time of wasteful and immoral behavior”? In New England, for almost 250 years from the 1620s to 1870, celebrating Christmas was against the law. It took Christmas being designated as a federal holiday in 1870 for the Puritans to relax their laws, and it took a Victorian revival to bring Christmas back off life support.
So they say it’s your birthday
December 25 is almost certainly not Jesus’s birthday. Never mind the inconsistencies in the various versions of the nativity legend, the biblical narrative mentions shepherds tending their flocks in the fields as Mary and Joseph traveled. The fields would be pretty barren in late December. Scholars say that makes the journey to the birthplace some time in Spring or Autumn. Biblical historians and scholars over the centuries have posited various dates in January, March, April, May or November, for many different reasons. The point is, nobody knows for sure, there are a lot of guesses, some guesses are better than others, but the one thing that people who have researched this agree almost unanimously on is that December 25 most certainly is not the actual birthday.
Thou shalt not steal
…except when it comes to holidays, apparently: The 12 days leading up to solstice; exchanging gifts; decorating in colours of green and red, silver, gold and white; decorating with holly; decorating a Yule tree; the Christmas wreath; the yule log; celebrating the Yule; mulled cider; fruitcake; egg nog; mistletoe; poinsettias; carolling and more – All “syncretized” from pagan celebrations of winter solstice (many of them Germanic), some Norse and Celtic pagan winter celebrations and Saturnalia customs. Yes, “syncretized” is a word. When used in relation to religion, it describes the process whereby two or more unrelated beliefs, belief systems, traditions or customs are blended to create a new system. The Romans were especially good at this. As they wandered around conquering everything they saw, they absorbed the local traditions and customs and made them their own in an attempt to eradicate the old belief systems and earn instant “street cred” for their new ones. That’s how all of this became associated with Christmas.
And the final evidence is that it seems people just aren’t buying this “War on Christmas” any more. Quite literally… Sarah Palin tried to cash in on this “War on Christmas” nonsense with a book titled “Good Tidings and Great Joy”, which is supposed to be all about preserving Christmas against the assault from godless heathens and secular consumerism and all those other fuzzy phrases she always uses. It’s a publisher’s dream – an author with an established popularity and reputation, a controversial topic, and an audience clamouring for more time in the echo chamber – a surefire formula for a New York Times best seller entry. The book launched on Black Friday with all the percussive force of a soggy cracker, languishing in the mid-400s on Amazon’s best-sellers list. Why is it not selling? Maybe most of Sarah Palin’s audience can’t read, or maybe, just maybe, after listening to all this caterwauling about Christmas, they take a close look at their own experience and have the good sense to see that, no, they can still do all the Christmas traditional stuff they could do before, and nobody’s really trying to take that away from them.
So, if you’re really into authentic traditions, you can denote Christmas the way the first Christians did – which is to say, not at all… or you can join the rest of us human beings in solemnizing whatever the season means to you, in whatever means you like. For most of us, that means reflecting on the better parts of humanity. Charity, warmth, peace, harmony, love, happiness, the brotherhood and sisterhood of the holiday season, and even just enjoying quiet time with loved ones. They’re all worth observing.
…and the next time someone wishes you a “Happy Holiday”, smile and return the favour, because someone honestly cared enough about you and your happiness to wish you so. Knock yourself out with your own revelling, and let others take their leave to enjoy their holidays as they see fit. Consider it your Christmas gift to everyone else.
Some further reading: