Saturday, November 20, 2010

A Brief History of Christmas

It's getting to the time of year when a certain segment of the religious right -- the folks who think simple faith is preferable to studying theology and their own church history -- start whining about "The War on Christmas."  You will hear them complain about Neopagans and Secular Humanists co-opting Christmas for their own holiday celebrations.  Some of them will make statements about Christmas trees being inappropriate for anyone but Christians (or with any other name but Christmas tree).

There is no language in the gospels indicating that Jesus of Nazareth was born in December. In fact, the only seasonal clue -- the shepherds keeping watch over their flocks at night -- would seem to indicate that the nativity took place in the Spring, during lambing season (the only time of year in which shepherds spend the nights in the fields with their flocks).

Most cultures have some sort of celebration that is tied to the Winter Solstice.  The minor Jewish festival of Channukkah is overtly called "the festival of lights" and its theme is light lasting longer than expected.  The Jews' Roman occupiers celebrated Saturnalia, a multi-day festival that included family gatherings, feasting and the giving of gifts.

In addition to the official Roman state religion, many Roman soldiers practiced Mithraism, a mystery religion (meaning its doctrines were kept secret from all but the highest-level initiates) that originated in Persia. Our knowledge of Mithraism is sketchy (since it was a mystery religion that completely died out in ancient times), but we know it involved a god named Mithras who was born on the Winter Solstice and later sacrificed a celestial bull to save mankind from the darkness.

When Christianity became an official State religion of the Roman Empire, it began to compete openly with the existing pagan religions for followers.  Forcing people to give up their cherished holiday traditions is no way to win converts.  Thus, the church decided that Jesus was born on December 25 (the Bible didn't directly say otherwise, after all), and declared that the faithful could celebrate the Nativity with a Christ Mass and feast. The Saturnalia traditions were largely absorbed into the 12-day Christmas celebrations (culminating with Epiphany, which commemorates the visit of the Magi with their fabulous gifts).

Northern European pagans had their own Solstice celebrations.  The Scandinavian and German peoples burned a Yule log to represent the returning sunlight and brought evergreen trees (tannenbaums) inside, because they defy winter by remaining lifelike rather than dropping their leaves.  When Christian missionaries proselytized among the northern tribes, they let them keep their old traditions, attaching them to the new Christmas celebrations.

After about 1500 years, Christmas traditions are indeed venerable.  However, it is ignorant to assume that Christians have a monopoly on December celebrations, or that non-Christians have no right to decorate evergreen trees and exchange gifts.


In December, I will wish my family and Christian friends a Merry Christmas (or Feliz Navidad or Mele Kamikimaka, depending on my mood and how much I am longing for the tropics).  I will wish my Jewish friends and relatives a Happy Channukah.  I will wish my pagan friends and relatives a Good Yule.  And to everyone, I will wish Happy Holidays (because no matter which of the above holidays we celebrate, most of us celebrate New Year's Eve as well).

10 comments:

sofa said...

Merry Christmas!
.

sofa said...

Shame you couldn't say that without introductory rhetoric like 'religious right' and 'simple faith' and saying religious folks are ignorant of theology and history. Spitting in someone's eye is a poor introduction, but reveals much about the spitter.

Ordinary Jill said...

I mentioned a "certain segment" of the religious right -- meaning not all Christians, nor even all conservative Christians. Some churches praise "simple faith" because they want their flock to accept the authority of the clergy without question. Those churches actively discourage folks from reading the entire Bible for themselves, much less studying the history and doctrines of their own church. If you consider those observations to be spitting in the eye of religion, then you do not know much about me. It's a little early to be wishing anyone a Merry Christmas, in my opinion. I will happily return the sentiment in three or four weeks.

James L. Greenlee said...

Oh, how I hope that they skip the annual "war on Christmas" claptrap this year. It's such a ludicrous concept, that Christmas doesn't get enough recognition. Christmas decorations started appearing in stores BEFORE Halloween.

My mom has an antique store. In her shop, you can find antiques with the phrases "Happy Holidays" and "Season's Greetings." The idea that those sentiments are something new, or some kind of slap at Christianity is ludicrous.

Good history lesson Jill.

Kentucky Turtle said...

I seriously doubt the right will skip renewing the 'War' again this year. It's much too effective a recruiting tool to forego. A surefire way to attract to the cause those with a permanent persecution complex.

I predict that right now, Bill, Rush, Michele and Sean are busy dusting off and fine tuning the script for the 2010 War on Christmas offensive.

Mitch

sofa said...

"Oh, how I hope that they skip the annual "war on Christmas" claptrap this year."

After starting it, now complain that it is started up again.
hahaha and hohoho
.

Kentucky Turtle said...

Sorry to burst your bubble sofa, but the war has already been renewed for 2010. The opening salvo has been fired by these intrepet warriors of the right.

The American Family Association has called for their members to boycott Dick’s Sporting Goods because they used the word “holiday” instead of “Christmas” in their November and December sales circulars. After all, those two months don't contain any other celebrations worthy of being mentioned. Just some second rate observances like Thanksgiving, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa and New Year's Eve.

And not too be outdone, we have the Values Voters Summit screening of the straight to DVD film, Christmas with a Capital C starring the Baldwin brother with no talent, Daniel. Without giving the plot away and spoiling it for those of you who can't wait to see it. I will tell you, the bad guys in the film are the libs and atheists.

Mitch

Kentucky Turtle said...

Please pardon my French. The word should have been intrepid not intrepet.


Mitch

James L. Greenlee said...

Turtle: at least it wasn't the odeous Stephen Baldwin.

Sofa: Started it? Whattaya talking about? I don't believe a War on Christmas exists. It's claptrap.

Nobody wishes "happy holidays" or "seasons' greetings" with malicious intent. Nobody. It's been called "the holiday season" for ages, and only became a War with the advent of FOX "News."

Kentucky Turtle said...

You're right, Stephen is much worse. With him being a part of the ultra religious community, I'm surprised he's not the lead in this B movie.

In addition to the movie, one of my right wing service buddies forwarded me a music video yesterday, called "Christmas With A Capital C". It would appear the movie is based on the song. After viewing as much of the music video as I could stomach, I find myself pitying anyone unfortunate enough to ever see the movie.