It’s that time of year again. Time to dig out those decorations, deck the halls and trim the tree. Time to brave the stores in search of that perfect gift. And of course, time to turn on Fox News Channel and crank up the outrage over the “secularist” assault on the “sacred” Christian holiday celebrating the birth of Christ.
Every year, as we do our best to muster up some holiday spirit, we are bombarded with a steady barrage of anger-inducing horror stories over humanism run amok embodied by the so-called “War on Christmas,” and 2013 is shaping up to be no different. Fox News has even set up an interactive website for users to submit their tales of religious persecution by Godless civil libertarians bent on stripping Christmas of its quintessential Christian character.
One submission from College Park, Ga., complained that a charter school’s “holiday program” would feature popular seasonal music (with songs such as Jingle Bells, Feliz Navidad and Santa Claus is Coming to Town), but that religious songs would not be included. “It’s okay for boys and girls at The Main Street Academy to jingle bells, but expressing joy to the world is forbidden,” fumed Todd Starnes. “It’s a classic case of Christmas censorship.”
The site also highlights a number of “victories” in the “war” over Christmas traditions, including an apparent capitulation by Rhode Island Gov. Lincoln Chafee, who has reportedly decided to start referring to the Statehouse “Christmas tree” rather than “the holiday tree.” Chafee acknowledged that his previous choice of words – a nod to the state’s religious diversity and its founding as a haven of religious tolerance – had generated too much anger (likely whipped up by Fox News).
“He caved,” State Rep. Doreen Costa gloated. “This is fabulous news – a small victory for us who fight the war on Christmas.”
The funny thing about these annual controversies – other than the obvious fact that they fly in the face of the U.S. constitutional separation of church and state – is that it seems to be lost on both sides of the dispute that what we consider the celebration of Christmas has very little to do historically with Christianity. It is actually a pagan tradition that predates the birth of Christ by hundreds of years.
In fact, there has been a midwinter festival of one sort or another in Europe, Scandinavia and the Middle East for millennia, and it wasn’t until the fourth century that the Christian Church claimed this holiday as “Christmas,” arbitrarily selecting December 25 as Jesus’ birthday. For what it’s worth, it’s highly unlikely that Jesus was even born on this day, as it was the cold rainy season in Judea and not a time when shepherds generally tended to “watch their flocks by night” as described in scripture.
Rather than a celebration of the savior’s birthday, the roots of the holiday are the pagan traditions of Winter Solstice (also known as Yule, or “Wheel,” which is what Christmas is still called in the Nordic countries). In the north, where the days grow depressingly dark at this time of year, the seasons and weather played a central role in the lives of ancient peoples, who spent most of their time outdoors. The Norsemen of Northern Europe therefore had a special reverence for the sun, which was seen as a wheel that changed the seasons, hence the Scandinavian name for Christmas, Yule.
In Britain, the Druids also celebrated the Winter Solstice, in part by cutting the mistletoe that grew on the oak tree and offering it as a blessing. Oaks were seen as sacred and the mistletoe was a symbol of life in the dark winter months.
Also taking place this time of year was the ancient festival of the Romans to celebrate the rebirth of the year, a time of general debauchery known as Saturnalia. Starting on December 17, the festivities ran for seven days and included men dressing up as women and masters dressing as servants.
It was because of its known pagan roots that the holiday was banned by the Puritan-led English Parliament in 1647, which denounced it as “a popish festival with no biblical justification.” The ban, incidentally, led to pro-Christmas rioting in several English cities.
The holiday was also prohibited by the original English settlers of Massachusetts. As the Puritan Reverend Increase Mather of Boston observed in 1687, “the early Christians who first observed the Nativity on December 25 did not do so thinking that Christ was born in that Month, but because the Heathens’ Saturnalia was at that time kept in Rome, and they were willing to have those Pagan Holidays metamorphosed into Christian ones.”
Due to its pagan origins, Christmas was forbidden by the Puritans and its observance was illegal in Massachusetts between 1659 and 1681. But as Stephen Nissenbaum points out in his book The Battle for Christmas, it wasn’t just the holiday’s pagan roots that led to its forbidden status in early America. Because Christmas revelry was such a rowdy affair, heavily lubricated by alcohol, in which societal norms were turned upside down and established authority openly challenged, it was considered rather threatening by the powers that be.
With popular anger and lust freely and publicly expressed by Christmas revelers, the unruliness was considered not just dangerous but sacrilegious. Reverand Mather deplored Christmas revelers’ celebrations as “highly dishonourable to the name of Christ.”
It is into this rich and complex historical context that the Christmas warriors of Fox News and the religious right wade every year in an attempt to whip up outrage over a purportedly victimized Christian nation beleaguered by forces of secularism and multiculturalism.
At the same time, the civil libertarians and humanists who object to public displays of the celebration of Christmas fall into the same trap, bestowing a religious significance to a holiday that has no real relation to the Christian faith – other than the historical fact that the Church coopted a pagan festivity that had already been celebrated for centuries to mark the return of the sun.
What everyone should take a moment to acknowledge is that this holiday is something of a multicultural mongrel to begin with, combining the celebrations of the ancient Druids, the Norsemen of Scandinavia and the ancient Romans, and only more recently, the Christian Church which simply adopted these pagan traditions in an effort to establish its own relevance.
What Christmas has become today, however, dominated as it is by an aggressive consumerism most disturbingly on display in the recent melee known as “Black Friday,” bears little relation to the ideals expressed by the historical Jesus. Just last week we saw this ugliness play out in cities across America where people jostled to get a slight upper hand over fellow bargain-hunters in taking advantage of the discounts offered by retailers the day after Thanksgiving.
Outbreaks of violence marred the shopping frenzy nationwide, with Chicago police shooting an alleged shoplifter, a shopper gunned down in Las Vegas by someone who wanted his flat screen TV, and a California cop injured in a fight. One woman used a stun gun on another as a fight broke out at a shopping center in Philadelphia. A man was also stabbed in an argument over a parking space at a Walmart in Virginia.
If the Christian faithful were truly concerned about “putting the Christ back in Christmas,” you would think that these sorts of stories would stir up more outrage than stories of schools failing to include religious hymns in their holiday musicals. But you would be wrong.
The point of excessive consumerism is, however, one that Pope Francis made explicitly in an 84-page apostolic exhortation published on November 26, just as the holiday season got underway this year. Taking aim at capitalism as “a new tyranny” Pope Francis urged world leaders to step up their efforts against poverty and inequality and called on rich people to share their wealth.
“The great danger in today’s world,” reads the document, “pervaded as it is by consumerism, is the desolation and anguish born of a complacent yet covetous heart, the feverish pursuit of frivolous pleasures, and a blunted conscience. Whenever our interior life becomes caught up in its own interests and concerns, there is no longer room for others, no place for the poor.”
In words that almost seemed to predict the Black Friday violence that would break out later in the week, Pope Francis wrote, “Today’s economic mechanisms promote inordinate consumption, yet it is evident that unbridled consumerism combined with inequality proves doubly damaging to the social fabric.”
Rather than zero in on the frivolities of Christmas and the semantics of the holiday season, it is perhaps repairing this social fabric that should be the focus this holiday season. Only then will the ‘War on Christmas’ finally come to an end.