DailyKos’ resident historian R. Scott Peoples (writing as diarist Unitary Moonbat) exposes the flaws of the conservative religious claim that there’s a “War on Christmas,” and that secular liberals intend to paganize it. It turns out that many Christmas stories, symbols, and rituals were ancient pagan traditions to begin with, including the idea of a holy birth occurring at the time of the Winter Solstice (Jesus being a latecomer to a club that already included Mithra, Osiris, Apollo, Bacchus, and Adonis).
Some of this history I’m familiar with, and some is new to me. This Scriptural passage in particular surprised me:
Hear ye the word which the LORD speaketh unto you, O house of Israel: Thus saith the LORD, Learn not the way of the heathen, and be not dismayed at the signs of heaven; for the heathen are dismayed at them. For the customs of the people are vain: for one cutteth a tree out of the forest, the work of the hands of the workman, with the axe. They deck it with silver and with gold; they fasten it with nails and with hammers, that it move not.
— Jeremiah 10:1-4, King James Version
Whatever the ritual of decorating the Christmas tree means to us now, it seems clear that it began as a “heathen” practice that was actively denounced by a prophet of God. Something for Biblical fundamentalists to chew on: if the Bible is the inerrant word of God, then it is absolutely morally incumbent upon you to tear down your tree!
The history of old Saint Nicholas / Sinterklaas / Santa Claus gets substantial play here as well. While not strictly a religious figure nowadays, Santa undoubtedly owes much to Christian tradition, so I was particularly intrigued by the strands of Norse mythology deep in Santa’s DNA:
Different regions and elasticities developed distinct traditions surrounding the celebration of Christmas during the thousand or so years between the Fall of Rome and the Rise of Protestantism, and Santa Claus (to speak in the broadest, most generic of senses) was no exception. The Norse, in particular, liked their Christianity heavily spiced with the gods of their ancestors – and in the case of their Yule-time gift-deliverer, they turned for inspiration to no less than Odin himself.
Looking at the similarities, there does seem to be a case here: Odin had a long white beard, hat, spear (translates to the shepherd’s crook of a bishop), and had servants carrying a cloth bag (though Odin’s was used to capture naughty children). He flew on an eight-legged horse (alternately, the horse, named Sleipner, is capable of flight-like leaping), and was known to lead hunting parties across the sky to celebrate Yule, but most convincingly, perhaps, is the children’s placement of boots filled with sweets, carrots, and hay near their chimneys, which seems to have a pretty close parallel with hanging stockings from the mantle.
(On a related note, I was amused to learn — via Weekend Edition — that some cherished religious carols are decidedly secular in origin. “Hark the Herald Angels Sing” was originally composed by Felix Mendelssohn to celebrate the 400th anniversary of Johannes Gutenberg’s printing press; substitute “Gutenberg” for “hark the herald” on the chorus’ high notes.)
Which all means, in the end, that conservatives fighting for the “purity” of the Christmas holiday are really fighting for a delusion: the idea of a static and religiously pure tradition is as bankrupt as that of a racially pure nation. Christmas, as we know it, comes from many tribes and cultures and histories, many of them predating Christianity itself; the meaning of the holiday at year’s end does not belong to Christians alone. And it’s not done changing yet. It’s up to us not just to swallow our traditions whole, but to examine them — stripping out what’s narrow, exclusive, superstitious, and inhumane, and keeping (or adding) what’s compassionate, what’s kind, what’s charitable, and what speaks of love and forgiveness. And that’s something no believer has a monopoly on.
We gather as the year dwindles and dies: to be with those we love, to exchange tokens of our affection, to remind ourselves of our connection to the human family. Whatever other stories we commemorate, this is enough.
(Image via Zooomr)