Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Christmas conflicts

Once again Christmas is upon us. I am not a big fan, as I do not enjoy the souped-up versions of carols that are so insistently and monotonously played in stores. (Some go so far as to term this musical junk "ear rape.") Luckily I am exempt, pretty much, from the obligation to buy presents. I have no children and my surviving friends are beyond that sort of stuff.

For various reasons, though, myths seem to thrive at this time of year. One which we have not heard much of lately is the notion that Christmas is just a survival of the Roman Saturnalia. I will have more to say about that notion presently.

Another myth, common among secularists these days, is that there is an insidious plot to compel people to say “Merry Christmas” instead of “Happy Holidays,” which is more appropriate, given the mosaic of observances that occur this time of year. I do not say "Merry Christmas," and feel no compulsion to do so. Speech must be free.

While the expression “War on Christmas” is an exaggeration, it is important to remember the origins of this conflict. A decade ago, Wal-Mart and some other big stores deleted the salutation Merry Christmas from their advertising, using Happy Holidays (HH) instead. Apparently, it was felt that some people who are not Christians were offended by the salutation. The imposition of this seemingly neutral, “ecumenical” wording was intended to address their feelings. In reality this outbreak of Verbal Correctness is not very different from the Michigan school which deleted the word “gay” from “Don we now our gay apparel.”

Heaven forbid that in our multicultural society anyone should be offended by anything. But the HH solution did not resolve the problem, for a different group, traditional Christians, came forward to say that they were offended. After the imposition of the “ecumenical” greeting became common knowledge, there was a fire storm of protest, and the stores that had forbidden “Merry Christmas” allowed it to come back.

The motives of those who are (still) fervently backing “Happy Holidays” as the only truly appropriate greeting merit some attention. In my view, they are seeking to relativize Christmas--and by extension Christianity itself--by promoting this expression. I am not a Christian and I am not an advocate for that faith. But I am a historian, and having investigated the background, I have concluded that the relativizing approach is not defensible. Here is some background (partially recycling some parts of an account from 2004).

It is generally acknowledged that no one can determine the actual day of the birth of Jesus Christ. Several candidates enjoyed popularity in various parts of the late Roman world, some in the spring. The most popular choice, though, was January 6, Epiphany. Yet the Roman Church adopted December 25. Why?

One view regards Christmas as a hijacking of the Saturnalia, a somewhat raucous pagan event, which started on December 17 and extended to from three to seven days thereafter—but never, it seems, reaching as far as the 25th. In addition, some have suggested the winter solstice as a source, but that is fixed at December 22, though some astronomical wobbliness has been detected. Near misses don’t qualify, for the Romans insisted on precision in these calendrical matters. The reason for this emphasis is that astrology, then widely accepted, required determination not just of the actual day of one’s birth, but the hour. (By the way, has anyone ever calculated Jesus’s horoscope based on the several candidates for his proposed birth?)

To make a long story short, Christmas actually coincides with an observance established by the emperor Aurelian in AD 274: December 25 was fixed as the birthday of the Unconquered Sun (Sol Invictus).

Late antiquity saw the rise of a contentious welter of religions. Of Middle Eastern origin, the Unconquered Sun came to enjoy wide appeal because of its lack of specificity. While it connoted potency, the Sol Invictus otherwise had a kind of neutrality that gave it appeal to a number of competing religious factions. It was cosmic, not anthropomorphic, at least not necessarily so. For traditional pagans Sol Invictus was identical with Apollo, originally a Greek import. The Mithraists saw it as a manifestation of their Mithras Helios. Christians could honor the solar deity as a metaphor for the "Sun of Righteousness," that is, Jesus Christ. Interestingly, the soil underneath the basilica of St. Peters has yielded a mosaic, apparently of the early 4th century, showing Christ as a sun god riding a chariot.

While the Roman Church, and eventually the entire Latin West, adopted December 25 to mark the Nativity, the eastern holiday of Epiphany was retained as well. Today the 6th of January is observed in Hispanic countries as the day of the Three Kings (the Magi), when gifts are exchanged. In this way, the old Roman observation of New Year’s Day, the first of January, was bracketed by Christmas, on the one hand, and Epiphany, on the other. They were two bookends, as it were, enclosing the older date for the beginning of the civil year. (For the Church Christmas was the beginning of the year.) The combination attests a widely ramifying process: retention of traditional holidays—providing that their pagan character was not overt--while mingling them with the new.

As part of this inquiry I looked into one of the major sources for late Roman festivals, the Calendar of 354. This richly illustrated volume, made for a cultivated Christian named Valentinus, is actually a composite reference book recording the public religious festivals in Rome (roughly the first half), together with Christian parallels (the second half). While this combination may at first sight seem schizophrenic, or at best a shotgun marriage, it actually accords well with an era of transition. Valentinus, the book’s owner, wished to have a record of the festivals of his ancestors, as well as the holy observances of his own faith. Many of the old festivals were falling into desuetude in his own day, and new deities, more acceptable to Christians and those adhering to other salvific religions, came in, favored because of their relative neutrality. These included Roma Aeterna, a personification of the city; Salus, or public safety; and the aforementioned Sol Invictus.

The original copy of the Calendar of 354, our best source for these matters, has been lost. Yet it has been reconstructed by several generations of classical scholars. The results of these labors have been summed up by Michele Renee Salzman in her fine monograph, “On Roman Time” (Berkeley, 1990).

Now for a fast forward. Somewhat analogous to the transitional picture recorded by the Calendar, we can observe changes in our own practice. Since 1954, Armistice Day, devised to commemorate the end of World War I on November 11, has been renamed Veterans Day. Washington’s and Lincoln’s birthday get rolled together as President’s Day, while a new holiday has appeared to honor Martin Luther King.

Today controversy surrounds Christmas. For some time it has had two rivals, Hanukkah and Kwanzaa. While the events commemorated in Hanukkkah took place before the birth of Christ, the actual commemoration is recent. in the 1870s, when Christmas was beginning to come into its own as a mass-market phenomenon in the US, two Cincinnati rabbis, looking for a way to cheer up Jewish kids who felt left out, launched the first big Hanukkah festivals, with games, music, and food. The concept proved popular, soon spreading across the country. So says Dianne Ashton, a religious scholar and author of the coming book "Hanukkah in America." Competition with Christmas is the main reason for the prominence of the festival. Kwanzaa. observed by some African Americans, thrives for similar reasons.

Today in many of the "blue" (liberal) states it is no longer fashionable to say "Merry Christmas"—-one should call out "Happy Holidays" instead. In some cases Nativity scenes and Christmas carols have been banned from public observance, ostensibly on grounds of separation of church and state. While these changes do not add up to an actual War on Christmas, they do represent an effort to relativize Christmas--and in fact Christianity itself.

Christmas is a national holiday in the United States. Yet in its origin it is a religious observance, as I have shown. In a sense we have come full circle, back to the duality of late Roman times. The day of the Unconquered Sun was a holiday in the perfected version of the official (pagan) calendar. Yet Roman Christians could also accept this figure as the avatar of their own founder. Hence Christmas as we know it.

As with everything else in human culture, holidays evolve. As in 4th-century Rome, these changes can occasion controversy, with some urging radical change and others defending the status quo. Whatever the case, it seems that Christmas will be with us a good deal longer.

UPDATE. The reductio ad absurdum of the relativist argument is this list (from

"Late December celebrations"

* Alban Arthuan
* Boxing Day
* Chrismukkah
* Festivus
* Hanukkah
* Inti Raymi
* Kwanzaa
* Holiday (Pastafarianism)
* Lenaea
* Merlinpeen
* New Year's Eve
* New Year's Day (also celebrated on the first of April, by fools)
* Ramadan has recently fallen during this time of year, though since Islamic holidays are on a lunar calendar it is progressing backwards through the calendar.
* Eid Al Adha (Islamic New Year) currently falls during this time of the year, but like Ramadan, progresses backwards through the calendar.
* Saturnalia
* Second Rite of Belial
* Solstice (winter in the northern hemisphere, summer in the southern)
* Thanksgiving (in some places)
* The Long Night
* Xmas
* Yule (or Juul)
* Newtonma



Anonymous Thomas Kraemer said...

I first recall the Christmas issue when I was in the first grade, more than a half century ago, in a conservative Midwestern town's public school, when the teacher explained that to be polite one boy would not be participating in our Christmas class crayon drawing art projects because of his religion. This boy happened to be my only friend and I was his only friend. My agnostic parents explained to me that the religious reason was that this boy was Jewish and none of the other children, who were mostly Catholic and Protestant, would associate with a Jewish boy. They praised me for not allowing religion to get in the way of a friendship. (Decades later, my grandmother described leaving Nazi Germany in the 1930s on a ship with my grandfather and father surrounded by Nazi submarines. This is when I first realized the deeper significance of how religion played a role in my first grade experience. I do not view modern American-style Christmas as being a religious event, but as a gay and campy festival that is filled with pretty lights, songs, and joy. It is no different than the typical gay pride parade. Those who don't see gay pride parades or Christmas as being fun don't have to participate. Atheists or homophobes, who are offended by Christmas or gay pride parades, should just look the other way. The parents of my first grade friend and our teacher understood this concept. I have to practice what I preach because just down the street I live on are anti-gay Baptist, LDS Mormon, Orthodox Jewish, Muslim and Catholic churches, temples or mosques. The building reader board signs (which are allowed only under a city sign code that exempts religious organizations from the law) have often displayed anti-gay messages. Therefore, I can relate to the anger of rabid Christians and Atheists, but I value the freedom of religion more than I value theocracy of nay kind. I vent my anger by writing letters to the editor pointing out this religious hypocrisy and I hope these people will voluntarily take their signs down to be polite, instead taking them down because they are being forced to do so. I similarly avoid flaunting my gay Christmas spirit when I am around my straight and conservative Jewish friends who are disgusted by both. It is a matter of politeness and nothing more.

10:58 AM  

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