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We all know that some Christmas traditions have their roots in Paganism but I didn't want to do a lengthy compare and contrast about that this time around. Instead, let's talk about this holiday from the perspective of history and it might surprise you to learn how secular it actually has been almost from the start. It might also surprise you to learn that it hasn't always been embraced by some Christians or all that important to the church when it was a new thing.
Most of our modern Christmas traditions are surprisingly contemporary, dating back only about a century and a half, if that. Some are even more recent.
Christian fascinations with Paganism, however, go back a long way. There are many observable reasons why so many ex-christians of a variety of traditions from Catholicism to Pentecostalism set their sites on Pagan-based religions on their way out of theism. These curiosities and fascinations have influenced their behavior for well over a millennium. Most of the Wiccans we knew had pasts in various flavors of Christianity and we have gone over many of the reasons why recently on this show. Back in October we did an entire episode on the parallels between pentecostalism and witchcraft and how the Catholic liturgy is rife with pagan practices:
Protective amulets (like the monstrance)
Drawing symbols in the air or on yourself with hand gestures (the sign of the cross and similar blessings) – same as banishing and summoning pentagrams
These things are part of the liturgy because the Catholic church was enthusiastic about converting pagans and creating a space where they would feel comfortable drinking in the indoctrination. They wanted to create a ritual space that had as many points of familiarity as possible with that specific demographic so that the people the religion attracted would be able to let down their guard and just accept this new slant. People outside of pagan faiths still had a fascination with magic and mysticism exacerbated by a lack of scientific knowledge, so it was a win-win. The mystical atmosphere of the mass had a very widespread appeal. You don't have to be pagan to enjoy a little hocus pocus. Just ask JK Rowling.
But it wasn't the Catholic church that began or perpetuated a majority of practices associated with Christmas. Most of them are much older than Christianity and come from a variety of faiths and traditions, most of which were secular or born out of popular myths. The Catholic Church DID, however, quite conspicuously and very nonsensically insert the story of Christ's nativity into the popular contemporary midwinter celebrations of that time. I say it's nonsensical not because it wasn't well thought-out, because it was, but because of the timing of it and the details surrounding the Winter Solstice.
Even without the benefit of modern scientific observation, primitive humans had an impressive understanding of at least the basics of astronomy, at least to the extent that they noticed that certain things happened in the sky throughout the course of the year. The constellations changed – they saw different stars in the sky in Winter than they did in Summer. They noticed changes in the position of the sun and that days started getting longer and shorter at specific times of year and they were able to pinpoint these changes down to the day. Some were so perceptive that they managed to observe a specific perceived anomaly in the way the sun behaved right around the Winter solstice...
(3 days the sun “stands still” in the sky, etc...)
So why do I say it's nonsensical to insert Christ's nativity into this time of year? Well, there are two reasons. Even with no factual data to base the opinion on, most theologians agree that it was more likely that Jesus was born in the springtime than winter. They cite things like the timing of the census that was supposedly going on at the time, during which time it would have been far more difficult for people to travel. It's worth noting here that there is no historical record that corroborates that any such event happened when the Bible says it did in the first place so that should tell us right off the bat that the story we're being told is allegory.
Given the fact that the “Winter” season in the region of Palestine is short and wet (and more like early fall temperature-wise), it made no sense to have scores of people traveling by foot with limited lodging that often provided little or inadequate shelter from the elements at that time. Most, if not all, of the rain in that region falls at the same time that lots of people were supposedly traveling for this census. It would have made very little sense to make people trundle through the relatively cold and soggy conditions that prevail in the region in December.
By April, day and night temperatures generally stayed far above freezing (read that as more summer-like conditions) and it was much easier for people to travel at that point. If a census was to take place, it would have taken place during the more moderate eight months of the year, not during the exact worst time of year to safely and comfortably travel. The story of Jesus being born and placed in a manger in a drafty barn (or more likely an open structure like a pergola with a makeshift roof but no walls) makes no sense since it would be difficult for an infant to survive or remain well under those conditions, regardless of how tightly wrapped in swaddling clothes the baby might have been. If you want to believe that things happened the way the Bible says they did, it is unlikely that this scene would have been set in December in the region of Palestine. It's just bad timing.
The second reason springs from the facts of the events that take place around the Winter Solstice...
[the significance of the three days analogy]
In short, the symbolism of the sun's behavior at this time of year fits much more neatly with the death and resurrection of Christ than it does with his birth... which also wouldn't have been likely to have happened in the dead of Winter.
So why set the liturgical calendar up this way? Here's the simple answer: there is no logical reason for it, it was a decision, pure and simple. There are some explanations but I couldn't find one that didn't seem hopelessly manufactured or speculative. It was a convenient point of insertion that carried a message of hope during a time of year that was dark and cold and less hospitable to the enjoyment of various creature comforts than other times of year.
“One widespread explanation of the origin of this date is that December 25 was the Christianizing of the dies solis invicti nati (“day of the birth of the unconquered sun”), a popular holiday in the Roman Empire that celebrated the winter solstice as a symbol of the resurgence of the sun, the casting away of winter and the heralding of the rebirth of spring and summer.”
I still say this works better as a resurrection connection than a birth connection, but that's just me.
It wasn't until the 9th Century that Christ's Mass was given its own liturgy and even then it wasn't anywhere near the big deal that Easter was. The church's main high holy days were traditionally Good Friday and Easter and that was true for a lot of years.
Fast forward about 800 more years and we see the more widespread tradition of gift-giving at Christmas taking shape. This did have a sort of spiritual anchor in that some people equated the practice with reminding people of the “gift” of Christ to the world, but it's a reach. The practice was, and always has been more secular and rooted in notions of things like charity and goodwill.
If there was ever a gift that should have gotten lost in the mail...
The gift-giving tradition did have an earlier origin that can be traced back to the 15th century. At that point, it symbolized the Magi bringing gifts to present to the Christchild. It did have a bit of a secularizing effect seeing as the giving of gifts among friends an family was, as it is today, much more about gratifying the recipient, which clearly shifts the focus off of Jesus and onto the the individual. After all, we give people gifts that they would like, not ones that Jesus would think are cool otherwise we'd be giving each-other carpenter's planes, saws, and miter boxes every year.
This evil secularization of Christmas actually caused it to be banned in both England and colonial America. Cue those crazy puritans again. They were behind that little coup.
1659, just three little decades before their limited skirmish over witchcraft, the lovable scamps of the Massachusetts Bay Colony actually had a ban on Christmas written into colonial law. No, I'm not kidding.
“For preventing disorders arising in several places within this jurisdiction, by reason of some still observing such festivals as were superstitiously kept in other countries, to the great dishonor of God and offence of others, it is therefore ordered by this Court and the authority thereof, that whosoever shall be found observing any such day as Christmas or the like, either by forbearing of labor, feasting, or any other way, upon such accountants as aforesaid, every person so offending shall pay of every such offence five shillings, as a fine to the county.”
Christmas was actually a big thing in England by this time. It was first and foremost a religious observance but had more than enough secular cheer to raise puritanical hackles. And even though the Puritans were in the minority, we already know from the Salem Witch Trials the sheer levels of chaos and insanity they were capable of whipping up. They simply couldn't handle the notion that OTHER PEOPLE engaged in activities like wassailing, which was a very secular part of the holiday celebrations of both the colonists and people in 17th century England. This predominantly involved a lot of drinking and alcohol-fueled indiscretions that sometimes even included things like orgies and out-of-control public displays of revelry. Things got broke. Things got burned. Tail was chased. People went a little batshit. It was just like Woodstock 99. And none of it was done in the name of any god. It was marvelously secular and had nothing to do with the people whom all of it offended, but just like modern evangelicals, the puritans didn't like that it was happening even though they weren't involved so they made the bad people stop offending their god.
And because they believed that life itself was a religious observance, they didn't see the need to draw attention to one specific day. These people didn't even like Easter and wound up having that banned on two continents too!
“They for whom all days are holy can have no holiday.”
So with all of this in mind and knowing that all things Christian eventually lead to shockingly toxic patterns of both thought and behavior, it comes as no surprise that modern evangelicals want to maintain a stranglehold on the practices that make up the Holiday season.
Things they don't like:
Saying anything but Merry Christmas
Donald Trump did a stellar job of furthering unrest over this one. The problem is that he's a con man and he will say anything – anything – that will make his most prized constituents like him better. He may have held that Bible upside-down, but he held it. And gassed a bunch of innocent protestors so he could. And evangelicals have such surface perceptions of these things, it's easy to convey whatever message you want to them as long as you create the illusion of alliance with them.
And it's that surface perception of everything that gets them upset by any greeting besides, “Merry Christmas.” It doesn't matter that there are so many other religions out there. Theirs is the only one that matters because theirs embodies the way, the truth, and the life. It's a zero-sum game so the holidays should have a zero-sum focus. It's another example of their lack of empathy – it is impossible for them to see, recognize, understand, or even care about what this time of year means to anyone but themselves.
Now give them a president who one day decides to blow up social media declaring that America – not Christian Americans, but America is saying Merry Christmas again, and two things happen. First, the underlying resentment of any other faith or non-faith system bubbles to the surface. It doesn't promote peace on earth. It promotes anger, hate, racism, and xenophobia and turns up the volume of these things in people's heads. Second, it plants thoughts of persecution in people's minds where none exists. Saying “Merry Christmas” never went away but the inclusion of that word, “again” puts it in the evangelical mind that society has taken something from them that they now must reclaim.
I'm sorry, but... what has been taken from you? You still have the right and the freedom to approach the holidays any way you want. No one is handing out fines for saying “Merry Christmas.” No one is shutting down your churches. No one is even trying to deny you the right to experience the holidays your way. Oh, and if your workplace imposes a greeting like “Happy Holidays” and asks you not to say “Merry Christmas” it's not a slight to you or your beliefs. It's a marketing move designed to make every customer or client that does business with them feel comfortable and included. That's it.
While it was clearly meant to be satire, I do like the song “Merry Fucking Christmas” from South Park. It's meant to be caricaturist in its delivery, but the messaging is quite simple: Evangelicals, this is how ridiculous you look.” And they're right. I've had an on and off love/hate relationship with that show since its inception, but this is one of those moments where I think they present a great argument against this ridiculous notion of a war on Christmas.
Evangelicals, no one is taking up arms here but you. There is no enemy within when it comes to your country or how you celebrate the holidays. It's only your own blind arrogance and propensity for following any voice that says things you like to hear that creates this illusion of conflict inside your heads. Oh, and doesn't the Bible warn against this sort of thing? Only listening to the voices and messages that sound good to you? Here, let me help you remember...
2 Timothy 4:3 (NIV) - For the time will come when people will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear.
Sometimes the greatest number is one. And you are listening to a teacher whose teachings will net you nothing more than a dunce cap in the eyes of society in general.
“Pagan” traditions – I used to be one of those people who believed that there were Pagan roots to pretty much everything surrounding Christmas. There ARE a lot but I don't want to spend an entire episode pointing them out, mostly because there are a lot. But there are just as many, if not more, that have purely secular and cultural roots that don't have underlying spiritual significances. Most traditions evolved as a result of certain influences that are all about people, not pagan gods.
Yes, there are roots in the gift-giving tradition that can be equated with elements of pagan traditions like Saturnalia and the story of St. Nicholas, but as we discussed, those traditions were borne far more of secular practices that were designed to bring a little bit of joy to a time of year where things feel cold and dark. We like pretty lights because they help us feel a little better about the sheer lack of daylight that exists in Wintertime. We sing upbeat songs and carols as a means of lifting our spirits and feeling a sense of togetherness. Gift giving serves the same purpose. We enjoy decadent foods and sweets that only show up on the table at Christmastime for the same reasons. Anything pleasing to the eyes, ears, and palate help keep our moods elevated. Most of the things we do at this time of year are designed to bring us together and remind us of the good things that we have in our lives already. There are even some traditions that sprung up purely by accident over time...
(The Ham and the roasting pan)
It has always impressed upon me, at least since I got out, how Evangelicals want this entire season to be about them, and yet they embrace everything that looks good, tastes good, and feels good about Christmas. They don't question why certain things are popular at this time of year, they just indulge along with the rest of us. Maybe some of them will shy away from things like alcohol, but I assure you that there are far more of them who give themselves a hall pass on that cup of cheer than would care to admit. Most of them like songs like “Jingle Bells” every bit as much as they like “Away in a Manger.” It isn't the secularization of the holidays that they disapprove of, it's the lack of attention they perceive themselves to be getting when they see a sign that says “happy holidays” and not “Merry Christmas.”
Sorry, Donald Trump, but people are still using the phrases they want in the contexts where they are most appropriate. Nothing has changed aside from you turning up the volume on your misguided constituents' persecution complexes. People like you don't seem to understand that America is a melting pot. We have no designated religion or culture. All we have is people who rightly expect to be able to live the way they want, think the way they want, and celebrate the things that matter to them. It just so happens that certain traditions have broader appeal than others. You cannot steal back something that was never taken away from you.
If someone wishes me a merry Christmas, my response is almost uniformly to just say it back, or I'll just say, “and to you as well.” I may be an atheist but I still refer to Christmas as Christmas because it's the prevailing descriptor used where I live, but if someone says “Happy Kwanzaa” to me I'm every bit as gracious and I will still respond in kind and return those well-wishes too. It doesn't hurt, I assure you. That person probably doesn't expect that I follow the same traditions. They say what they say because that's their identity and they have every right to project that identity when dealing with others.
To me, all of these greetings serve the same purpose: to spread the peace on earth and goodwill toward people that are at the heart of the holiday season. There is no goodwill in asserting your rightness in the face of a diverse population that may or may not hold to your own ideals. That very toxic notion started with the puritans and history has given us some glowing examples of the havoc that that kind of thinking wreaks on society. It starts with depriving people of a good time and, when left unchecked, spirals into actions of selfishness, egotism, narcissism, and megalomania that lead to more violent backlash when one group's way of approaching life and faith is challenged or interrupted even in ways that are largely illusion. We saw it in the banning of Christmas and Easter. We saw it a few decades later in the Salem witch trials and, I'll say it again: we've had three hundred years to adjust our stinkin' thinkin' and have instead just let it get worse.
Instead of zeroing in on an imaginary war on Christmas, why not simply focus on the concept of peace on earth? The best way to deal with these selfish, hate-driven assertions made by evangelicals about attacks on their faith is to approach their little tantrums like you would those of a toddler. Let them scream it out. Let them stomp their feet and pound their fists. Let them scream bloody murder until they lose their voices. Ignore the rhetoric and let them have their delusions.
And while that's happening, raise your glasses, sing some carols, watch some good movies and, especially this year, make a point of reaching out to friends and family and let them know you're thinking of them. You're not going to change centuries of toxic thinking by responding to infantile behavior, but you can refuse to think and act like they do.
You can refuse to take up arms in a “war” that doesn't exist, and you can purpose to make merry in any way that affirms the person that you are, because at the end of the day, being the people we want to be and living our lives the way we want to live them is a luxury most evangelicals will never know. There's a reason why they get so angry about things like this. When you're shackled to your religion it's difficult to know what peace really is. It's made even more difficult when you have people in power who are purposed to convince you that you're somehow at war and that you need to win back something that's never been taken from you. It's difficult to just let others have things you know you'll never be allowed to enjoy.
Misery loves company and misery is what evangelicals attempt to spread when they cry persecution over a two-word phrase that changes nothing about what the holidays mean to them as individuals. Let them wallow in their misery and let it put a damper on their day. You just purpose to be thankful that at some point you learned to think better, to not have outside influences pulling the strings of your thought life, or let words said in peace incite war inside your head. In short, celebrate whatever you plan to celebrate (if anything) secure in the understanding that when the holidays are over, they'll still be tethered to a religion that fuels hate, and you will still be free to live your life unbound.