A couple of weeks ago, I noticed that one of my Facebook friends had joined the group, “Help keep ‘Christ’ in Christmas.”
I recently saw a you tube video of right-wing commentator, Bill O’Reilly of Fox News, voicing his outrage at the “war on Christmas” taking place at the Washington State capitol building.
I have had several people remind me that “Jesus is the reason for the season.”
And I just saw an online ad for a “We say Merry Christmas” bumper sticker.
All this means that Christmas is a comin’. And conservative Christians and traditionalists are once again feeling threatened.
Are they justified in wanting to keep the Christmas season an exclusively Christian holiday?
Well, yes and no.
As far as I am concerned, Christians have every right to celebrate Christmas as a Christian holiday — in their churches and homes.
But once it steps into the public square, that’s a different matter.
I’m not referring to when someone wishes me, “Merry Christmas.” I think that most people simply use those words as a cultural greeting that is the equivalent to the non-season-specific, “Have a good day” (particularly in the retail setting). However, I would also expect those same people to respond graciously if I were to respond, “Happy Solstice!” For the most part, I just ignore the specifics of the greeting and interpret it as a sentiment of goodwill (or a feeble attempt at customer service in the malls).
Having said that, I do think that there is a certain hubris that underlies this greeting — the assumption that the Christian religion has a special claim on this time of the year. (This is not a new perspective on my part. I thought the same when I was a practicing Christian and a Baptist minister.)
It’s when this assumption breaks into the official public sphere that I get irritated. There are two components of my annoyance.
The first is the belief held by many Christians that Christianity ought to have an official and legal status not afforded to other religious or non-religious groups in our society. It seems to me that such a belief stems from: (1) a misreading of history that concludes that our country was founded as a Christian nation in some significant manner, (2) a faulty assumption that a majority opinion or belief should automatically translate into special privilege for that belief, and (3) a fear that if society does not officially recognize the Christian version of God, it is doomed.
While I can appreciate that it is difficult for any individual or group to lose a special status it once maintained, equality and truth matter more. The separation of church and state is one of the most fundamental principles for any society to be able to provide equal treatment and justice for all its citizens. Thus, it is simply wrong when a government provides legal or informal privilege to a particular religious group. For me, this means that government publications, meetings, and properties should be free of any reference to religious terms, pictures, signage, or practices. So, I expect my government representatives to send me a card that says, “Season’s Greetings,” not “Merry Christmas.” In fact, I don’t think religious holidays should ever be statutory holidays. Christmas should no more be a legal holiday than Yom Kippur, Ramadan or Beltane.
The second reason I get annoyed at the assumption of a privileged place for Christmas is the failure of most conservative Christians to acknowledge that the Christians stole the holiday and almost all of its accoutrements from pagans.
For starters, the date itself is tied to the Roman solstice celebration of the feast of Sol Incitus (the sun God) which was on December 25. On this day, Roman pagans celebrated the birthday of “the unconquered sun.” Since this date was already being used as a religious festival celebrating a god’s birth, the leaders of the church decided to co-opt it as a means of spreading the gospel. (If Jesus existed at all, it is most likely he was born in the summer.) I wonder if the pagans ran a “War on Sol Incitus” campaign?
The date on which Christmas is celebrated is just the beginning of the borrowings (read “theft). There are so many, that Skeeter Sanders states in his article, The Pagan Roots of Christmas, “with the notable exception of the Nativity Creche, nearly all the symbols and decorations that we associate today with Christmas…are of Pagan origin.”
Let me list the most obvious:
- The Christmas tree is often explained as a Christianization of pagan tradition and ritual surrounding the Winter Solstice, which included the use of evergreen boughs, and an adaptation of pagan tree worship.
- Gift-giving and merrymaking derive from the Roman Saturnalia; greenery, lights, and charity from the Roman New Year.
- Holly was used to honor Saturn, god of agriculture, during their Saturnalia festival held near the time of the winter solstice. The Romans gave one another holly wreaths, carried it in processions, and decked images of Saturn with it.
- Pagan Scandinavia celebrated a winter festival called Yule, held in the late December to early January period. As Norther Europe was the last part to Christianize, its pagan traditions had a major influence on Christmas. Scandinavians still call Christmas Jul.
- Mistletoe bears fruit at the time of the Winter Solstice, the birth of the new year, and may have been used in solistial rites in Druidic Britain as a symbol of immortality. In Celtic mythology and in druid rituals, it was considered a remedy for barrenness in animals and an antidote to poison.
- According to a custom of Christmas cheer, any two people who meet under a hanging of mistletoe are obliged to kiss. The custom is Scandinavian in origin. It was the plant of peace in Scandinavian antiquity. If enemies met by chance beneath it in a forest, they laid down their arms and maintained a truce until the next day. This ancient Scandinavian custom led to the tradition of kissing under the mistletoe.
Contemporary Christians often downplay or are merely ignorant of these historical roots. They are also probably unaware that many Christians over the centuries opposed the use of these symbols. Even in America, the Protestant acceptance of Christmas is quite recent. According to Skye Jethani, writing in Christianity Today in 2005 ,
“Few seem to remember that America’s Puritan ancestors were stridently opposed to the celebration of Christmas. They saw no biblical support for the holiday, and believed the festival was a pagan ritual masquerading as Christian. Even as late as 1855, newspapers in New York reported that Methodist, Baptist, and Presbyterian churches would be closed on Christmas Day because ‘they do not accept the day as a Holy One.’ The Puritan disdain for Christmas had such a hold on American culture that by the 1860s only 18 states officially recognized the holiday.”
But, today, Christmas is claimed by conservative Christians, Protestant and Catholic alike, as a national institution.
I wish they would be honest and admit that the Pagans came up with all the good stuff now associated with Christmas and that they simply co-opted the day and the traditions for their own purposes. So, Christians, celebrate Christmas with all the gusto you wish. Just keep it to yourself. Solstice is the REAL reason for the season, and that’s what I am choosing to celebrate. But I’m not asking for a day off of work or waging a campaign to keep the ‘Sol’ in Solstice.