It’s that time of year again!
If I hear the phrase “War on Christmas” one more time, I think I’m going to scream. I am so bloody flipping sick of hearing right-wing nutjobs whinge about people trying to “take the Christ out of Christmas”. Because I’ve got news for them. Jesus? Was not the reason for the season until about 60 years ago.
Let’s ignore, for argument’s sake, the fact that Jesus was probably born in the spring, when Roman taxes were collected, and when early church historians said the nativity was. Let’s pretend the holiday is placed where it ought to be. I’ll give you that one, out of charity (y’know, that thing your Lord and Saviour was so big on that so many of your politicians seem to think Satan invented).
Christmas was not even a feast day for the first few hundred years of the religion. Natality wasn’t even something you were supposed to celebrate at all. In 245, the theologian Origen of Alexandria stated that, “only sinners (like Pharaoh and Herod)” celebrated their birthdays. In 303, Christian writer Arnobius ridiculed the idea of celebrating the birthdays of gods. Not until sometime in the mid-to-late 4th century did the birth of Jesus warrant celebration, and then, it was celebrated during Epiphany, which actually commemorated the visit of the Magi. And this was mostly in the Eastern church, not in western Europe (where we in America inherit our most prominent cultural traditions from). It was fully the 9th century before Christmas actually became a big deal, and then it was more because Kings and Emperors started deciding it was a good day to hold coronations.
From the Middle Ages on, Christmas was a party holiday. It’s no coincidence that it was held at the same time as the old Roman Saturnalia. This was a time to consume all the perishable goods that wouldn’t make it through the winter. If you’d needed to slaughter cattle at the end of autumn, best to hold a nice big feast so everyone could fatten up on them. Special Christmas ales were brewed. Teutonic and Scandinavian traditions like caroling, lighting candles, and decorating with holly and ivy somehow crept into the celebrations. From about 900 on, the terms Christmas and Yule became used interchangeably - and we still mix them indiscriminately, never minding that Yule is entirely pagan in origin.
Christmas spent the best part of 800 years as a holiday of misrule. It was the time of year to subvert natural order. Servants were crowned and lords played fools. You were allowed to kiss and cavort and roll in the hay. Drunkenness, promiscuity, and gambling weren’t just permitted, they were encouraged. You went wassailing — what we would call caroling — where the objective was to get someone to give you ale and bread in exchange for your song. If you got ale at every house, I imagine this tradition looking something like a medieval pub crawl. It was the time of year to blow off steam, to hit the release valve you so desperately needed. You threw a giant Yule log on the fire — another borrowed tradition — and skived off from work for as long as it burnt. It being the middle of winter, you probably didn’t have all that much else to do, anyway, with harvest over and spring planting not yet begun. Might as well enjoy yourself. A time to gather around the fire and tell stories and sing songs.
Note that, thus far, Jesus has had pretty much nothing to do with it. Christmas wasn’t a day to go to church and listen to a mass. It was, actually, pretty much what we celebrate in secular (and commercial) fashion today — a time to get together with your friends and family, eat a lot of food, drink a lot of wine, and have a lot of laughs.
Now, while the Catholics were promoting all this revelry and madness, the early Protestants just couldn’t be having with any of that papist foolishness. Most early Protestant religions entirely refused to recognize the holiday, and denounced the practice of bringing greens into the home as dangerous pagan idolatry. During the English Interregnum, it was banned entirely as a popish festival with no biblical justification. The army was in fact dispatched to raid homes and to confiscate any illicit goods (like cooked meat, since they were supposed to be fasting, not feasting). This led to widespread riots and revolts, particularly in Kent. I sort of love the idea of the rioters in Canterbury, who displayed their displeasure by defiantly going around pinning holly to doors.
Coming over to America, the Puritans thought that perhaps here, at last, they could strip their religion of all these papist and pagan festivals and devote holy days instead to fasting and reflection. For several decades during the 17th century, in Boston, celebrating Christmas was actually punishable with a fine of up to five shillings — but eventually the holiday was reinstated, not for any religious reasons, but because people missed their feasting and their drinking. Still, in most areas Christmas was relatively unimportant — so much so, in fact, that, rather than recognizing the holiday and taking a day off work, the first Congress in 1789 decided to open their session on Christmas Day.
By the early 19th century, Christmas was almost dead. A few centuries of tension between Catholics and Protestants in England and on the Continent had taken a lot of the joy out of it, and America in the wake of the Revolution disdained it as an English tradition. So who brought it back? Charles Dickens, that’s who. A Christmas Carol is credited with saving Christmas as a holiday. If you’ve ever read the original, there’s not a lot of God-talk in it — no more than the offhand statements about Divine Providence that permeate pretty much everything written in that era. Certainly the spirits aren’t trying to tell Scrooge he needs to go to church on Christmas Day, or think about baby Jesus. What does Dickens emphasize? The same things the medieval folk did: family gatherings, food and drink, dancing, games, and a festive generosity of spirit. A pretty secular holiday, really — and that was the instigation for popularizing the phrase “Merry Christmas”. It had nothing to do with reminding people of Jesus’s birthday, and everything to do with reminding people to be full of good cheer.
A little later, Queen Victoria married a German, and Moravians settled in the US, spreading the Christmas tree outside of the Germanic territories. Someone realised what pretty pictures all these decorations made, and started selling Christmas cards. This was the time period that saw the advent of Christmas as the holiday for the nuclear family — because the nuclear family was becoming more important in the 19th century. It became steadily a holiday for children — nothing new there, either, however, as part of the Saturnalia had encompassed the Juvenalia, the celebration of youth.
I still haven’t said much about Jesus yet, have I? That’s because this didn’t really become a church-going holiday until the 1950s, in the wave of McCarthy-ist fervor to prove what good, godly people we all were, in contrast to those nasty godless commies. And people managed to convince themselves, in the space of a decade, that that was how it had always been done. Never mind that, before then, the important church holidays had been Easter, Epiphany, and Pentecost.
Not that I have any problem with people who do celebrate this as a religious holiday and go to church and all of that. If it makes you happy, roll with it. I am all about people doing what rings true for them. Just don’t think that’s how it’s always been done, or even how it’s always been done in America, and don’t even think about telling me I’m wrong for saying “happy holidays” and merrily celebrating the return of the sun on December 21st.
So. To all those whingers who want to complain about cashiers wishing them ‘happy holidays’ or commercials having the audacity to mention Solstice and Kwanzaa in the same breath as Christmas, to the holier-than-thou fussbudgets who think they’re so right about everything, I have this to say:
Suck it up, cupcakes.
You don’t own the season. You do not have a monopoly on December. Practically every religion since the dawn of time has held a celebration at or near the Winter Solstice. I could write a whole other post just on that. Everyone wants to celebrate the return of the sun. Plenty of those religions have or have had sun gods who die and are reborn, if that sounds at all familiar to you. So ease up off the righteous indignation.
And happy holidays.
(Adapted and updated from the original LJ post, December 2009).
Apparently it’s time to bring this back again. This time, you can thank Sarah Palin, who thinks atheists want “to abort Christ from Christmas” and who tried to use Thomas Jefferson to justify this theocratic nonsense. Y’know. The author of the Virginia Statute of Religious Freedom.