As we trudge on through the holiday season, we continue to hear about the War on Christmas. We are told by the Right that Christmas is ever under attack, which seems strange, given the ubiquity of Christmastime imagery this time of year. We are told that corporations and leftists alike are conspiring to keep Christians from being able to say ‘Merry Christmas’ to people, replacing it with the atheistic ‘Happy Holidays,’ a greeting that used to be perfectly acceptable to everyone.
The argument is a strawman, of course. The War on Christmas is really just another front in the culture wars, another way for religious extremists to complain that nonbelievers are not compelled to sing Christian hymns this time of year, or any other time of year. And though this is a silly war, it has a few casualties: Last week, four students were attacked in a subway car in New York City for responding to “Merry Christmas” with “Happy Hanukkah.”
Religious extremists like to claim that they’re pushing us back to a better, more moral, more ethical time. That they’re simply rekindling old traditions, the way things used to be. They like to claim that they are simply trying to restore Christmas to its former grandeur, to honor the way the holiday was celebrated, presumably throughout history. But Christmas has not always been celebrated as it is today. Indeed, Christmas hasn’t even always been Christmas. And arguing that Christmas has had a specific and constant way to be celebrated ignores the history of the holiday.
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It is an accident of history that the West is primarily Christian. Looking at history, it’s easy to see how we could have ended up Mithraists, or Mandeanists, or Muslims, or pagans, or Zeus-worshippers, or any of dozens of other contenders for the souls of humankind. Had the Maccabees failed in their rebellion against Antiochus IV Epiphanes, Judaism would have been radically different at the time of the birth of Jesus Christ, would have been subordinate to Zeus worship. Had not Constantine I made Christianity the state religion of the Eastern Roman Empire, it is likely that we’d be adherents to Mithras. Had the Franks lost the Battle of Tours, it’s quite possible that the Umayyad Caliphate would have swept Europe, and Islam would be the religion of the West today.
Christians, of course, see this all as the hand of God at work. His support for the righteous Maccabees, the turning of Constantine’s heart from Sol Invictus to Christianity, the support of the Christians against the Muslims. They’re entitled to that point of view, of course, and one cannot state with certainty that they are wrong. Still, those of us who are nonbelievers (and indeed, even many believers) are more likely to think that the Christianity of today is as much a product of luck as sense, a religion that has been shaped by history quite as much as it has shaped history.
I am not a Christian. I was raised a Methodist, but slowly came to the realization that I could not believe that Jesus of Nazareth was literally the Son of God. Now, if one is honest, one knows that wouldn’t have made me a particularly unusual Christian; I know dozens of Christians who don’t believe in Christ’s divinity. But to me, it felt dishonest to be a part of a church whose core tenet I could not honestly profess. In my 20’s, I converted to Unitarian Universalism and have found that church to be a better fit for my faith, which is very nonspecific.
That said, I have long believed there is quite a bit of Christianity that justifies its place as one of the world’s great religions. The philosophy of Jesus is a very sensible and just one — treat-one-another-as-you’d-want-to-be-treated; help the poor, the sick and the needy; turn the other cheek; get the moneychangers out of the temple and focus on God. These are fundamentally sound teachings, and while I don’t believe they came from a god, I believe they did come from a particularly good man, and that as a whole Jesus’ Christianity should be a force for good.
No, I have nothing against Christianity, and think it’s wonderful if people find faith and strength through that religion. But Christmas as a holiday does not have very much to do with Christ. It never has, not since its origins, which predate Jesus himself.
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A close reading of the Gospels tells us that there is almost no chance that Jesus was born on December 25 in the year 0 at the beginning of the Christian era. The history and the timeline are all off, as is the description of the conditions at the time. It’s more likely that Jesus was born in October of 4 BC. So why do we celebrate Christmas when we do?
Well, because Constantine decided it would be that way. December 25 was the day of the Feast of Sol Invictus, the birthdate of both Mithras and Bacchus. The Sol Invictus feast was the culmination to the Saturnalia, a festival that took place the week before. Late December was by its very proximity to the winter solstice a natural time for celebration, and the Saturnalia was a big one. Constantine chose Christianity, but he wanted it to be acceptable to the people, and so he borrowed a bit. He kept the feast, with its gift exchanges and drunken revelry, and changed it to a celebration of Christ’s birth. For your average Roman, little changed. Instead of officially celebrating Mithras or Bacchus, they were now celebrating Christ, but that wasn’t any reason to cancel the party.
And so Christmas remained for well over a millennium — a sort of winter Mardi Gras. The spirit is reflected in the 16th century carol “We Wish You a Merry Christmas”:
Oh, bring us a figgy pudding;
Oh, bring us a figgy pudding;
Oh, bring us a figgy pudding and a cup of good cheer
We won’t go until we get some;
We won’t go until we get some;
We won’t go until we get some, so bring some out here
That was Christmas: drunken revelers going from house to house, demanding food and libations, a raucous, rollicking good time and/or near-riot, depending on your point of view. No wonder Oliver Cromwell banned it.
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There is tremendous irony in the claim that today, secularists are not showing the reverence toward Christmas that our Founding Fathers did. Early Americans were unlikely to care much about the holiday; they celebrated it in the traditional style, with drunken revelry, if at all. It was outlawed for a time in Massachusetts. Congress was regularly in session on Christmas Day. No, not until the 19th century did Christmas as we know it start to flourish. And it was due to two men: Charles Dickens and Santa Claus.
Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, published in 1834, laid out the spiritual template of the holiday as a time of redemption, conviviality, goodwill toward men and charity. One will notice, however, that A Christmas Carol is rather light on Christ. It was not Christ who saved Scrooge, but three spirits. Note also how Christ’s birthday is referenced in praise by Scrooge’s nephew, Fred:
“There are many things from which I might have derived good by which I have not profited, I dare say,” returned the nephew, “Christmas among the rest. But I am sure I have always thought of Christmas-time, when it has come round — apart from the veneration due to its sacred name and origin, if anything belonging to it can be apart from that — as a good time; a kind, forgiving, charitable, pleasant time; the only time I know of, in the long calendar of the year, when men and women seem by one consent to open their shut-up hearts freely, and to think of people below them as if they really were fellow-passengers to the grave, and not another race of creatures bound on other journeys. And therefore, uncle, though it has never put a scrap of gold or silver in my pocket, I believe that it has done me good, and will do me good; and I say, God bless it!”
Fred speaks of Christmas’ “sacred name and origin,” not of Christ Himself. It is a telling passage. Indeed, though Bob Cratchit requests the day off, it is not seen as beyond the pale that people might work the day; certainly, Scrooge is able to procure a Christmas goose with little trouble.
Nevertheless, A Christmas Carol was a work worthy of its 170 years of fame; it portrayed Christmas as less frenetic and more family-oriented, less bacchanalia and more season of giving. It helped to catalyze the transition of the holiday.
The other major factor, at least in America, was Clement Clark Moore’s 1860 poem “A Visit from St. Nicholas,” also known by its opening line, “‘Twas the Night Before Christmas.” Moore didn’t create St. Nick, but he borrowed liberally from European traditions, especially the Dutch tradition of Sinterklaas. The poem is explicit in this being a children’s holiday. And in a country torn apart by civil war, it offered a template for some semblance of home and family celebration.
After the American Civil War, progressives here and in Britain aggressively pushed Christmas as a time for home and family, believing that it would be a force for moral good, a way to help bring families together. Shopkeepers, no fools themselves, began to push the idea of gift-giving as an end in and of itself. This combination led us to where we are today. Modern Christmas had been born.
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If it seems that Christ is but a bit player in the development of Christmas, you’ve been paying attention. The holiday that ostensibly celebrates Christ’s birthday is almost purely pagan or secular in origin. That’s not to say that Christ isn’t worth celebrating. He has a perfectly good holiday celebrating his death and resurrection. It’s called Easter, and the pagan bunny-and-eggs notwithstanding, it’s primarily celebrated, as it should be by Christians, as a memorial to Christ’s sacrifice.
There is nothing wrong with noting Christ on Christmas, of course. For those who worship Jesus, pausing to remember his origin is an understandable part of the holiday. But Christmas is not, has not, and will not be primarily about its namesake. It is a good holiday – one that celebrates family, friends, and togetherness, charity and humility. But it doesn’t really celebrate Christ – other than by virtue of the fact that He was all for those things, too.
More than that, Christmas has never had one specific template for celebration, one specific order of worship. Those who tell us that they wish to bring Christmas back to its origins have no idea what those origins are. And that’s a greater insult to the day than wishing someone “Happy Holiday!” could ever be.