’Tis the season to be jolly. Candy canes and holly. Yule logs and eggnog. Dangling mistletoe. One-horse sleigh bells jing-jing-jingle. Good Saint Nick climbs up on the housetop and down through the chimney. Carolers sing of silver bells and a red-nosed reindeer.
Shortly after Halloween, megastores began Christmas promotions, gradually inflaming our passions to a fever pitch for the grand rush on Black Friday. Colored lights festoon shops and homes, inside and out, accompanied by blaring music; it’s like something from a hippie’s acid dreams.
“What do you want for Christmas this year?” is the operative question. “Oh, you don’t have to get me anything” comes the insincere answer. Those whose Christmas shopping is already done smirk while their frantic relatives scramble for last-minute ideas after the last-minute bargains have disappeared.
And once again some members of some Christian sects bemoan an imaginary “War on Christmas.”
Everybody’s holiday really belongs to them, they suppose. If you don’t do Christmas like they do Christmas, you’re doing it all wrong.
It’s true that objections have been raised when religious displays create an unconstitutional government promotion of religion. Removal of “nativity” scenes from courthouses no more attacks Christmas than removing Ten Commandment displays attacks Jewish tradition. Neither will fade away without government support, given all the opportunities to mount such displays on private properties and persons.
Most Christians don’t worry about placing creches on government property. For them, the season is a time to celebrate generosity and foster good will. For their kids, there are angels, shepherds, mangers, wise men, a cute little baby — and most of all, if we will admit it, presents!
That’s OK by me.
Faith requires no evidence, but faith must still confront facts. The fact is that this holiday season existed long before Christianity tried to usurp it as Christians’ exclusive do-main.
Modern Christianity is a “syncretic” religion; that is, it is composed of multiple elements adopted from other religions. The accretion of formerly competing religious ideologies began when the gospels were written, decades after Jesus died and disappeared. There were dozens of gospels, many very popular with nascent Christian communities. Church politicians rejected most of them — three centuries later.
Early Christians, struggling for viability, were still Jews, and they pitched their product primarily to Jews, at least until Paul argued (and argue they did) for broadening their appeal to include Gentiles.
Courting Jews, gospel writers took pains to establish a link between Old Testament writings and their own claims that Jesus was a King and Messiah. One example: John 12 tells us specifically that Jesus insisted on entering Jerusalem riding on an ass, in order to “fulfill” a “prophecy” (Zechariah 9).
Christians obsessed with “prophecy” would have us believe that such things just occurred spontaneously, thus proving the old prophets could predict the future. (Why that should be necessary or useful is unclear, given that faith renounces a need for evidence, and given all the significant events that weren’t prophesied.) It’s far more likely that these Christian anecdotes were developed to bolster PR attempts among the Jews.
As Christianity spread into non-Jewish cultures, it encountered competition with various “pagan” religions. Like other religions, these had survived for so long because certain elements consistently appealed to generations of devotees. Such elements were incorporated into Christianity to woo adherents from among pagan populations. Alexander’s Macedon-ians, and the Romans themselves, also solidified conquest using assimilation.
To celebrate the end of the harvest season and the onset of winter, Gaelic Samhain featured dead relatives’ return to visit the living. In the 9th century, having established a presence in Britain, the church strategically shifted the date of its All Saints’ Day to Nov. 1. Oct. 31 became All Hallows’ Eve. We know it as Halloween.
Spring Equinox has been tracked and celebrated by cultures worldwide. In the Celtic West, as the world recovered from winter, fertility rites and symbols — eggs, bunnies, baby chicks — attended worship of the goddess Oestre. We know her day as Easter.
The Christmas story really begins with another universal celebration, Winter Solstice. Romans celebrated Saturnalia during this time.
The sun god, Sol Invictus, came to Rome from Syria. His most important day was Dec. 25, Natalis Invictus, when the sun is reborn and days grow longer. Constantine was a lifelong Sol priest, and decreed that law courts be closed on “the venerable day of the Sun.” The halo seen in medieval Christian art is an artifact of the Sol faith. Sol melded well with Mithraism, a Persian-Zoroastrian import. Mithras was born Dec. 25, and promoted ideas like an immortal soul, future judgment and resurrection of the dead. He, too, was a god-man born to a virgin, a redeemer sacrificed and resurrected, with 12 disciples.
The church didn’t celebrate Jesus’ birth at all for centuries, and didn’t settle on Dec. 25 until later still. We simply don’t know when Jesus was born.
Why Dec. 25, specifically? Simple. In one fell swoop the church established a link to popular pagan beliefs, beckoning the ecumenically minded Romans, who saw no conflict in maintaining simultaneous allegiance to multiple gods.
Christmas trees, Santa, Yule logs, mistletoe, elves — all are persistent pre-Christian pagan practices. That’s OK by me too.
So Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays! Let’s all share them together. Wassail!
Jon Hauxwell, MD, is a retired family who grew up in Stockton and now lives outside Hays. This column first appeared in the Hays Daily News.