Monday, December 21, 2009

Whose Holiday Is This Anyway? [Redux]

We're knee-deep in the holiday season now -- Hanukkah has passed, the Winter Solstice is upon us, and Christmas is right down the stretch of this week -- so now seems like the right time to re-post a little something I wrote in 2004. This time around I have included links to "4000 Years of Christmas" and a video performance of Dar Williams' "The Christians and the Pagans." I have also changed "Chrismahanukwanzakah" to "Chrismahanukwanzakyule" as it better expresses my pluralist leanings. I hope you enjoy this holiday rewind...
Whose Holiday Is This Anyway? 
This is a response to the various and recent vents in my local paper about the current holiday season. Specifically, I want to address the memes of "Keeping the Christ in Christmas" and "Jesus is the reason for the season." Before I begin, however, I must point out that I love this holiday season, and I care not one whit whether someone wishes me Seasons Greetings, Happy Holidays, Joyous Yule, or any of the countless other phrases in use. I'll take them all in the spirit intended. I'll even return a cheery Merry Christmas in kind to someone who proffers it. That's right, I'm no Scrooge who thinks that "every idiot who goes about with ‘Merry Christmas’ on his lips should be boiled with his own pudding, and buried with a stake of holly through his heart" [A Christmas Carol]. 
Now, to the matter at hand. Long before the obligatory exchange of parcels and packages came to pass, people knew how to observe the closing of the year. When the darkness of winter lay heavy upon the land, no crops grew, but the people drank, sang, loved and fought in their great halls. Their communal celebrations were a mighty affirmation of light against dark, life against death. This was the time of the Winter Solstice. Winter solstice celebrations such as Yule predate Christianity by at least two millennium (see "4000 Years of Christmas" by Earl W. Count and Alice Count). Though there are numerous references to Yule in the Icelandic sagas, there are few accounts of how Yule was actually celebrated, beyond the fact that it was a time for feasting. Many of these festive traditions survived up through the Middle Ages, but were then frowned upon when the Reformation arrived. Many of the symbols associated with the modern holiday of Christmas (such as the Yule log, Christmas trees, holly, mistletoe, the eating of ham, etc.) are apparently derived from traditional northern European Yule celebrations. When the first missionaries began converting the Germanic peoples to Christianity, they found it easier to simply provide a Christian reinterpretation for popular feasts such as Yule and allow the celebrations themselves to go on largely unchanged, rather than trying to suppress them. The Scandinavian tradition of slaughtering a pig at Christmas (see Christmas ham), and not in the autumn, is probably the most salient evidence for this. The tradition derives from the sacrifice to the god Freyr at the Yule celebrations. 
Now how did this "Christian" holy day become so entrenched with pagan symbolism and ritual? In 274 A.D., the Romans designated December 25 as the birthday of the unconquered sun, being the time when the sun begins noticeably to show an increase in light, resulting in longer daylight hours. By 336 A.D., the church in Rome was adapting this festival, spiritualizing its significance as a reference to Jesus Christ and calling it the ‘Feast of the Nativity of the Sun of Righteousness.’ At first, it was kept separate from the Pagan observances -- sort of a you-do-your-thing-and-we'll-do-ours. Church officials may not have wanted new converts to be pulled back into their previous beliefs. Attempting to Christianize and incorporate the pagan traditions of antiquity, the church in Rome adopted this midwinter holiday celebrating the birth of the sun god as one of its own observances, somewhat changing its significance, but retaining many customs of the pagan festival. So those same Church officials who had at first simply insisted on a separation of Christians and Pagans, now wanted to remove all activities that were not sanctioned as Christian or venerating Christ. And they did so by trying to change veneration of the SUN to adoration of the SON (of God). 
As the Roman church spread its influence religiously and militarily, this holiday of December 25 became the most popular date in Christendom to celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ. A special mass was established for Christ, hence, the name, ‘Christmass,’ abbreviated ‘Christmas.’ But after having written all of that, I implore you: Let's not get bogged down with the specifics of one religion over another. This season is for revelry, mirth and spiritual asylum. Become the love that is the gift of the season. Express that love to your family, friends, and -- yes -- even strangers on the street. There is room in this world for a multitude of ideas and beliefs. There is no room in this world, however, for hate, intolerance, and "holier-than-thou-ism." Let's get it together this Chrismahanukwanzakyule, and get together ... in Peace. 
Recommended listening: "The Christians and the Pagans" by Dar Williams.
Originally posted on     at Prophet or Madman.

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