I like this time of year because I enjoy getting red and green sprinkles on my ice cream, but that’s about where it ends. Gradually, any joy I’ve had in the Christmas season has been bled dry by the endless debate over the Christmas season. This is something I could handle if it were one of those debates for which there is either no answer (why do good things happen to Yankees fans?) or good answers on both sides (who is the greatest hockey player of all time, Gordie Howe or Bobby Orr?). But when it comes to the annual Christmas debates, there ARE definite answers, but no one ever knows that, because everyone is too busy being wrong.
Stop talking about Christmas. Because almost certainly, you’re getting it wrong.
I’m looking at you, American Family Association, with your goofball blacklist of stores that don’t adequately pay token deference to your interpretation of piety at this time of year. Oh, Foot Locker is such a bastion of secular humanism, I’ll never shop there again, unlike those saintly monks at Zappos.com. STOP IT. BECAUSE YOU ARE WRONG ABOUT CHRISTMAS.
Do you know who was really and truly and genuinely “against Christmas”? Protestants. As in, Presbyterians, Methodists, Congregationalists, and Baptists, who actively discouraged or ignored the holiday until the late 19th century. Congress was in session on Christmas day through the 1850s. School was held on that day and government offices were open into the 20th century in some parts of the U.S., especially cranky New England, which saw it as a way to further enrage Catholic immigrants.
Protestants – serious, real-deal-Holyfield Protestants, who did not regard the Bible as primarily an investment guide – used to make Christmas illegal, as was the custom of those Super Champions of Anglo Protestantism, the Puritans (also the Scots, who made Christmas illegal for roughly 250 years). Looking around Boston on Christmas Day, 1685 (aka Just Another Day in Boston, 1685), OG Protestant Samuel Sewall could gloat, “Some somehow observe the day, but are vexed, I believe, that the body of people profane it, and blessed be God no authority yet compels them to keep it.”
That was then. Today, Sewall would be vexed to find himself on the American Family Association’s “Naughty List” along with Baby Gap and a galaxy of litigious atheists. That would not make him any less correct in observing that paying verbal obeisance to a calendar custom nowhere hinted at in the Bible is at least problematic in terms of Protestant theology.
The “Merry-Christmas-or-we’ll-boycott-you” brigade might be a little surprised to know that they are not even observing Christmas, which BEGINS on Dec. 25 and is an actual liturgical season that lasts until Jan. 13, if you are using the Gregorian calendar. If these Christmas finger-waggers wanted to celebrate the holiday in the way it was marked for centuries, they wouldn’t put up any decorations until Christmas Day, would parcel out gifts day by day, Chanukah-style, and would wassail up a storm, whatever that means.
What would they be doing now, you ask? Well, in the traditional Christian calendar, Christmas is preceded by Advent which, until the Western church got all touchy-feely, was a penitential season similar to Lent (this is why Catholic priests wear purple this time of year): you would give up meat and dairy, pray, and give alms to the poor, or money, if you had that instead of alms. How many American Family Association members are going vegan this month and doling out cash to the poor?
In fact, if you are Orthodox, it’s likely that you still do things this way, because if it’s one thing Orthodox Christians love, it’s tradition (Q: How many Orthodox Christians does it take to change a lightbulb? A: What do you mean, “change”??).
But if those AFA people are annoying, so are the ones who will smugly point at your “Jesus is the Reason for the Season” face tattoo and say, “It’s just an appropriated Pagan holiday originally called the Saturnalia, you know.”
Those people: Stop talking about Christmas, because you, too, are wrong.
First, while people have long partied at Midwinter, there is no connection between Christmas and Saturnalia, and no indication that most early Christians thought there was a need to “co-opt” the holiday, since they didn’t celebrate Jesus’ birthday in December anyway. Ronald Hutton, renowned historian: “The ancient Romans did nothing in or around 25 December, putting that in a week-long gap between two other festivals, while the early Christians themselves celebrated Christ’s Nativity either in May or September.”
Wait, so why is Dec. 25 such a big Christian to-do? One possibility is the ancient Jewish concept of the “integral age,” which posited that great prophets died on the same day as their birth or conception. Some early Christians applied this to Jesus, postulating that if he died on March 25 during Passover, he would have been conceived on March 25, and thus born nine months later, on Dec. 25. Different dates for celebrating the Nativity jostled with each other over the centuries, and Christmas was officially put in the imperial calendar as a Dec. 25 holiday at the end of the 4th century, long after Christianity had replaced Paganism as the official Roman religion.
A good rule of thumb: when trying to figure out why early Christians did things, it’s always a good idea to see what Jews were doing, rather than what Scythian Pagans or Sri Lankan Buddhists or those Thor people were doing, because the early Christians were, as a body, either Jews or wannabe Jews. The “Christianity is Pagan” idea was developed 300 years ago by European anti-Semites seeking to divorce the religion from its Jewish roots, and it deserves as much attention as your Aunt Grizelda’s lethal fruitcake.
I hope this clears things up, but I know it will not. Ho, ho, ho.