I only tell you this in the interest of transparency. It’s really none of your business, and most of you frankly just don’t care…but the tone of this blog sort of requires a bit of backstory regarding my philosophical beliefs. They’re fairly nebulous. If I absolutely had to define myself, I’d go with quantum-spiritualist. Maybe a super-agnostic. Saganite Buddhist. I believe that as we learn more about our universe via quantum physics and the exploration of space, the more we find that yes, maybe some of those philosophers that lived and taught two millennia ago were on to something. Those giants of aniquity sensed things about our universe that they couldn’t quite explain, truths that they felt in their very cells, but for which they had no mechanism for exploration, other than to just ask “what if?” That’s why all the really good old Greek and Roman figures happened to be scientists and mathematicians as well as soul-searchers and dreamers. They were trying to figure out the universe from both angles, and perhaps the world would be better off if we did more of that sort of thing nowadays. All that being said, I’m here to heap 100% of the credit for what we know as our traditional holiday season at the feet of our Christian brothers and sisters. They deserve it.
My atheist and new-age intellectual friends are surely interrupting with “but Christmas itself is a pagan holiday!” And they’re right, of course: it goes even deeper than that and much further back in time. The Winter Solstice has been recognized by cultures since humans first started scribbling on cave walls. It evolved into Celtic and Nordic observances and then into the full-blown Saturnalia festival of ancient Rome. And that’s where Christianity took the ball and ran with it.
Early Christian leaders were a savvy group. They knew that their religion was bound to spread like wildfire simply by telling the common people about the great news: simply accept that Jesus of Nazareth is the Christ, the Redeemer, the incarnate son of the One True God, confess to him your sins, and presto! Eternal life! It really was too good a deal to pass up. But the church knew that The People enjoyed certain practices and celebrations as part of their culture that would not easily be given up. So the Christian leadership wisely said “Fine, you can keep your silly rituals. But we’re totally rebranding them.” So instead of pagan fertility rites involving eggs, rabbits, and other symbols of baby-making sexual intercourse, the church offered instead to celebrate renewal in a very literal sense: the return of Jesus from the dead. And of course, the Saturnalia (or, amongst the “barbaric” German and Celtic peoples, “Yule”) became not only a celebration of “the return of the sun” but of the “birth of the Son.” It made perfect sense. And once the emperor Constantine began establishing Christianity as the official religion of the Roman Empire sometime early in the 4th century, the deal was truly sealed.
That’s why we have Christmas trees instead of Yule Trees. Or Holiday Trees. That’s why we have Santa Claus (Greek bishop St. Nikolaos) and gift giving and such, right there in the dead of winter. Not that all of those things, the reindeer, the mistletoe, the holly, the candy canes and gingerbread houses, were necessarily Christian in origin, but because of the rapid and total spread of Christianity, these customs all fell under the same umbrella. They became universal. Sure, the Polish Santa might be unrecognizable as Swiety Mikolaj, but the idea remains intact.
Christmas drives everything in December. Hanukah wouldn’t be such a big deal if it weren’t for Christmas. Nobody would have ever heard of Kwanzaa if it took place in June. They’re just piggybacking on the runaway rollercoaster of goodwill that Christianity started. Jesus had momentum. Plenty of room on the Midwinter Bandwagon.
But here’s where the dark clouds roll in. The sad truth is this: there have been plenty of bad Christians out there saying and doing enough stupid shit that the non-believers or folks sitting on the fence of religious belief are being driven from the church by these actions. Fighting against marriage equality, spouting hateful (and mostly untrue) things about Muslims on Facebook, thinly-veiled racism and hypocritical greed, misogyny, the abuse of children at the hands of Catholic priests…all of these things have stained the reputation of the once-infallible and all-powerful church.
But let’s give credit where credit is due. No, Christianity didn’t invent this holiday. But they took it and gave it to the world. You don’t have to be part of the church or its belief system to appreciate that. Nor do you have to be washed in the blood of the lamb in order to enjoy a cup of eggnog with friends you haven’t seen in years. It’s okay to enjoy everything the holiday season offers, no matter where you are in your spiritual life. And for fuck’s sake, it’s okay to call it “Christmas.” It totally is. I mean, chances are you don’t worship the Norse pantheon (although more and more Icelandic folks are doing just that) but it’s still okay to use the words Wednesday or Thursday. Like it or not, Odin’s Day and Thor’s Day are still right there on the calendar, and even Frigga gets some love with Friday. It’s fine. They’re just arbitrary names for things. Just words. They can’t harm you. They don’t stand for anything evil; they don’t commemorate a dark, bleak, tragic day in history. I also get that some of my well-meaning liberal brothers and sisters are hung-ho in their desire to shield the world from the insidious indoctrination policies of Christian evangelism. They have armored themselves in Political Correctness in an effort to make sure that everyone has a seat at the table. They really do mean well, but…dude. It’s Christmas. The reason of the season. Absolutely. It just is.
The ultimate point to all this? Don’t be afraid to call the holiday by its actual name. Use the word “Christmas.” It’s just a word. It’s not even a bad word. And like it or not, the Christian church is responsible, in a roundabout way, for your vacation days around that time in December. Had Genghis Khan run roughshod over all of Europe back in his time, we’d likely still have a celebration of the Winter Solstice and the gradual lengthening of our days…we’d just call it something else. But that didn’t happen. Christianity happened, thanks to the Roman Empire. So it’s Christmas. Big deal. Go to church if you want. Stay home. Put up a tree, or don’t. Christian, atheist, Muslim, Jew, agnostic, Sikh…it doesn’t matter how you label yourself. You can still enjoy listening to Bing Crosby as a log crackles in the fireplace and children tear open gifts. And I really, really hope that you do.
Merry Christmas, everyone.