It’s that time of the year again, that time when right-wing fantasists bloviate about the War On Christmas. In a sense, they are correct — there have been efforts to do away with Christmas for centuries — but these anti-Xmas efforts have been Christian in origin. My mother’s Scots Presbyterian ancestors banned Christmas in 1583, faced down a royal attempt to reinstate the holiday, and outlawed it by Parliamentary decree in 1640. English Puritans followed suit. During the period when England’s government was a Christian dictatorship, it was illegal to throw a party or hang any decorations.
Christian opposition to Christmas reflected a deep suspicion of its pagan roots. Besides the north European Yule celebration, there was Roman Saturnalia, a celebration of the Winter solstice, when people dressed up, sang and danced, gambled, exchanged gifts, feasted and partied. There was a notion of turning things around (so that the dying day would begin to lengthen once more) and masters served slaves, high was low, and rules were broken.Early Christians were generally conflicted about the idea of celebrating. Birthdays were regarded with suspicion because emperors had public celebrations of their own birth and anything that seemed like emperor-worship was anathema. Celebrating the birthday of a god was a serious problem. Still, pragmatic religious followers recognized that folks love a party and eventually came around to giving a date to Jesus’ birth (different dates for different sects) and naming it a holy day. Christ’s Mass was the early medieval version.
Medieval Christmas was a wild affair that incorporated many aspects of both Yule and Saturnalia. There was a Lord of Misrule, adapted from a similar figure in the Roman holiday, who presided over merriment and foolishness. There was a feast. There were holiday trappings like holly and miseltoe and Yule logs — all this was given a Christian plating of course, but underneath it was still the same old mid-winter party.
Still, some Christians were suspicious of Christmas and after the Reformation, many Protestants denounced Christmas as wicked Popery. In England, it didn’t help that the champions of Christmas, the Stuart kings, were suspected of Catholic sympathies. This all culminated in the Puritan shut-down of the holiday which resulted in pro-Christmas riots. The Restoration brought back Christmas right away and it has been a great British holiday ever since. Mind you, the Puritans and Presbyterians still didn’t do much celebrating — then or any other time — but eventually they were worn down. American Presbyterians began joining in Yuletide celebrations in the mid-19th Century and there was little objection when President Grant declared December 25th to be a national holiday.
This license to party was questioned by certain Christians. New American faiths such as Seventh Day Adventism and Jehovah’s Witnesses refused to celebrate either Christmas or birthdays, so reverting back to earlier beliefs. And, as Christmas became more and more a day characterized by consumer values, American preachers began advocating that people “put Christ back into Christmas”. This also echoed some early Christian thinkers opposed to the holiday:
This festival teaches even the little children, artless and simple, to be greedy, and accustoms them to go from house to house and to offer novel gifts, fruits covered with silver tinsel. For these they receive, in return, gifts double their value, and thus the tender minds of the young begin to be impressed with that which is commercial and sordid.
[Asterias, Bishop of Amasea, in a sermon given January 1, 400 AD]
Well, I’m what Jimmy Swaggart calls a Secular Humanist, a label that I embrace. And I love Christmas. Not speaking for Christians but just for me, Christmas is a big party right when you shouldn’t have one. You know things are going to get worse. There’s going to be more snow and it’s going to get colder, cold enough so your pipes may freeze, so cold that trees freeze in the forest and you hear them in the night cracking. Then even when it gets warmer all that snow thaws and refreezes and there’s mud and nasty slush everywhere. Christmas comes right at the beginning of the worst time of the year. And the days are short. You get up in the dark, you go to work, the sun comes up a little after, just gray light though, the sun is weak. Then, about three, you look up and the sun is setting and it gets dark and you go home in the dark. But at Christmas the days start to get a little longer and that’s the thing, you know you’ve turned some kind of corner, the light is coming back and things will get better eventually, even though you’ve got three miserable months to go. So, you throw a party, a big party, and everybody celebrates! They eat too much and they drink too much and they spend too much money and do stupid silly things and it’s all a kind of defiance. It’s saying, “Come on, show me the worst you got, I’m laughing!” This setup, this deal that humans get here on Earth — that’s what we’re defying. We’re saying, “I can take the worst there is and still celebrate!” Because, you know what? No matter how bad it sometimes gets, life is still pretty good.