Sunday, December 11, 2005

Merry Christmas, heathen!

Google the news for controversy about Christmas and you get thousands of hits, from the story of the Jewish town supervisor in Manhasset, N.Y., who protested a Catholic priest's invocation of Jesus Christ at the blessing of a tree, to the Christian Right's ire at George W. Bush that the White House holiday cards are too secular.

Setting aside for another blog the reality that the Christian Right is neither, perhaps we all need to take a deep breath and examine the holiday a little closer.

Let's all consider the facts.

The original quintessentially Christian feast was Easter. In Mediterranean cultures Holy Week and Easter. These remained the most important religious feasts until their cocacolanization after 1945. Now, from Barcelona to Buenos Aires you find Christmas trees with cotton "snow" and a diminished attendance for the processions of Holy Week.

Christmas, which comes from the ecclesiastical, or linguisticallty corrupt, Latin christes masse (the Mass festival of Christ), came later. Some ancient Christian Fathers believed Jesus had been born in the summer.

In the West, Christmas began to be observed as a feast around the end of the 3rd century of our era. In the East, it was observed a century later, but on January 6th, the Epiphany, rather than on December 25th. According to Christian theology, Easter celebrates redemption from the consequences of wrongdoing, while Christmas recalls the incarnation, a word that expresses the specifically Christian notion that God chose to become human to bridge in one person the distance with the divine.

The specifically Christian Christmas artifact is the crĂȘche, or Nativity scene, which includes a representation of the stable with a few animals, Mary, Joseph, the baby Jesus in a manger, angels, the three kings, and so forth. This was created in the 13th century by the very artistic St. Francis of Assisi, who also influenced church architecture to make places of worship more joyful.

Santa Claus is a modern version of St. Nicholas of Myra, a bishop in Asia Minor (now Turkey), martyred in the persecution of Diocletian in the 4th century. Nicholas, heir to wealth, had become a bishop and gained renown for his generosity. He was revered in the Eastern churches as a protector of children. In the West, what reverence of the saint existed was stamped out by the Reformation. St. Nick as a Christmas figure traces back to German colonists in Pennsylvania in the 18th century, who may have brought over the Eastern custom from the provinces Germany acquired in the partition of Poland.

From its beginnings, however, the Christmas feast had non-Christian elements.

There is ample evidence that in Rome the original December Christian feast was designed to coincide and blot out a particularly riotous pagan feast, the Saturnalia. The solstice also was then the occasion for various forms of pagan merrymaking in pre-Christian Europe.

The Anglo-Saxon and Nordic pagan focus on solstice merrymaking and fertility was presumably designed to offset the darkest, gloomiest days of the year in northwest Europe. The Tannenbaum as well as and the holly and ivy are Teutonic and Druid, respectively -- not Christian.

What has happened with Christmas in the United States and its cultural satellites is akin to the evolution of Jewish feast of Chanukah. Surrounded by supposedly Christian merrymaking and gift-giving of late December, some Jewish families decided to upgrade the commemoration of the victory of the Maccabees and the rededication of the Jerusalem Temple to a major feast. Among Ashkhenazic Jews, chanukah gelt and dreidls around the "chanukah bush" often make up for Jewish children the presents under the Christmas tree their Gentile peers receive.

How Jewish is that? The Judaism 101 site says: "It is bitterly ironic that this holiday, which has its roots in a revolution against assimilation and the suppression of Jewish religion, has become the most assimilated, secular holiday on our calendar."

A similar point might be made about the Christian culture warriors who insist on fighting for the Christianity of Christmas. Is the strife consonant with the words of the Galilean woodworker who taught about turning the other cheek and loving enemies and persecutors? Didn't the Baby Jesus grow up to submit to torture and crucifixion?

For the rest of us, I have to wonder whether Christmas makes sense as a national holiday -- as anything other than a boon to retailers and credit card companies. Indeed, as Congress and the White House vie to cut aid to the poor to finance tax cuts for the rich, I do not find a celebration of the horn of plenty for the few a cause worthy of anything but shame.
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