Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Happy Holidays, not Merry Christmas

The tree is trimmed, the presents are wrapped, the carols ring out, and I'm a bit confused. What would Christ think of us celebrating His birthday in December when He was probably born in the spring?

"Uh oh," I hear you saying, "hold the phone! Jaggy's losing it." I'm not going to say anyone is wrong for celebrating Christmas. I'm not going to get on anyone's case for believing in the traditions of Christmas, Christ's holiness, or just wanting to party once each year. We all celebrate different things, and that's fine. But before you go off shouting "Merry Christmas" at the top of your lungs to cover up someone else's "Season's Greetings" because you think they aren't celebrating "correctly," I'd like to fill in some information about the holiday.

First, let's start with the name "Christmas." It literally means Christ's Mass. Unless you're celebrating Mass in honor of Christ's birth, you're missing the boat entirely. However, we're not all Catholic, and we go to church but don't call the service Mass. Same thing, different name, right? I could get all nitpicky about how Protestant services don't cut the mustard when it comes to celebrating a proper Mass, but that might make a few people mad. I guess "close enough" will have to work for going to any ol' church service on Christmas.

Next, the actual date of Christmas wasn't set until over three hundred years after Christ's death. The Catholic Church decided to stick Christ's Mass on the same day as the pagan holiday of Saturnalia in Rome and Yule in northern Europe in order to earn converts. Not a stupid move when you think about it: incorporate a few pagan traditions and more people might think the Church is cool. It’s much easier to convert people who "already believe" what you do, than to beat it into them. Not to mention that the whole "while shepherds watched their flock by night" bit doesn't float in December. Sheep aren't out grazing at night in December. They are, however, out in the springtime. (I won't even get into the whole Easter is actually in June, not April, bit until later). Christ Himself would not have celebrated His own birthday: only the pagan gods in His day would have been so selfish. Maybe the Church messed up the date, maybe they didn't... we'll never know. They definitely incorporated pagan traditions, though, without question.

I'm guessing you have a tree in your house, fake or not. Christmas lights hanging in the window? or perhaps you're planning a big feast on Christmas day? All pagan traditions. Sure, Christians like to feast and have done so for centuries as well, but the feast on Christmas was actually the winter solstice feast. The evergreen trees and boughs were symbols of life after winter to the Norse people. Christmas lights are really supposed to be reminding us that the longer days are coming, not reminiscent of the star shining over Bethlehem. And don't even get me started on Santa Claus. Oh Holy Night, that jolly red man is a 19th-century invention!

Okay, okay, barring the facts that the date might be wrong, the traditions borrowed, and the reason for the season largely forgotten in today's hyper-consumption ideology, we're left with a bit of a confused holiday. Great. Tradition for tradition's sake then? Not in this country. The Puritans tried to do away with Christmas altogether. That's right, the founders of this country disavowed the holiday. It wasn't a part of America's first traditions and was even banned in some cities for years. Not until the 1820s was the holiday officially declared in this country, and it wasn't even widely celebrated until well into the Victorian Era.

As a side note, it perturbs me when people demand that Christmas is Christian holiday and that the United States is a Christian country. Christ's Mass is a Christian holiday, but the borrowed pagan traditions pretty much nullify the rest of the season as truly Christian. (I could go into how many Christian traditions are borrowed in the first place, but that would be for more than a blog post.) Our country was founded on the ideals of freedom of religion and the ability to decide who you are and what you believe. We are a majority of Christians, but we are not wholly and exclusively Christian. To forget that citizens of this country rightly celebrate Christmastime without having any part in Christ's Mass is to forget millions upon millions of individuals! (Some might argue that includes Protestants, too, who don't go to a proper Mass, but I don't want to offend anyone…)

Enough blasting. Christmastime is a happy few days for all who celebrate in whatever way they do. Christianity, at its very best, adapts to new environments and changes over time. That's the beauty of the Faith: Christianity can change its methods without changing its message, and it has done so for millennia. (Case in point: in the Amazon, they do not have sheep, so the people spreading the Gospel down there changed all references of sheep to the Amazon sacred animal, the chicken. Jesus is the sacrificial chicken!) The holiday is supposed to be a celebration of Christ's Mass, of His birth. If having a tree, giving presents (also a custom started by the United States in the 19th century), and singing carols makes you feel like you're honoring Christ, I'm sure He doesn't mind. I bet He'd get a kick out of Rudolph and the other reindeer, don't you?

That said, do not, for one second, think that shouting Merry Christmas instead of Season's Greetings or Happy Holidays makes you a better, more correct person. If you think you're standing up for your country by defending Christmas as one of our national holidays from day one, you're wrong. The season is winter. The holidays are Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, Ramadan, Boxing Day, the winter solstice, and probably a few more I haven't heard of. It's okay to share glad tidings during this time, and it's wonderful to offer Merry Christmas to others as long as you're not offended when they share a different greeting with you. I’m not trying to make the holiday greetings taboo, and I’m not trying to discourage niceties. I am, however, encouraging people to respect others and keep in mind that not everyone is exactly like them.

As for me, I will be celebrating my first "official" Christ's Mass this year. I get to see the real deal for once, and I'll sprinkle on the pagan traditions for good measure. I have my tree, am giving a few presents, and already feasted. No matter who you are, what your beliefs, or where you're from, I wish you the best this holiday season. Happy new year as well!

For more information about the holiday season, please see The History Channel's Real Story of Christmas or check out Wikipedia's entry on the holiday.

1 comment:

Eric said...

Awesome! I've made mention of some of this stuff to my friends and family during the holiday season, and I'm glad I'm not alone. I would love to see Christmas as a christian holiday in the spring as well. How much easier it would be (at least in the northern hemisphere) to travel and get to the places that a person needs to be. Plus the fiscal end of year wouldn't be so close for so many stores, so if the gift-giving traditions remained intact, stores would probably be happier.

The "Merry Christmas" vs "Happy Holidays" debate gets me right in the same spot as those who thing "x-mas" is somehow diminishing to the holiday or its namesake (more people need to know basic latin and greek).

Have a festive Feast of Winter Veil