Yesterday I wrote about the nonexistent-yet-ever-noticeable War on Christmas. It’s fun to write about such topics every now and then, but it’s important to not give too much food to the trolls that feed off of any criticism or rejection of their persecution.
So never minding the people who are convinced that the institution of Christmas is somehow under attack, the phenomena of Christmas in and of itself is an incredibly curious thing. In modern culture, we’re all fairly familiar with what the holiday is: a month-long celebration culminating in a single day, the previous night of which features a folk-tale about a large elf-man who travels the world to give gifts to good little boys and girls. It’s a holiday of gift giving where we consider the role of friends and family in our lives, coupled with a certain je ne sais quoi which warms our souls while thinking about “the true meaning of Christmas.”
This is where people seem to differ on what the holiday is about. For some, “the true meaning of Christmas” is very religious; it’s the celebration of the birth of the Lord Jesus Christ, savior of humanity and carrier of all who believe in him. But for others, Jesus is still recognized as being “the reason for the season,” so to speak, but the meaning of Christmas is more ethereal than the strict recognition of a man’s birthday, savior of humanity or not. There’s a warm, fuzzy feeling that comes with the holiday, a spiritual sense that connects them to others in a way not felt other times of the year. And Jesus is often credited with creating this feeling in people.
Others still view the holiday in much the same fuzzy ethereal way, but they take Jesus out entirely.
It’s a fascinating fact that this holiday is viewed and celebrated in so many different ways, from purely sectarian to entirely secular. The reasons for this are varied. It can be partially explained by the mere fact that people are different from one another, and therefore will bring their own family customs to cultural celebrations. But the history of Christmas itself is much more of a melting pot of different customs than most of us are brought up to believe. Ever wondered why spruce trees are such a prominent symbol of this holiday that supposedly is all about the birth of a god in the Middle East? Or how the Yule log happened to become a part of this holy tradition?
The history of Christmas is just as varied as the people who celebrate it. To put it briefly, as a means of converting pagans to Christianity in the early centuries of the church, many different pagan holidays and celebrations were co-opted into Christmas to show the people that they could still have their cherished traditions even after they’ve converted. Included amongst these were the Roman celebration of Saturnalia and the Germanic Yuletide festival, each of which lent a number of customs to the youthful Christmas holiday. In fact, even the date of Christmas, December 25th, was chosen in part because it was the last day of Saturnalia (many holidays have been celebrated on December 25th because of its proximity to the Winter Solstice. Three days after the solstice, it is visually clear that the sun is rising higher in the sky as the days once again get longer, making the 25th a perfect day to celebrate birth or rebirth. Many gods that have had connection to the sun were said to have been born on this day, including Apollo and Mithra).
Modern Christmas is an amalgamation of all these customs, strewn together over time and space to create a holiday that is accessible to the widest possible audience. It’s what its been designed to do. So it should come as no surprise to see that everyone from fundamentalist Christians to atheists to even the occasional Jew like to celebrate Christmas, all in their own unique way. It’s so widespread that many people, in the United States at least, are genuinely shocked when they find out that someone doesn’t celebrate Christmas. After all, doesn’t everyone? So even though it doesn’t quite serve the purpose of recruiting converts to Christianity as it once did, the holiday has taken on a life of its own, growing organically now that it has reached a particular cultural tipping point. And it is still taking over other holidays – I’m sure I’m not the first person to notice that the celebration of Christmas, the shopping portion at least, has begun to happen on Thanksgiving Day in recent years.