A Last-Minute Gift: The Truth About Christmas

When someone grumps the ‘true meaning’ is being lost, tell them about the holiday’s Pagan/industrial roots.

By Shannon Rupp 23 Dec 2016 | TheTyee.ca

Shannon Rupp is a Tyee contributing editor. Find her previous Tyee pieces here.

I always think Christmas gifts should be timely, so this year’s last-minute gift idea is sparked by the Oxford Dictionary’s decision to award “post-truth” the coveted word-of-the-year honour.

I’m giving everyone on my list a book on the history of Christmas, so they can start fighting fantasies with fact during the festivities.

Christmas has always been a marvellously malleable holiday, shifting to become whatever we need it to be. Often, it’s used as the focus for political battles and social movements. Which makes it a good place to begin the battle against the post-truthers.

At least once every December, you are bound to be cornered by some poor delusional soul who announces that “Jesus is the reason for the season.”

That is just not true. They can view it as the reason for their season, of course, but they should be reminded of why they have a Christmas tree, a Santa Claus and/or mistletoe. Not to mention booze. Those are gifts from our pagan ancestors and it should be noted that the Puritans wouldn’t be amused to see contemporary Christians indulging in any of these heathen habits.

Most people are aware that Christmas — a shortening of Christ’s Mass — was invented by Dark Age monks with some bright propaganda skills. The Christian version of the holiday began around the Fifth Century as the monks tried to convince northern Europe’s pagans to join their one-god squad. Which was no small task given how much fun the pagan customs were.

The Christians were never going to overthrow Winter Solstice festivals, which were tied into the rhythms of farming and the natural world. But they could rebrand the solstice with Christian imagery. So they decided to overlook the Bible’s obvious allusions to Christ’s spring birth and declare Dec. 25 his birthday to compete with the Feast of Mithras — a sun god that was popular in the Roman world.

From there it was just a matter of giving the existing customs a Christian twist. That winter-blooming holly, with its blood-red berries, became Christ’s crown of thorns. The bonfires weren’t about worshipping the sun, but worshipping the son — they were a symbol of the saviour’s light.

Journalist Bill McKibben is best known for his environmental writing, but his short 1998 book on the history of Christmas, Hundred Dollar Holiday: The Case for a More Joyful Christmas, is a lovely read that outlines the evolution of the not-so-sacred holiday. Mindful of the protean nature of Christmas, he and his fellow parishioners in a rural Methodist church set out to reinvent the holiday to fit their faith.

Christmas has always lent itself to that. Winter Solstice revellers were happy to call the holiday whatever anyone wants —Yule, Saturnalia, Christmas — as long as they could preserve the midwinter feasting and merrymaking that gets northerners through the dark days.

That’s where the Puritans went wrong when they tried to drive home their theocratic politics by killing Christmas. Despite the Christian veneer, the first thousand years of Christmas was a wild, drunken pagan party that continued well into the 17th century in rural communities. Modern revellers still incorporate the remnants of that tradition into New Year’s Eve celebrations.

Those festivals of gluttony, gambling and debauchery offended the fundamentalist Puritans — the same people who brought us witch burnings in Salem — and they decried the holiday as both too pagan and too Catholic. They weren’t wrong: there was nothing about Christmas in the Bible. Everyone knew it was just a sort of merry multicultural festival that blended a wide range of traditions and maintained social stability with tolerance and inclusion.

But after the Puritans triumphed in the English civil war in 1642, they outlawed public Christmas celebrations, forced shops to remain open and even fined people caught roasting meat on Dec. 25. Meanwhile their American cousins had been shifting their harvest festival to compete with the heathen Christmas, which is why Americans celebrate Thanksgiving so late in the season. As Penne Restad’s excellent Christmas in America notes, the Puritans would often delay the Thanksgiving holiday as late as Dec. 20 in an attempt to give everyone’s favourite midwinter feast a more sedate tone.

After Charles II was restored to the English throne in 1660, roasting a goose on Christmas became a respectable thing to do again. But by then some of the traditions had been lost. In the 18th century, the holiday began fading naturally as the industrial revolution sent people into the cities. Many of the Winter Solstice rituals are connected to agrarian life; they just disappeared.

Early 19th-century thinkers and writers, like American Washington Irving, were charmed to rediscover the Elizabethan-style Christmas customs and Irving began writing short stories and essays that celebrated those old traditions. It wasn’t long before they began to see Christmas as both a way of boosting their growing manufacturing industries and a balm for the damage industry was doing.  

So they reinvented Christmas again. City dwellers wouldn’t tolerate the rowdy village parties that had the poor banging on rich men’s doors demanding ale to fuel week-long drunks. The new Christmas advocates focused on domesticating the event into the holiday we recognize, celebrating families and children.

You can see their efforts to sway the public view in Clement Clarke Moore’s 1823 poem, “A Visit from St. Nicholas,” in which the paterfamilias spies an elf bringing gifts for his children.

Twenty years later, Charles Dickens earned a reputation as The Man Who Invented Christmas, the title of the book about how his tale of Scrooge turned the author’s own fortunes around. (It’s being made into a movie, due next Christmas.)

Dickens’ story emphasizes how Scrooge, the old miser, was terrorized by some reform-minded ghosts into becoming a good employer, a good citizen, and a good family man, in the interests of the whole community. To Dickens’ way of thinking, Christmas was no longer just a Christian take on a pagan party: it was a citizen’s duty.

If you haven’t read the slim novella, I recommend the audiobook version featuring Patrick Stewart reading the story, in which Dickens highlights how Christmas is the solution for practically every social and political concern of the English in 1843.

The return of Christmas, reinvented for an industrial era, is outlined in detail in Stephen Nussenbaum’s The Battle for Christmas: A Cultural History of America’s Most Cherished Holiday. As he notes, the 19th-century U.S. embraced Christmas as part of its manufacturing and mercantile culture.

Ironically, it was the former home of the Puritans, the New England states, that were the first to declare Christmas a statutory holiday, beginning with Connecticut in 1845. Probably because in a manufacturing economy, they could see that it served business and workers both. Meanwhile the southern U.S., with an agricultural economy, was slower to adopt the new urban Christmas, but by 1881 everybody was in on the modern civic event. The 20th century developed those 19th-century ideas about what a traditional Christmas ought to look like in the English-speaking world, and it wasn’t until the dawn of the 21st century that Christmas became part of political rhetoric again.

The holiday is a shape-shifting marvel that can be adapted to fit any need. It answers social inequality by inspiring more charity. It gives workers a guaranteed rest. It keeps businesses of all sorts prospering. But most of all, Christmas has always given us a festive proxy for our political battles.

So I see no reason why it can’t be used in the fight against post-truth propaganda.

During the holiday season, when someone makes some thinly veiled political argument that begins with a rant demanding more “Christian” Christmas symbols like trees, elves and animals with cloven hooves, you (and your gift recipients) can interrupt with confidence and point out that those are pagan symbols. Then cite chapter and verse, as they say. Santa Claus: A Biography and Christmas in the Crosshairs, both by University of Manitoba professor Gerry Bowler, can help you out there.

And if anyone protests that arguing about the origins and meaning of Christmas, during Christmas, is bad manners you can also point out that, on the contrary, it’s tradition.  [Tyee]

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