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'The War on Christmas'

Yep, it's raging. But who are the real enemies?

By Shannon Rupp 21 Dec 2005 | TheTyee.ca
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It's hard not to crack a newspaper this month without coming across some reference to the latest ploy by the political religious right to position themselves as persecuted: The War on Christmas.

The argument goes that those dreaded liberal thinkers are attempting to devalue Christianity by forcing shop clerks to wish customers "happy holidays" or government offices to erect "friendship trees."

But much like a broken clock that's right at least twice a day, these wingnuts are onto something. There's a War on Christmas all right, but it has nothing to do with anti-Christian views - most of us just hate the marketing festival I think of as Shoppapalooza.

Pagans had something going

As disturbing as it is to find that the Christian right treats history with the same contempt they hold for biology, those "Christmas" trees they're so passionately defending are actually pagan Winter Solstice trees. The irony is delicious. Traditionally, Christians are the most vocal critics of this cynical holiday. Between the 4th and 6th centuries, some wily monks with a flair for propaganda decided they'd have better luck converting pagans if they grafted Christian symbolism onto existing celebrations.

You've gotta love these early practitioners of semiotics. For example, the WMs took the holly that decorated the Roman's Saturnalia and reinterpreted it as the symbol of Christ's crown of thorns, dotted with blood. It was an inspiration to all the advertising and marketing folk to come.

But there were always Christians who realized this evangelical exercise had backfired. Sure, people called it Christmas, but it was the customs of ancient festivals like the Feast of Mithras, Yule and Zagmuk that endured. Those wild pagan parties were full of sinful acts that gave a nod to false gods. Hardliners in the no-fun religion weren't about to endorse gluttony, greed, drunkenness, wild sex and dancing, in short, the inspiration for the contemporary New Year's Eve party.

So, 17th century Puritans demanded their neighbours pay more than lip service to the church. In England, under Cromwell, merchants were fined for closing shop on the Feast of the Nativity from 1644 to 1660 when Charles II was restored to the throne. American Puritans made it a fining offence to show any Christmas spirit in Boston from 1659 to 1681.

Among today's faithful, Jehovah's Witnesses reject Christmas as the propaganda it is and even Christians who celebrate December 25 are modifying the event.

Enforcing good cheer

Bill McKibben, a Harpers magazine writer, wrote a controversial essay Hundred Dollar Holiday: A Case for a More Joyful Christmas (1998) that challenged the holiday's many myths. Inspired by the way he and his fellow parishioners in a New York state Methodist church celebrate, McKibben advocated a financially modest celebration. That earned the poor man accusations of "Grinch!" Of course, in the U.S., that's probably better than being called a liberal.

But you can't keep a good entrepreneur down and Christianity has always had a commerce-oriented wing. Think of the medieval peddlers of religious relics - pssst, wanna buy a fragment of Christ's shroud? - or the churches that sold indulgences to erase sins from your spiritual record. One theory for the Catholic Church's insistence on a celibate clergy was that those acquisitive leaders found that priests without spouses and children willed their money to the church.

Given Christianity's connection with commerce, it's no surprise that conspicuous consumers like the Victorians resurrected Xmas as a shopping event with religious overtones. With the industrial revolution pumping out mass-produced doo-dads, what better way to "grow the market" than with religiously-mandated gift-giving.

Thanks to that notoriously sanctimonious society, the modern Christmas has evolved into a secular holiday that celebrates - that's not quite the right word, let's say enforces - sentimentality, shopping and hypocrisy. It's the reason for all sorts of obligatory unpleasantness: spending time with loathsome relatives, socializing with despicable people, wretched excess of all sorts including running up credit cards and running oneself ragged.

No wonder so many truly spiritual Christians oppose that secular Christmas right along with environmentalists, voluntary simplicity practitioners, non-Christians and those of us who just hate shopping. As someone who has celebrated Winter Solstice since I was old enough to realize I was being manipulated by marketers with a couple of centuries of practice, I'm all for killing that dishonest secular Christmas and leaving Christ's Mass to those with a religious bent.

Gone on holy day

But if we've learned anything from those wily monks, it's that you can't kill Winter Solstice, which is what Christmas is, albeit, in creepy garb. Which is why it makes sense for all of us to return to that sectarian-neutral holiday that evolved out of the real human need to resist winter gloom and take a break from the daily grind. No one can be offended by the greeting "Happy Winter Solstice," - even the atheists -- since that's the natural event underlying every other cultural and religious celebration.

What people like Fox TV commentator John Gibson, who published The War on Christmas: How the Liberal Plot to Ban the Sacred Christian Holiday is Worse Than You Thought in October, are refusing to recognize is that the commercial, secular Christmas they're defending no longer makes sense to most of us living in the early 21st century.

A holiday - the word grew out of "holy day" and came to mean a vacation - is about escaping one's everyday life. But what kind of a holiday does the Victorian interpretation of medieval customs that arrived via 4000-odd years of paganism afford a modern person?

Before electricity, the winter world was dark and quiet, so noise and light were novelties. But in cities so bright they obscure the stars, do we really need homes covered in garish, flashing bulbs? We shop seven days a week, we eat whatever foods we want year round and we suffer an array of stress-related illness related to our busyness. How can Winter Solstice be considered a holiday if we simply do more of the same and do it faster?

Tips for celebrating

With this in mind, it's time to reconsider that commercial Victorian Christmas we inherited and return to the real tradition of grafting contemporary needs onto the Winter Solstice.

I have a few suggestions for celebrating this solstice. Since sleep deprivation is a problem everywhere, who doesn't want a holiday that involves more rest: let's turn off all our alarm clocks and phones. Businesses, including retailers, would probably enjoy shorter hours and closing down longer over winter's shortest days - we give them the permission to do this if we stop shopping compulsively. We are a sedentary culture, which suggests that most of us would prefer a day of skiing, or yoga, or maybe a trip to a spa instead of another boozy office party spent making small talk with people you see every day. Instead of loading our tables with more of the rich foods we eat year round, it's time to develop a holiday menu that leaves us feeling rejuvenated - not desperate to lose 10 pounds. Stress is killing us, so why not celebrate December and January as the months for meditation and massage instead of shopping and shopping.

Not traditional? Says who? Traditions are just something somebody invented that developed a following. Since the perfect vacation is to do what we rarely get to do that suggests that December 25 should be set aside for doing exactly as we please.

Now there's a holiday tradition that might catch on.

With that in mind, wish the world whatever greeting you like and celebrate the Winter Solstice in any fashion that suits you. When objections arise, and they will, remind your critics: "It's tradition."

Vancouver writer Shannon Rupp is a regular contributor to The Tyee.  [Tyee]

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