Who Stole Christmas?
"There's been a concerted effort to steal Christmas." - Jerry Falwell
Interesting words from a highly provocative source, but I wonder if the founder of the "Moral Majority" ever realized just how ironic his sentiments really are?
To put the quote in some modicum of context, Falwell was speaking of a supposed cloak and dagger scheme by the Democratic Party and the "liberal" media to commercialize the holiday season in order to draw attention away from the birth of Jesus. I must admit, the man had a solid point about how we've bastardized our interpretation of Christmas to propel the capitalist machine. Modern society recognizes December 25th as the birthday of Christ, and we celebrate accordingly by stampeding our fellow Wal-Mart patrons to ensure that our children progress through adolescence spoiled and entitled. The problem with Falwell's statement is that he was basing his argument on the false premise that the holiday we celebrate had anything to do with Christ's birth in the first place.
According to the Julian Calendar, (the primary calendar of Europe until it was replaced by the Gregorian version in the late 16th century), the Winter Solstice actually occurs on December 25th, not the 21st, as we have recognized for nearly 500 years. As a way of celebrating the Earth's movement back toward the sun and the completion of the autumnal planting, the Romans designated the seven days preceding the 25th as Saturnalia - a week-long festival of debauchery honoring their agricultural god of plenty, Saturnus.
During this period, the Roman courts were closed, and no one could be legally punished for indiscretions committed within the celebration interval. To put it mildly, the Romans took advantage of this immunity. The festival activities included severe and prolonged drunken binges, systemic rape of women and children, and random human sacrifice. (Surprisingly, there are no mentions of Jolly Ol' St. Nick greasily sliding down a chimney or flying around a craft pulled by magical red-nosed caribou.)
As Christianity began to gain momentum in the 4th century, church leaders saw the celebration of Saturnalia as a means of converting Roman pagans. They embraced the festival in order to create a common bond with their heathen brethren and promised converts that they would be allowed to continue to celebrate the Winter Solstice in their brutal, hedonistic fashion. As a means of rationalizing this decision, the church arbitrarily designated December 25th as the day that Jesus was born. Therefore, Christmas was originally celebrated as a mass festival of sin. There was no solemn observance of Christ's birth, just another excuse to party bacchanal style! (In fact, caroling is a modern remnant of a similar practice of communal and public singing performed by the Roman pagans... in the nude.)
Over time, the holiday gradually transitioned into a more respectful recognition of the birth of Christ, but certain brutal traditions were occasionally revived to persecute the Jewish people. For instance, in the 15th century, Pope Paul II forced Jews to over indulge in massive amounts of food and then run through the streets of Rome naked as Christians taunted them. Similar events took place during the 18th and 19th century, in which Rabbis were forced to dress ridiculously and then paraded through the streets while they were pelted with foreign objects. Contradictory behavior considering Christ's title of "King of the Jews."
Not surprisingly, many of the beloved traditions that are still observed in the modern celebration of Christmas have pagan roots. For instance, most Christian children are taught that the practice of gift-giving is a modern reenactment of the gifts that the three Magi are thought to have given Christ as birthday gifts, which has been further corrupted by the invention of Santa Claus (see below). However, gift-giving was one of the common practices of the Saturnalia to represent the emperor's demands for offerings from peasants.
The Christmas tree is also a remnant of pagan rituals, but, unlike many customs, is not traced back to the Saturnalia. Instead, the practice of decorating a Christmas tree can be credited to early Europeans tree worshipers. Once these pagans had been converted to Christianity, the practice was revived by the Germans as a way of scaring away the devil by representing the "Tree of Life" in the Garden of Eden.
The Myth of Santa Claus
Modern depictions of Santa Claus are based on the Turkish saint, Nicholas, who was born in the 3rd century. He was a member of the Council of Nicaea which was tasked with assembling texts for the New Testament. After his death, his remains were relocated to Italy where he became the torch-bearer for the myth of "The Grandmother," a mythical deity who would fill local children's stockings once a year. Later, St. Nicholas was embraced by German and Irish pagans, at which time, he began to be depicted as a bearded, overweight gentleman astride a flying horse. To gain more pagan converts, the church adopted this iteration of Nicholas and began preaching the myth of him as a gift bearer.
To finish the modern interpretation, Coca-cola hired a Swedish artist to paint the saint wearing a coat matching their signature red color for holiday advertisements. Little wonder that one of the most profitable companies of the 20th century played a significant role in the myth of Santa Claus.
What Is Christmas?
People are right when they say that Christmas isn't about presents, or Santa Claus, or Black Friday, or an extended vacation from work or school. Christmas is really a broad collection of various pagan practices consolidated into a single holiday and used to promote the propagation of the Christian religion and the more contemporary commercial aspects of the season.
Ostensibly, Christmas is a wonderful concept. Christ is the defining character of Western society, and the passionate message he preached, coupled with the phenomenal sacrifice he supposedly gave, deserves to be celebrated. However, I think that if most people knew the true history of the holiday, they might withhold their sanctimonious condemnation of the modern exploitation of Christmas - which is only the most recent manifestation of depravity and perversion in a holiday with a rich tradition of both.