Christmas is a shining growth in the social institutional landscape, a holiday rich in various heritages, colorful, good-humored, and devoted, for most, to a sentiment of universal goodwill. As a Jew with religious beliefs somewhere between pantheism and atheism, the Christianity of this ostensibly Christian holiday is as relevant to me as Halloween’s Celtic connection, which is to say, relevant, but not in the expected way.
Christmas is a cultural snowball rolling down a seemingly endless slope, growing as it goes. Its journey began long before the birth of Christ (which certainly did not occur on the 25th of December, which just happened to be the date of the biggest Roman holiday beforehand, the Saturnalia, chosen to make the early Christian celebration inconspicuous), and has traveled through diverse cultures and religions ever since, accumulating their material along the way.
We all know that Christianity began as a Jewish sect, building on the preceding Old Testament of the Jews. But Judaism as well had built on pre-existing near eastern religions and mythologies, incorporating the story of the flood, for instance, which had existed long before the Habiru (“desert wanderers”) began to promote Yahweh beyond his original status as a local tribal god. And the Romans, in the period preceding and during the early rise of Christianity, were in the market for new religions, accumulating around several “mystery cults” that were popular in the Roman Empire (of which Christianity was one), born in one or another of its provinces (e.g., the Dionysian and Orphean Cults of Greece, the Cult of Isis and Osiris of Egypt, Mithraism of Persia). Some of the materials of these other cults sloshed together and entered into early Christianity (transforming the Hebrew concept of “messiah” –translated into Greek as “Christ”– for instance, which was of a human prophet, into an incarnation of God; and the imagery of death and resurrection).
The Roman Empire itself, once Christianity became the state religion (thanks to Constantine’s perhaps politically motivated conversion), changed Christianity from a religion devoted to the poor and humble, into an instrument of state power. When Rome fell, that instrument was all that was left of the empire in the West, and became the overarching political force of Medieval Europe. In this way, Catholicism (one of the two major branches of pre-Reformation Christianity, the other being Greek Orthodoxy, residing in the surviving half of the Roman -now “Byzantine”- Empire in the East) adapted to and absorbed the indigenous cultural and religious material of Western Europe. Catholicism also became the improbable repository of classical scholarship, protecting it from the ravages of the Middle Ages, to be rediscovered and revived centuries later, only to transform itself into the most powerful of all countervailing forces: Applied Reason (further invigorated by the umbrella of monotheism itself, for monotheism reduces the caprice of multiple gods with multiple wills, and implies that there is a coherent order to Nature to be discerned).
The Christmas tree, for instance, is a blend of several traditions and innovations, none of them related to the religion itself, except for the possibility that Martin Luther introduced this custom into Christianity as part of the differentiation of Protestantism from Catholicism (see http://www.christmas-time.com/ct-ctree.htm). The decorated tree itself began in Rome, during the Saturnalia (the Pagan Roman holiday on December 25 historically antecedent to Christmas). The star on top appears to be derivative of the Roman custom of placing an image of Apollo, the sun god, on top of their decorated trees. The Teutonic tribes of northern Europe also decorated trees, in honor of Odin, and the Druids brought evergreens inside during the winter solstice to celebrate the renewal of life, a custom co-opted by Christianity as a celebration of Christ as “the bringer of new life into the world.”
Santa Claus, originally a 4th century bishop from Asia Minor known for his generosity and fondness of children (hopefully not in the modern sense too often associated with Christian priests!), blended into an anglo-saxon “Father Christmas” who wore garb associated with the gods Thor and Saturn (http://www.christmas-time.com/cp-santa.html). (See http://www.christmas-time.com/ct-trad.htm for similar discussions of other Christmas traditions).
Others have added to the imagery since, such as Charles Dickens, adding a repentant ghost of an avaricious businessman trying to convince his surviving and equally avaricious partner of the value of kindness and generosity, with the aid of three spirits (Christmas Past, Present, and Future); and Frank Capra and Jimmy Stewart giving us a somewhat opposite image, of someone who had spent his life sacrificing his own dreams to the welfare of others, and in his own time of tribulation, being shown by an angel how much he had meant to the world by doing so. (See my political versions of these tales: A Political Christmas Carol and “It’s a Wonderful Life,” American Political Edition (Parts I-V).)
Every generation adds to the repertoire of songs and stories, reworking old ones, inventing new ones. An inspired answer by a hardened newspaperman to a little girl’s innocent question; a movie that plays on our desire to believe and the confluence of convenience and (an ironically anachronistic) trust in our governmental institutions; songs that cover the gamut of genres and styles, and throw in a fair amount of humor from time to time; all of these are the stuff of Christmas.
Now thoroughly secularized for many, with a jolly white-bearded magical entity of various pagan roots, assisted by quintessential European magical pagan creatures (elves) and flying reindeer, bringing joy to children everywhere on a snowy winter solstice (ironically, imagined as snowy even in tropical Mazatlan, where I was staying at the time of this writing, among a people very conscious that they are celebrating a desert birth), Christmas has become a shining multicultural gem, evoking feelings of mirth and goodwill in any and all who surrender to its magic. Full of music and rituals, feasts and games, gifts and giddiness, Christmas is the matured Saturnalia, a timeless celebration that belongs to many generations and places, rich with the influence of many cultures.
The compassionate, generous, joyful celebration of life has always been an ideal too beleaguered and too much in need of cultural reinforcements (see Meta-messaging with Frames and Narratives). Christmas, for all the legitimate complaints about its commercialization, remains perhaps the grandest and most powerful national and international celebration of joy and kindness. And so, with that, I wish you all a very Merry Christmas! May the winter solstice be as magical for you as it has been for so many who have celebrated it before, in all their myriad ways.