Saturday, December 18, 2004

"Can somebody please tell me what Christmas is all about?"

The observance of Christmas in this country has a rather checkered career. Ironically, Newt Gingrich's question had an answer by our Puritan forebears: Yes, they'd have happily eliminated the word from the language. It meant, after all, a "Christ-mass" (and I am grateful to Prior Aelred for bringing some of this to our attention), a term immediately too Catholic (and Anglican!) for men and women who had left England because they rejected the practices of the state church. The other complaint of the Puritans was that people "kept" Christmas by revelling, when the proper response to such a "holy-day" was reverence and respectful worship. That problem was not new, however.

According to Penne Restad (Christmas in America, Oxford 1995), because the church expressly overlaid Christmas with the Roman Saturnalia (human nature being what it is, it is always easier to modify and existing holiday than to try to stamp it out;* All Saint's Day and its Eve, Hallowe'en, was an acknowledgment of the importance of Samhain, the Celtic celebration of summer's end), there has been a debate ever since over how to "keep" Christmas. As Restad says, for centuries "the Church sustained the hope that sacred would overtake profane as pagans gave up their revels and turned to Christianity." (Restad, p. 6). Sound familiar?

So it is an old debate: what is "Christmas," and how should it be kept? The Puritans in AMerica wanted to leave it alone, much like Ebenezer Scrooge. The very human need for revelry, however, worked against them. December is a fairly bleak time of year. In northern climates especially, people simply seem to need some kind of revelry to get through the period of the winter solstice. How Christmas turned from a day (or even twelve days; that tradition goes back at least to King Alfred's reign, in the 9th century, when the twelve days from December 25th to January 6th (the Epiphany) were set aside for celebration. (Restad, p. 6)) on the Christian calendar to a raging commercial enterprise is another subject entirely, one we can't even get to. If that's where your interests lie, Restad's book, and Stephen Nissenbaum's The Battle for Christmas, are both excellent (and fascinating).

Really, there are three subjects here: (a) the Church's Christmas; (b) the world's Christmas; (c) and what Christmas means. This is not getting any simpler (as I had hoped), but by December 25th we'll try to get around to all three..

*(and yes, December 25th was chosen as the day of the Nativity precisely because of the cult of Mithras in Rome. December 25 was the winter solstice on the Julian Calendar; Emperor Aurelian declared that day, in 274 C.E., would be kept as a public festival in honor of the Invincible Sun God. Christians, a bit later, challenged the pagan festival, which was extremely popular, by taking December 25th as the day of the Nativity. [Restad, p. 4] Traditions run deep, and it is usually wiser to adapt them than to eliminate them.)

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