December 26th, 2005

Hail Santa

Christmas is the Reason for the Season

When this "War on Christmas" protest started, it had a conjoined-twin slogan: "Jesus is the reason for the season." We've all heard it so many times that it's widely parodied, perhaps best by a slogan I saw on somebody's LiveJournal entry icon the other day: "Axial tilt is the reason for the season." But Jesus is not the reason for the season. The idea that Jesus is the reason for the season is so laughably ludicrous that most Christian clergy won't even defend it. The closest that any honest theologian, even the most social conservative allied one, will come to defending the proposition that Jesus is the reason for the season is to say that the popular celebration of Christ's birth is what's important about Christmas. Because if you sit down with any honest Biblical scholar, they'll admit (some of them, admittedly, reluctantly) that if the Christian gospels are true, there is no way that Jesus was born in December. We're told that on the very night Jesus was born, angels appeared in the sky to shepherds who were with their flocks, out in the fields, at night. Folks, there is only one time of year when a shepherd would leave his sheep out in the fields at night, and have to be out there with them: lambing season, which happens right around the end of March or early April.

People who don't know better reject this flatly out of hand for a lot of reasons, some of them powerfully symbolic. For one thing, the story of the innkeeper who sent Jesus' father and very pregnant mother out to sleep in the stables acquires a lot more poignancy if it happens in late December than if it happens in early spring. (If it was such a hardship for Joseph and Mary to be sleeping under a roof but outdoors at night, what are we supposed to feel for the ordinary working shepherds, whose jobs were keeping them out under the same sky without so much as a roof?) And given that Jesus' death is described in the gospels as having happened the weekend after Passover, which also happens in the spring, it makes no sense symbolically for a god to celebrate a god's birth and death at the same time. (Ironically, if you look at when he was probably actually born if the story is even vaguely true, then yes, the archetypal figure of the Piscean Age is, in fact, a Pisces. Otherwise you have to explain why the man whose birth marks the end of the Age of Aries and the beginning of the Age of Pisces is himself a Capricorn.)

Christians hate talking about this, because it lends credence to the Pagans' smug insistence that Christmas is an appropriation of their holiday. The holiday in question, though, wasn't celebrated all that noisily or widely in the Pagan world. (Frazer, and most Neopagans, are just plain dead wrong about this. Yule existed, but it was no bigger a deal at the time than Hanukkah is now. Which I'll get to in a minute.) The ancestral rite to our modern Christmas is the very specifically Roman celebration called Saturnalia. When the Christian bishops affixed December 25th as the date on which the birth of Christ would be celebrated, it was explicitly and not at all secretly with the intent of giving Christians a replacement for a popular rite that people from one end of the Roman Empire to the other had no intention of letting go of. So does that mean that Saturn is the reason for the season? Well, funny thing that ... no. The truth be told, December 25th makes no more sense as a celebration of the old god Saturn than it does as a date for Christ's birth, nor has it any astronomical significance to the planet Saturn.

What's more, if Jesus is the reason for the season, you have to ask yourself, how did Christmas accrete all of these other weird traditions that have nothing to do with either Roman Paganism or with Christianity? You would also have to explain why it is that other religions have found it so expedient to make their trivial late-December festivals over in partial or complete imitation of Christmas. Before it collided with Christmas, Hanukkah was no big deal. It was a minor celebration, not even that widely practiced, of an obscure miracle related to the Maccabeean Revolt. But living side by side with people celebrating our modern Christmas, the Reformed at least are trying desperately to fit as much of Christmas as they can squeeze into their Hanukkah celebrations; their kids insist on it, and they find that once they do, they like it. (I saw a hysterically funny parody the other day of what Jewish law and commentaries on the subject would look like if the Jews really did embrace Christmas. I should have saved a bookmark. It was eerily plausible, and funny as all get out.) Yes, some Pagan cultures celebrated the winter solstice, or Yule, on December 21st (not the 25th), but it was May 1st and November 1st that were the big holidays; Yule was small potatoes. But I can go ever farther than that. Which nation goes every bit as far out there as Americans do in celebrating Christmas, maybe even farther out? Japan. Whose state religion is Shinto. Whose natives understand even less about Jesus Christ than your average American does about Shinto. They still don't know Jesus from a hole in the ground ... but they sure know Santa Claus!

What's so powerful about December 25th that every religion that brushes up against it gets as thoroughly stuck as any tar baby? What's so powerful about December the 25th that virtually anything that anybody does with their family, or even with their friends, instantly becomes a Christmas tradition? Hint: It's certainly not "the coldest part of winter," since on the average that's at least another month away. And it's also not the winter solstice, that's 3 to 4 days earlier. No, what happens on December 25th is that the solstice ends. If you're measuring the seasons by hand using the most common mechanism, measuring the length of the shadow cast by the gnomon of a sundial at noon, December the 24th will probably be the first afternoon that you actually see a perceptible shortening of the shadow. If you're trying to measure the length of the day without precision instruments, if you pay attention on that day when the sundial starts to turn, you can tell that the day is finally perceptibly longer (about 4 minutes longer than on the equinox, at this latitude). December the 25th is the day that we celebrate the fact that it's finally getting brighter out, the day that the darkness finally begins to retreat. Even for those of us who love the darkness, a fourteen and a half hour night (here in St. Louis) is long enough, dark enough, that the prospect of it continuing to get longer is depressing. (And the gods alone know how those of you who live north of here tolerate 15, 18, 20 or more hour nights.) By the solstice, the nights have been getting longer for six whole weeks, just counting from when they first passed the daytime hours, and that first day when the light starts getting longer instead of the darkness getting longer is a most welcome change.

That rising sunlight is such a welcome relief, even to people who barely notice it, that any holiday that bumps up against it gets caught up in the festive celebration. The actual Hanukkah miracle happened during wartime, and at a grim time in the war; reconcile that with the period of festivity that accompanies Hanukkah now? The birth of Christ is an important milestone in the Christian faith, but the Puritans understood that it was a solemn one; they originally banned Christmas in their new American colonies as too frivolous, feeling that only the celebration of Christ's resurrection, on Easter, deserved to be anywhere near that festive. But the festivities went on, ban or no ban. The Romans were, at least in public, as puritanical and fierce and hierarchical as the Puritans ... but every December 25th their streets ran riot in the festival of misrule, a total inversion of the public order. That feeling of relief that the forthcoming end of winter, while still a long way off to be felt, can be seen is so powerful and overwhelming that no form of Christmas celebration seems outlandish, beyond the pale. Huge family celebration? Absolutely. An endless series of feasts and banquets? Absolutely. Gorge on sweets? You bet. Drink ourselves stupid, even in front of people we ought to be mortified to be seen drunken in front of like our bosses or subordinates? How can we not? It's Christmas! Run up huge debts in a competition of generosity and thoughtfulness, one that we're destined (most of us) to lose but still can't resist? How absolutely appropriate at this time of the year! Descend into total kitsch and clutter in our decor, even in places where strict asceticism and aestheticism normally rule? Lighten up, man, it's Christmas! And speaking of lightening up, compete just as heartily against our neighbors, and against ourselves in past years, to try to outdo all previous displays of festive lights all night? What a great idea! Heck, when I started on my Special Christmas Weirdness essays, someone mentioned that one Christmas when he was a kid they got caught up in a winter storm while out driving and had to have Christmas dinner at White Castle, and from then on White Castle was a family Christmas tradition. If it's at all festive and you do it at Christmas, you're just about guaranteed it will become a Christmas tradition, even if you try to beat that idea to death with a big big stick. Because that visible return of the sun from the south is such a powerful relief that no amount of celebration of it will ever satisfy.

An uncontrollable urge to celebrate sunlight is the reason for the season. Hope you had a Merry Christmas!