Sunday, December 25, 2011

Merry Saturnalia...I Mean Christmas!

Christmas is probably my favorite holiday.  Sometime around the beginning of December, the world around me is transformed.  Everywhere, there are lovely multicolor lights and ornaments, fragrant evergreen trees and boughs, spicy mulled wine, meats and pies and many other sumptuous Christmas goodies.  There is incense in the air, and everything shimmers gold and silver and red and green--it is, simply, wonderful.  And people everywhere (or most people, anyway) are in a mighty festive mood.

This is why the idiotic “war on Christmas” that Fox News rolls out like a right-wing “best-hits” album year after year is not just tedious and stupid, but also mean and stingy.  What they seem to be saying is:  if you do not accept Jesus Christ as your lord and savior, then (sorry) you can’t legitimately celebrate Christmas (no Christmas trees and presents and pudding for you, heathen!).  The Fox News trolls are horrified and really OFFENDED if you even try to join in the reindeer games at all, sans baby Jesus lying in a manger.  You  better put Jesus Christ right back into Christmas, buster, or else!

It’s as if Christians have a patent on the Christmas tree and St. Nick and all of that.  But just wait a hot second: Christians actually STOLE the holiday from the pagan festival of Saturnalia, which celebrated the winter solstice—the shortest day of the year—and the Persian sun god of Mithra whose birthday was on December 25, and... okay, maybe we should back up a bit.

For all of the mushy-headed Fox viewers out there who take the comical "war on Christmas" meme seriously enough to get worked up over, it is worth pointing out that what is now celebrated as the birthday of Jesus is actually an amalgam of traditions from a pantheon of pagan winter festivals that predate Christianity—after all, the Bible is silent on the date of Christ’s birth, and most biblical scholars place it in the springtime rather than the dead of winter.   Further, early Christians had no tradition of celebrating Christ’s birth—either in winter or the spring.
That Christmas is an incoherent mush should be apparent from the weird collection of icons that are now widely associated with Christmas.  What, in fact, connects Santa Claus and his reindeer with Christmas trees and baby Jesus?  It’s an odd collection of traditions, you must admit, leading to some hilariously silly Christmas lore.  For example, in some parts of Central Europe, Santa Claus and the devil (the terrifying Krampus in Alpine countries) arrive together on December 6 (not Christmas eve) to bring candy for good kids and gold-colored birth branches for bad kids.  In some parts of German-speaking Europe, Baby Jesus Himself (the Christkind) brings presents on December 24.

The fact is that our Christmas traditions are a mix of pagan rituals from winter solstice festivals stretching from ancient Scandinavia to pre-Christian Rome, Persia and Greece.  Why December 25?  Because the ancients--with no understanding of the solar system and frightened about the disappearance of the sun and the death of plants and trees--worshiped sun Gods, believing that they had to appease these Gods in order for springtime and the sun (and the food that brings it) to come again.

For instance, the Norse pagan festival of Yule is likely the source of the Christmas tree.  For ancient north Europeans, evergreen trees (maintaining life year-round) appeared to have mystical life-giving properties.  So they brought evergreen boughs into their homes, later decorating them with silver and gold ornaments.  The Yule log was burned through for 12 days after Christmas.  These were later incorporated into the Christian celebration of the birth of their own sun God, Jesus, whose birthday was decreed to be December 25 by Pope Julius I in 350 AD.  It is widely acknowledged that this date was chosen to compete with, and undermine the popularity of competing festivals by other sun God cults, including the Persian sun God of Mithra and the Roman God of Saturnalia, both on December 25.  Also around this time were celebrations of the Mesopotamian God of Marduk's conquering of the forces of chaos and the Greek God of Zeus' renewed annual battle against the Kronos and the Titans.

The Roman festival of Saturnalia was the immediate progenitor of Christmas.  For centuries, the Romans celebrated a weeks-long Bacchanalian festival of food, sex, wine and raucous behavior in honor of Saturn, the Roman God of agriculture.  The aim was to appease Saturn in order ensure a good harvest for the coming year.  Naked singers went from house to house, thus begetting the tradition of caroling.  Meanwhile, the least favored citizens of the empire were forced to bring offerings to the emperor, thus the tradition of gift-giving.  The celebration expanded from December 25 to a week, as the people of Rome engaged in wild sex orgies, naked drunkenness and random raping for the duration of the official holiday.

Santa Claus is the clearest example of amalgamated pagan solstice festival traditions (with a touch of 20th century commercialism).  Nicholas was the bishop of the town of Myra in Turkey in the 4th century CE (and one of the senior conveners of the Council of Nicaea of 325 CE, which determined what would and would not be included in the Roman Bible).  A cult emerged around his person as someone who brought gifts to the less fortunate residents of the city.  Roman sailors brought the the cult to Italy, and it spread to the north where it was ultimately fused with the feared pagan God of Odin or Wodon—a wizened Norse God who rode his horse in the sky to keep watch on the activities of mortals below.  The Catholic Church merged the Christian crusader myth of Nicholas with Wodon to make Christianity appealing to the Germanic pagans. 

 Thus, the gift-giving, reindeer-riding, North pole-dwelling St. Nicholas was born in the 19th century.  The image of the bright red and white coat came from a 1931 advertising campaign of the Coca Cola company, whose executives insisted on the red and white scheme of Santa, which they hoped would promote the Coca Cola product.  Thus, the modern-day image and story of St. Nicholas.

 Today, Christmas is literally celebrated around the world.  Although the bulk of the celebrations are concentrated in Christian countries, Christmas is celebrated by non-Christians as well.


I took this picture last year during my winter break trip to Southeast Asia.  This is a mall in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, in the famous Petronas towers.  I had never seen more elaborate Christmas decorations or more dedicated Christmas festivities.  Although the country is nominally Muslim, Christmas is actually an official public holiday and celebrated by people everywhere with decorated trees, gift-giving and Santa hats.

If a Muslim (and Hindu and Buddhist and atheist) nation of people celebrates Christmas as a secular holiday, this shows that Christmas truly is, once again, a secular festival.  Non-Christians have borrowed Christmas back from the Christians.  Just as it should be.

Merry Christmas to all, and to all a good night!