Not deferential enough: Holidays versus Christmas

Posted Wednesday, December 21, 2011 in Opinion

Not deferential enough: Holidays versus Christmas

This adorable Santa and baby Jesus, I think we can all agree, was probably historically inaccurate.

by Gina Hamilton

The annual brouhaha about Happy Holidays versus Merry Christmas is on, and what better time to discuss it than the on first night of Hanukkah and the eve of the winter solstice?

Growing up, our family was Catholic, nominally.  That is to say, we were 'Cultural Catholics'.  We celebrated Christmas and went to midnight mass, showed up to be ritually ashed on Ash Wednesday, attended sunrise Easter service, and aside from that (except for us kids who went through the whole shebang, from Christening to Communion to Confirmation) Catholicism served (quite well, as it turns out) as a way to keep from being prostlytized by those of other faiths.  Tell anyone ... from Jehovah's Witnesses to the typical Baptist ... that you're Catholic and they leave you alone.  But I digress.

Of course, Christmas doesn't have its true origins at this time of year. The birth of the child who would later be called Jesus of Nazareth, still much later Jesus Christ, according to the accounts in the Bible, would have probably taken place in the spring.  (Shepherds only hang out in the fields overnight during lambing season, according to knowledgable sources.)  The date of the Nativity (and of all the related feast and fast days that are tied to it, such as the Feast of the Annunciation, the Epiphany, and Advent Sundays) were established by the Church in the fourth century, mostly to counter a rather fun and riotous celebration already going on in Rome around the time of the winter solstice, called Saturnalia, in which gifts of toys were given to children, parties were held, fruit baskets were sent to friends, and people got new clothes. Sound vaguely familiar? In other regions of the world, people celebrated the return of the Sun too with bonfires and Yule logs.  The early Church felt that co-opting a holiday was probably easier than starting a new one of their own, and anyhow, they didn't want the nativity mixed up with Easter in any way. Trying to place it at the historically correct time would undoubtedly run into issues with Easter from time to time.

Easter, of course, is the first Sunday after the first full moon after the spring equinox.  What little pagans we all are, really.

Therefore, most of the symbols of the holiday -- from trees to mistletoe to noisemakers to gifts -- are not really symbols of Christmas per se, but of earlier pagan celebrations of everlasting life on Earth that were simply stolen by the Church.  Even some of the nominally Catholic ones ... the virgin birth, the ascending star, the knitting of the god's nature to man by natural birth ... are pagan ideas that have their origins in now-dead religions that preceded Christianity by thousands of years.

So first of all, it seems a little odd that anybody cares about these symbols as denoting this, or another religion.  Why not have a nativity scene in a public park? Does anyone really care? Half of the imagery is pagan anyhow.  But it's a little more understandable, since the modern 'nativity' is probably more Christian than not, that those who are attempting to keep a bright wall of separation between church and state would object.  Speaking as a former Catholic who is now an unbeliever but who goes to mass with older relatives and has a nativity set at home (which we call the Jesus, Mary and Joseph action figures, rather blasphemously, I admit) as well as a Christmas tree, a Christmas Village, Santas, reindeer, assorted nutcrackers and angels, as well as a lovely menorah given to me by a dear friend in whose remembrance I light it every year), it would not annoy me one bit if the City of Bath decided to put up a nativity scene in Library Park.  Or a giant menorah.  Or Kwanzaa gourds.  Or a Bodisattva statue to celebrate the Buddha's day of enlightment.  Or whatever the Muslim Eid symbols are.  To me, it's all a merry floor show, and I'd be happy to celebrate them all.

But when people get upset about whether someone wishes them 'happy holidays' or 'season's greetings' versus 'merry Christmas', I am really tempted to slap them.

People, these things are the emotional equivalent of 'have a nice day'.  No harried store clerk CARES whether you really have a 'merry Christmas', or indeed, whether you are in fact a Christian, a Cultural Catholic, a Jew,  an unbeliever, or what.  They don't have the energy or the time to worry about it.  All they know is that you are there, buying something, and that there is a line of 15 people behind you, and wouldn't it be nice if they could take a break sometime before the end of the year?

So stop making an issue of it. It's a mere pleasantry. Be polite. Respond with 'you too' or 'Merry Christmas' or something benignly seasonal.  Or fer crissake, just say 'thank you' if you can't manage to respond nicely.

For most people, Christmas (regardless of religious affiliation) is a time to hope for peace, enjoy together-time with family and friends, buy stuff we know our family and friends want or need but would never buy for themselves, eat too much, decorate the house with trees, mistletoe, holly, and nativity scenes to celebrate life, and with bright lights to ward off everlasting darkness, go to or give parties, and, if we are thinking a-rightly, to help those less fortunate.  Yes, a church service might play a role in that, but in the 21st century, it plays an increasingly minor role.  Christ isn't the 'reason for the season' ... nor, if we are honest, is the Birth of the Invincible Sun, even though the winter solstice is a definite fact.  December has become a time to exchange our normal harried lives for another temporarily harried life, have fun, make other people happy, and fatten ourselves up for the winter ahead. 

And if we can all manage just to do that, why, we've done good.  Merry Christmas, happy holidays, and season's greetings.  And if you're in the vicinity of Turning Tide Cottage around 7 p.m. on Boxing Day (which is the day after Christmas), drop in for our annual swellegant soiree (this year, we're making Chinese food) and a glass of punch, and say hello to our new puppy.  Honestly, we'd love to have you.  If you need directions, just call.

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