Which Christmas?

Christmas is just around the corner, and I of course wish you a merry one. However, it makes me shudder when someone talks about the Christian christmas. Christoper Hitchens expresses some strong argumentns in a recent article The moral and aesthetic nightmare of Christmas, and while I share the sentiment it is not entirely fair to condem it altogether. Not all details fall under the same category.

In the Christian tradition Jesus’ birth is of course the central event but lets look where the other traditions of a Winter-Solstice-type holiday come from.  Most likely it orginates from the germanic pagan winter festival Yule (Jul in swedish) . In turn, Yule may have been influenced by the Roman winter festival Saturnalia where slaves and masters temporarily changed roles and gave each other gifts, although this is not confirmed.

The “Christmas” tree also orginates from Germanic pagan traditions and for this reason such trees are forbidden in some religious denominations. Santa Claus is a figure which has gone through many iterations, including early Christianity in Turkey and, of course, German folklore and pagan traditions. Contrast this with the Swedish tomte (losely meaning hob) which is much more sinister. A tomte is a “spirit” of the farm which helps the masters with the duties. But if you forget his rice pudding and snaps you are supposed to leave him on the yule evening, you can expect a bad year to come. Also, in Sweden christmas gifts have not always been given out of caring, but rather as crude jokes. Small logs with a note mentioning the intended receiver and the joke itself were thrown in after knocking on the door of the home in question.

The point is that Christmas is an evolved tradition which also differs slightly between cultures and countries. Christianity tries to get a free ride of instant an unquestioned respect — as it often does.

Another example is the blending of Halloween, a Celtic feltival, with All Saint’s Day, conveniently moved by Pope Boniface IV in 609 ad. So while saying Christmas is a Christian tradition is not completely wrong it is still somewhat dishonest.

I celebrate a secular christmas, one where you spend time with friends and family, eat good (and too much) food, and have a good time. Now, keep that religion away from me, thank you.

3 Responses

  1. My head is still thick with cold medicaments and lineaments. But I had two thoughts/anecdotes to pass along with merry wishes for everyone’s Hanukkah/Xmas/Festivus celebrations.

    -First, one year as someone was lamenting the commercialization and materialism of Christmas, my brother, Commandant Skarpowsky, exclaimed, “The materialism is one of the best parts of Christmas.” At bottom, I think there’s a Christmas sentiment that can’t be argued with on philosophical grounds.

    -Second, while decorating the tree this year with Mini-Skarpowsky XX lineage A, I was trying to explain what a manger was–she had selected a manger ornament. She kept calling it a house. So I started into a simplistic explanation of what a manger was, and why some people think that baby Jesus was born there and how they believe this or that, etc….. before I could get 3 sentences in, I had to quit. I agreed with her. “That’s right,” I said,”it’s a house”

  2. Roger, I wish you a completely secular winter holiday with great food and great company.

    Brain, I am in an intensive (friendly) rivalry with my sister over Christmas tree decorations. In consumerist (but not philosophical) materialist terms, our trees may be categorized by department store aesthetics: hers is a real tree, with tiny white lights, elegant ivory and gold porcelain ornaments, and no tinsel. My tree looks like the after Christmas sale at KMart exploded in our living room. We have a 15 year old fake tree, with clashing multicolored lights, a lopsided distribution of tinsel, and a lot of bent ornaments made of tin foil, construction paper, styrofoam and macaroni sprayed with gold paint; thanks to my descendants’ years in preschool and elementary school. May your children grow to adorn your tree with homemade ornaments. (And someday, my sister’s children will come home with tin foil ornaments, and then her aesthetic reckoning will come . . . BWA hahahahaaaaaaaaa!)

  3. Anna, I would love your tree!

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