True Christmas

Apparently the word “christmas” is a portmanteau of two words: Christ and mass for “Christ’s mass” or a Catholic church service celebrating the person of Christ, commonly called Jesus. Also, I’ve heard if you rearrange the words in Santa you get Satan, and both are sometimes seen as the enemy of Christ.

This is an essay about the phenomenon of Christmas, as I understand it, and some of the controversies that arise about Christmas every year in American popular culture. If that isn’t your cup of hot chocolate, feel free to stop reading and wait for my next treatise. Otherwise, let’s continue.

I think it is interesting that the color red is associated with Christmas, as it is also associated with the devil, who is depicted in paintings and other representations as wearing a red suit. You know who else wears a red suit? Santa “Satan” Claus. Coincidence? Probably. You see, I doubt anyone was paying close attention to things like that when they were designing Christmas iconography.

Santa, while having roots in Sinterklaas, a Dutch St. Nicholas who put gifts into children’s wooden shoes, and the 280 A.D. St. Nicholas of what is today Turkey, is actually more of a modern creation. The current vision of Santa Claus comes from the 1820’s in the United States when the poem “A Visit from St. Nicholas” was published and a popular image of the saint (santa being Spanish for a feminine saint, by the way – as in Santa Fe) was drawn. One hundred years later, in the early 1930’s, the song “Santa Claus is Coming to Town” was recorded, thus cementing the idea of Santa Claus as we know him in American culture.

What does this have to do with Christianity? Almost nothing, except that the basis of Santa, the St. Nicholases, were Catholic saints who helped poor children have food, clothing, and money during the cold winter months of Europe and West Asia. It certainly has nothing to do with organized Protestant religions. Nowhere in the Bible is such a figure represented, for example, though Christ certainly demands that his followers care for the orphan and the widow on multiple occasions, so the spirit of the saints may be Christian.

I’ve mentioned several times the association between Santa and Satan, which may seem weird given the history of Santa as a saint, but that is because Santa is vilified in certain Christian circles as the enemy of True Christmas. True Christmas, you see, has been and always was, about the birth of Christ, which occurred on, or near about, the 25th of December in a manger in Bethlehem as foretold by the Hebrew prophets. At least, that is the story many cling to. There are other Christian explanations for why we have a Christmas tree, and other common Christmas decor and trappings. (The tree representing the wood of the cross on which Jesus was destined to die to save the world from their sins, for example.)

But scholars put the birth of Christ near enough to September as to render part of that argument moot. So why the December rituals? Pagan winter solstice celebrations surrounding the Germanic/Norse god Odin, the All Father. The Catholic church had a unique way of conquering new geographic areas for religious purposes: they would very cleverly co-opt local deities and festivals, give them Christian names or associate them with Christian saints or events, and call the work of converting the locals complete. After building a few churches and making mass attendance mandatory under threat of punishment, the Catholic church suddenly had hundreds or thousands of new members (and lots more tithes for their coffers). Yule was a Germanic ritual holiday feast that occurred in mid-winter. Odin, the All Father, was lord of the feast. Call Odin “God” and Yuletide “Christmastide” and voila you have new converts and a new Christmas holiday.

Christmas is based on Catholic imperialism and pagan ritual. Jesus wasn’t born anywhere near December. The symbols of Christmas are purloined from local festivals. Where then is True Christmas? It seems that True Christmas is the myth and Santa and Christmas are the real reasons for the season.

With that paragraph I have enraged an entire swath of the Christian population that hold to their dearest of holidays with great reverence. You see, True Christmas, once again, has been and always will be solely about the birth of Christ come to redeem us from our sins and eternal death in hell, according to them. “Merry Christmas” is no mere greeting, it is a holy incantation meant to hallow the season. That is why these Christians are so enraged when someone, or an organization, fails to wish them “Merry Christmas” and instead substitutes “Happy Holidays” or “Season’s Greetings”. In fact, the simple act of trying to avoid offense greatly offends them.

America has been and hopefully always will be a pluralistic society. It was founded with the key goal of religious freedom, so that Catholics and Protestants and Methodists and Orthodox (and whoever else) could worship freely. That is what some of the Pilgrims were escaping in Europe after all – religious persecution. Therefore, in today’s America, recognizing that the stranger who orders a coffee in your local Starbucks may be a Christian, or a Wicca, or a Muslim, or a devout Jew and may be celebrating Christmas, the Winter Solstice, Hanukkah, or no holiday at all, some people choose to avoid the scandal of “which greeting is correct for your religion” and instead substitute a generic, secular greeting. Recognizing, quite correctly after all, that Christmas has nothing to do with religion whatsoever, especially in 2015, in fact “Happy Holidays” or “Season’s Greetings” becomes the appropriate greeting.

Starbucks this year, which has traditionally used a red cup with generic holiday imagery to celebrate the fall and winter holidays, has decided to use no imagery at all and has apparently instructed their employees not to say “Merry Christmas” and has therefore come under fire from Christians who celebrate True Christmas for taking the “Christ out of Christmas” and perpetuating a cultural “War on Christmas”. These are the same Christians that become outraged when a public Nativity scene is removed from public property or when a Christmas tree is called a holiday tree and really the list goes on. They say that maintaining a Christmas without the True Christmas Christ is akin to blasphemy and they don’t care that they share an America with those of many faiths or no faith at all. This is why they also, traditionally, dislike the saintly Saint Nick. In their view, Santa Claus takes away from the central position of the baby Jesus in the manger in Bethlehem.

The reality, as I’ve said, is that America is a secular, pluralistic nation. You are free to create a Christmas holiday that is about the birth of Christ and celebrate it however feels appropriate, but that does not come with an inherent right to force others to celebrate your Christmas. By failing to wish you your preferred greeting, persecution or war is not being levied. This is simply America being America. Furthermore, you can create a Christmas holiday that is about the birth of Christ, but that doesn’t make it historical or Biblical. In fact, the Biblical Jesus, I believe, would have Christians emulate Father Christmas and care for the orphan and the widow and as widely as possible give food, clothing, and money to those less fortunate. That, in my view, is the True Christmas one should fight for, not Christmas iconography on disposable coffee cups or the cashier saying “Merry Christmas”.

With that in mind, I wish you Happy Holidays. Thanks for reading.

Remember, Remember or What Guy Fawkes Day Means to Me

Today is the fifth of November, and you might hear, or see people on social media sites quoting from the film V for Vendetta or the graphic novel it was based on or the old traditional Guy Fawkes rhymes “remember, remember, the fifth of November, gunpowder treason and plot. I know of no reason why the gunpowder treason should ever be forgot” and the history that it was based on.

That history is Guy Fawkes Day, which in short, is a commonwealth holiday that celebrates the failed plot to assassinate King James I in 1605 by one Guy Fawkes of the Gunpowder Plot. Whatever the original reasons Fawkes and his cronies had for killing the English monarch, it is clear that his failed plot’s celebration means more to people today, and more to me, than just a failed murder.

I abhor violence, and don’t believe in death as a way to move a social agenda forward so I might be called a traditionalist when it comes to the celebration of a failed assassination. In fact, my introduction to the world of Guy Fawkes and the “fifth of November” cult that has grown up around him comes through the film V for Vendetta. In the film, a future Britain is controlled by a totalitarian regime that has become, or perhaps always was, evil and that government is taken down by a man in a Guy Fawkes-esque mask known only as V.

It is a wonderful film, and I suppose its primary message is “People should not be afraid of their governments, governments should be afraid of their people” but I am no revolutionary, at least not one of swords and drums and guns. Indeed, if there is a quote from the film that sums me up, in so much as a film quote can, it is this one: “Ideas are bulletproof.”

The protagonist of the film, Evie Hammond, a small, frightened girl who becomes a patriot afire for the cause under the tutelage of V, says that one “cannot kiss an idea, cannot touch it, or hold it; ideas do not bleed, they do not feel pain, they do not love” and while all that certainly sounds true it isn’t quite accurate. Evie is speaking of the man behind the ideas, her Guy Fawkes that she loves, and how her love for him is more real to her than his ideas are and I think she misses the point of her own drama.

Ideas do not die. Ideas can change the world. All the women and men who have ever fought for an idea have died forgotten. We do not remember their names. We only remember why they fought, why they died. I know nothing about the real Guy Fawkes, all I know is his idea: that one could change the world through gunpowder, treason, and plot. And while he ultimately failed, people still believe that to this day. That idea is pervasive and powerful.

I believe that ideologies and ideas are more powerful than puny bombs and bullets. I believe that one day we will lay aside weapons of mass destruction as a means of advancing ideas and instead fight directly with words. Words cannot be stopped by force. Words endure the death of the speaker. Words shape ideas. Words are remembered.

That is what I do, each fifth of November: I remember. I remember the ideas that have come before me, that inspire me, that challenge me. I may not remember who first generated the idea, or why they died, but I do remember the words they used to articulate that idea. I remember the words they used to advance that idea.

And I try, just as they did, to articulate my own ideas with words. It is likely no one may remember me, but there is a chance they will remember my words, and my ideas. My ideas that love triumphs over hate, that prejudice and fear are transitory and that acceptance and unity will win the day. That reaching for something is just as important as grasping it. That moving forward will always trump moving backwards. That every inch is just as far as  a mile. That ideas are bulletproof.

So today, remember, remember the fifth of November and remember the ideas that created today, and generate some ideas that will create a better tomorrow.