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.