Tonight is Christmas Eve, where across this country and in many parts of the world families will gather around a tree festooned with decorations and lights, and children will hope they’ve been good enough. The stockings will be hung, and gifts arrayed under the tree, ready to be opened. Families will cook and relax and share time together in a holiday that bears the name of Christianity’s founder, but in practice carries on traditions that have little or nothing to do with Christ himself.
Christians co-opted the winter solstice time by overlaying the story of the Nativity onto ancient traditions. But the traditional story of the Three Wise Men, the virgin birth, the manger and the baby who was sent to redeem humanity has simply been plopped down in the middle of a confusing mishmash of world traditions involving Romans, Celts, Jewish persecution, pagans and seasonal debauchery.
This editorial is not simply one more chapter in the “War On Christmas”, which has been an on-again, off-again chimera of the season for more than a decade. That war is a fiction. A modern interpretation of Christmas, however, must move beyond the treacle of Hollywood and attempt to figure out how to assimilate it all into one narrative. Because today’s Christmas, for all its commercialism, has moved beyond the worst of the traditions of the past.
Those questionable traditions start with the Romans and the pagans, for whom this time of year lined up with Winter Solstice — the midpoint of the winter, when the shortening days finally begin to grow longer again, and people found reason to celebrate that changeover.
In Roman times, this time on the calendar was the time of Saturnalia — a period of lawlessness and celebration featuring intoxication and singing while running nude through the streets, as well as other, more sinister activities.
Early Christians used the existing custom of Saturnalia to draw pagans into the faith by enshrining Dec. 25 as the day of Christ’s birth (Although historical estimates of his birth vary widely, it’s almost certain it is not the actual day of his birth. It’s also unclear whether he was even born in the year 1.). As there were no holiday traditions associated with Christ’s birth at that point, many of the saturnalian customs endured — running naked through the streets became the modern caroling tradition; debaucherous drinking and partying became... well, holiday parties and gatherings.
This tradition, which continued through the Middle Ages and into the modern day, was often not Christ-like in nature, as the occasion has many times been used by Christians from the Pope on down to persecute Jews. Where the saturnalian tradition called for a human sacrifice, Christians of many eras turned that into an excuse to parade Jews through the streets to be subject to abuse and worse.
Some American Christians did not like the melding of Christ’s birth with the holiday’s pagan origins. Boston’s Rev. Increase Mather wrote in 1687 that “the early Christians who first observed the Nativity on December 25 did not do so thinking that Christ was born in that Month, but because the Heathens’ Saturnalia was at that time kept in Rome, and they were willing to have those Pagan Holidays metamorphosed into Christian ones.”
This perspective led the Puritans to ban the observance of Christmas in Massachusetts for much of the latter half of the 1600s. But the tradition continued, picking up more parts and pieces of other solstice traditions along the way, which were cleaned up for common consumption.
St. Nicholas was transitioned through multiple cultures into the current “Santa Claus”. The original St. Nick was a Turkish bishop who helped assemble what became the New Testament — he also helped brand Jews as “children of the devil,” and blamed them for Christ’s death. From these origins, his identity was laundered into pagan traditions in Italy and then in Celtic culture in what became modern-day Germany, until he emerged as a white-bearded demi-god who delivered gifts from a flying horse. His original identity was further protected by the modern addition of a sleigh, reindeer, chimney access and a jolly personality.
Christmas gifts, a saturnalian practice at the beginning, were also brought under the friendly umbrella of St. Nick. Christmas trees are an offshoot of a pagan deity worship, when people would ascribe god-like qualities to trees, and bring them into their homes to worship.
So much of what we celebrate at this time of year is wrapped up in myth and conjecture. The story of Christ is redeeming, and the Solstice is a worthy waypoint in the doldrums of winter. But at the least we should agree that a modern concept of Christmas — one of acceptance, goodwill and kindness toward all — should carry us forward from here.