December 19, 2005

What IS the reason for the season?

A new phrase became popular (in some Christian circles, at least) about a decade ago: "Jesus is the reason for the season." I started seeing this plastered across shopping bags (from Christian stores that were capitalizing on the commercialism of Christmas) and this year I've heard my daughters singing a song by that title that they apparently
learned in Sunday School. But is Jesus really the reason for the season?

The holiday currently referred to as Christmas actually began long before the Christ was born for whom the mass is said. The winter solstice has long been a cause for celebration, not only because it marks the beginning of longer days, but it was also the time when many farm animals were slaughtered and their meat preserved for the winter (as it was far more cost effective to turn them into meat than to try to feed them through a long, hard winter).

In Scandinavia, the Norse celebrated Yule from the end of December until the beginning of January. The men would find the largest logs they could and, after hauling them back to the village, would set
them ablaze. The citizens would then party for as long as the log burned, sometimes for as long as 12 days (hence the 12 days of Christmas).

In Germany, many believed that the god Oden would fly overhead at night determining who would prosper and who would perish in the coming year ("gonna find out who's naughty and nice").

The Romans celebrated for an entire month each winter, honoring the god Saturn in a festival called Saturnalia. During that time food and drink was plentiful, the poor were treated as royalty with the rich waiting on them, and gifts were given.

Many upper class Romans also celebrated the birth of Mithras, god of the unconquerable sun, on December 25th. This was often considered to be the most important holiday of the year. The emperor
Constantine was said to be a follower of Mithra before his supposed conversion to Christianity.

There is no where in the Bible that states what day Jesus was born, nor that it should be celebrated by his followers. Though Jesus commanded his disciples to remember his death and resurrection (which takes place every Easter (Btw, Easter is the name of an Anglo-Saxon goddess.) as well as with every serving of communion), he never spoke of his birth as an item of note.

The first evidence of a Christian feast of the Nativity (which is what Christmas was called before it was called Christmas) is found in 200 AD in Egypt, and was celebrated in spring (at times in either March, April or May). In time, Christians were celebrating the Nativity on many different days, most on the same day as the feast of the Epiphany, January 6th. But in the 380's AD, Chrysostom gave a
sermon in which he argued that December 25th was the most appropriate day for the celebration and apparently the church fathers agreed. Christmas wasn't called by that name until some time in the middle ages (some say as late as 1810) when Christ Mass was contracted.

In the early 17th century, the rise of Oliver Cromwell and the Puritans led to an abrupt about face concerning the celebration of the Nativity. Generally a time of raucous debauchery, the Puritans
outlawed it entirely. The pilgrims brought this attitude with them when they came to the Americas and from 1659 to 1681, Christmas was outlawed in Boston. Even in other parts of the country, Christmas
was seen as an English holiday and not celebrating Christmas was a sign of independence. Eventually that mindset eased and on June 26, 1870, Christmas was declared to be a national holiday.

Over the next 135 years, Christmas has continued to morph and change, keeping the gift giving it inherited from Saturnalia, as well as the holly and mistletoe from pagan fertility rituals, but adding on a
distinctly American component as well -- Santa Claus as we know him today, a rolly polly man in fluffy red and white vestments. The Christmas that most Americans celebrate today is a well blended series of pagan rituals with a dab of "Christian meaning" tossed in.

That's certainly not to say that Christmas can't still be a meaningful time for Christians. Recognizing that God would be willing to take on human flesh for mankind's sake is definitely a cause for
celebration. But at the same time, for Christians to get in a huff that some stores would hang signs saying "Happy Holidays" rather than "Merry Christmas" is akin to early Romans who might have
complained that their celebration of Mithra was being co-opted by some odd group of monotheists (also referred to as atheists since they had no pantheon of gods).

So go out and find the largest log you can and throw it on the fire. Kill the fatted calf and pour the ale. Hang the mistletoe and string the evergreens about the house. Give gifts and make merry, for tomorrow is SaturnaliaJuvenalia, Yule, the birth of Mithra, the Feast of the Nativity, Christmas!!!