Friday, November 15, 2013

Taking Christ out of Christmas

While researching this post, I discovered that many Christians are "fighting" to keep Christ in Christmas. Seems like a strange cause to champion considering Christmas originally had nothing to do with Jesus or Christianity.

The evolution of Christmas from pagan Mardi Gras to religious holy-day is an intriguing story. Christmas, like all ideas borne of human minds, falls within the sphere of meme theory. Its popularity has waxed and waned. It has competed against some memes, merged with others, and adapted to survive.

Christmas didn't start with Christ. It existed in other guises long before Jesus came around and it didn't start up in its Christianized form until 300 years after his death. Selecting December 25 as Jesus' birthday was a pivotal decision made by humans for social, political, and economical reasons. Ancient sources are quite clear. Jesus' birthday was a topic of great debate for the early Christians. Doesn't help that the Bible is shockingly vague on the topic. And what hints we do find in the Bible tend to contradict the December 25 hypothesis.

Why did early Christians decide on that specific date if there is no evidence to support it? The answer is tied to another holiday that originates in the Roman republic long before Jesus was ever conceived, though I suppose some people will argue that he was always conceived in his father's mind.

Anyways. Let's talk about Christmas' drunk uncle, Saturnalia.

Saturnalia, aka Best Christmas Party Ever

Long before the birth of Jesus, intrepid Romans created what is possibly the greatest holiday conceivable.  Imagine if Mardi Gras and Carnival had a baby together and decided to raise it in Las Vegas.

Saturnalia started on December 17th with the closing of the courts and culminated on December 23rd, the winter solstice and birthday of the Roman sun-god Sol Invictus. During this time, gambling and dicing, typically frowned upon in Roman society, were allowed and encouraged; slaves were served by their masters and given temporary freedom; marital bonds were shattered; togas were cast aside in favour of colourful outfits which were otherwise considered poor taste; everyone wore masks.

The Roman poet Horace called it "December liberty." It was a time for leveling the playing field. Noblemen and slaves partied side by side as equals, protected by anonymity and the good grace of Saturn, god of agriculture.

Oh, and there were orgies. Lots of orgies.

December 23 marked Sigillaria, a day of gift-giving. Sound familiar? The season's greeting, Io Saturnalia, also bears heavy resemblance to our own "merry Christmas." Christianity took root and flourished in the Roman empire, where Saturnalia originated and was widely celebrated. During the 300 years between Christ's death and the appearance of Christmas, it's hard to believe that Christians--the bulk of which were former pagans--weren't heavily influenced by Saturnalia.

Saturnalia wasn't all about liberty and gift-giving though. There's talk of human sacrifices taking place. My favourite story is that Romans, at the onset of the festivities, elected a "King of Saturnalia." For the duration of Saturnalia, this person was honoured at feasts and banquets. He hosted parties and issued capricious commands ("You, over there: dance naked on the table!") that were obeyed without question.

Sounds rad, right?

Except at the end of the week, the "King" was sacrificed to Saturn. As in, brutally murdered in public. This hasn't been concretely proven so take it with a grain of salt. Whether true or not, there are clear social benefits to such a tradition. People would certainly be inclined toward kindness if they believed they might be elected as the King of Saturnalia next year.

So how did Christ, who died for our sins, get involved with a pagan festival composed primarily of sinning?

The First Christmas

The first mention of December 25 as Jesus' birthday appears in the fourth century CE, well after the death of Christ. What prompted this move? Did someone discover evidence regarding Jesus' birthday? Actually, no. As it turns out, his birthday was as much a mystery then as it was shortly after his death.

Claiming December 25 as Christ's birth was a business decision, not a revelation. Remember that Christianity's primary goal has always been to convert the heathens. In an effort to ease the transition from pagan to Christian, early church-leaders decided to steal Sol Invictis' birthday and make it their own. They also allowed converts to celebrate Christmas as they had celebrated Saturnalia with one exception: rather than pay homage to Saturn, the Roman god of agriculture, they were to honour Christ instead.

It may be difficult for us to understand how such an obvious lie took root and managed to persist for so long. First we must remember that gods were very real back then. People took their existence as matter-of-fact. For Romans in the fourth century, the jump from Osiris-worship to Christianity was more of a hop, the modern-day equivalent of switching cable providers. They weighed the pros and cons, then made a decision.

By transposing Christian imagery onto Saturnalia, early church-leaders eliminated the biggest obstacle to conversion. Adapting Christianity to Saturnalia was the incentive many pagans needed to make the switch. The spread of Christianity throughout the known world was greatly facilitated by its willingness to adapt to the times. The invention of Christmas is a perfect illustration of this.

So What?

I respect Christmas' ability to morph and adopt the traits of its competitors in order to survive. The end result of its evolution isn't pretty, though. It resembles Frankenstein, a monster made of mismatched parts. Some of the parts are valuable and worthwhile; other parts should be hacked off. The Christian mythology of Christmas, as appealing as it may be, is a lie.

Let's amputate this unsightly appendage. Let's dispel the Christian myth and at least accept this holiday for what it truly is.

40 days until Krissmuss.
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