(Originally posted in the Stratford Star and Fairfield Sun newspapers on December 22, 2011, in my “Walsh’s Wonderings” column.)
Christmas, with its message of “Peace on earth and goodwill toward man,” has always been my favorite holiday. Unfortunately, it can sometimes bring out the worst in people who forget the reason the holiday exists in the first place.
This ugliness often arises out of minor things like the lighting of Christmas trees or the placement of nativity scenes and menorahs on town property. You’ll read about it in the choice of songs for the middle school chorale concert. You’ll see it in the billboard wars about the authenticity of religion itself between atheist groups and religious organizations. You’ll hear it in the whispered conversations at the water cooler: “I hate when people say, ‘Happy holidays,’ just because they’re too afraid to wish me a Merry Christmas.”
This last one represents a popular refrain from many conservative Christian groups who claim that “they” (whoever “they” are) are “trying to take Christ out of Christmas.” This is a flawed argument at best, mainly because it represents the same ideals of Manifest Destiny that history has come to look upon as both ignorant and arrogant.
To begin with, the Church did not decree the official date of Christmas until the middle of the fourth century, adding another holiday to an already-crowded slate. If anyone should feel their holiday was co-opted, it would be the adherents of Brumalia, an ancient Roman solstice festival honoring the god Bacchus generally held for a month and ending December 25. Gheimhridh was celebrated by Druids and Proto-Celtic tribes at Newgrange as early as 3,200 BCE. Babylonians held an annual renewal celebration, the Zagmuk Festival, that lasted 10 days to observe the sun god Marduk’s battle over darkness. Saturnalia, a Roman feast commemorating the dedication of the temple of Saturn, lasted from December 17 – 23. The Buddhist celebration of Sanghamitta, honoring the Buddhist nun who brought a branch of the Bodhi tree to Sri Lanka, has been held around the winter solstice for over 2,000 years. Polytheistic European tribes celebrated Midvinterblot, a mid-winter-sacrifice, while the Zuni and the Hopitu Indians celebrated Soyal, the winter solstice ceremony held on December 21, the shortest day of the year.
Put simply, Christianity was late to the party. In fact, many customs from pagan Scandinavian and Germanic celebrations of “Yule” in northern Europe (which started on December 25) are present in Christmas traditions. Items like the Christmas tree, the Christmas wreath, holly, mistletoe, and the Yule log were taken right from Yule customs. It’s interesting to note that the Puritans, the very people who colonized America, banned the celebration of Christmas in England before coming here. The crime of observing Christmas was punishable by a fine in the thirteen colonies, and was still not widely celebrated by the time of the Declaration of Independence.
What’s so disappointing is that in almost every culture, this was meant as a time for renewal and hope, a way to connect the community to that which was most important to them. That was the hope of Maulana Karenga, a key figure in the Black Power movement of the 1960’s and 1970’s, when he created the Kwanzaa festival in 1966 as a week-long celebration of African-American heritage and culture. Each night is dedicated to one of the seven principles of African heritage: Unity (Umoja), Self-Determination (Kujichagulia), Collective Work and Responsibility (Ujima), Cooperative Economics (Ujamaa), Purpose (Nia), Creativity (Kuumba), and Faith (Imani).
Twenty-two centuries earlier, Yehuda HaMakabi (“Judah the Hammer”) led a successful revolt against the Seleucid king Antiochus IV. During the re-dedication of the Second Temple in Jerusalem, Judah ordered the Temple cleansed, the altar rebuilt, and the lighting of a menorah—a gold candelabrum whose seven branches (representing knowledge and creation) were to be kept burning each night. Because the Greeks had defiled all the oils, they were left with only enough to burn for a day. Somehow it burned for eight days, long enough to prepare a fresh supply. The Sages of that generation decreed that the 25th of Kislev would begin eight days rejoicing in commemoration of this event, and that the lights be lit in the entrance to their homes to publicize the miracle.
According to the Bible, Jesus’ birth itself was the ultimate expression of God’s love, a testament to His capacity for forgiveness. How ironic, then, that the celebration of this birth is often accompanied by such rancor. Trivializing the true meaning behind these holidays is bad enough; we’ve managed to do a great job of obscuring the poignancy of the celebrations through crass commercialization and willful ignorance. Even worse, however, is that we use this distorted lens to create even more divisions between “the others” and ourselves. When we allow ourselves to be blinded by the twinkling lights atop the candles or the trees, we fail to connect with the purpose of any of these holidays.
A full expression of one’s religious beliefs need not include the condemnation of other schools of thought. Instead, this energy should be poured into fully celebrating that which we hold dear. When we reach out to help others in need during this holiday season, the symbols we wear around our necks don’t matter half as much as the generosity with which we open our hearts. The differences between the methods of expressing our faith mean little compared to importance of the expression itself.
Therefore, it is with the utmost respect and sincerity that I offer you this Irish holiday blessing: “May peace and plenty be the first to lift the latch on your door, and happiness be guided to your home by the candle of Christmas.” I wish you all a happy and healthy holiday season… that is, with the exception of those who are easily offended—they probably won’t have a particularly happy holiday, anyway.