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December 03, 2004

Christmas...a holiday for everyone, from everyone?

Here is a short but informative article on the various Christmas traditions and their likely origins in paganism. Assertions like "Jesus is the reason for the season" are obviously contextual. I am well aware that some Christians, in particular Catholics, make a case that Christ-centered Christmas predates the declaration of Natalis Sol Invictus (birth of the Victorious Sun) by the emperor Aurelian in the late 3rd century on December 25th, but I tend to be sympathetic to the idea that "Christmas" is an absorption by the early Church of a nearly universal European pagan holidy. If not, it seems an example of the stealth-paganization of a Christian holiday. The book Europe, was it ever really Christian?: The interaction between gospel and culture by Dutch Reformed thinker Atonie Wessels explores many of the "pagan" practices indulged in by the European peasantry prior to the spread of mass literacy and evangelical faith with the Reformation (even Christmas cookies have pagan antecedants!). Though Wessels' thesis is not totally persuasive (he clearly is one of those Protestant thinkers who believes Roman Catholicism a failed syncretistic experiment, though he does not from what I recall explicitly voice this opinion) he assembles a wide and deep catalog of heterodox practices, folkways and beliefs that cloud our concepts of what particular rituals and symbols truly mean.

The modern PC de-Christianization of Christmas (a transmutation into the more generic "Holidays") is rather wrong-headed in that the holiday has always had many faces. Rather than stripping bare & sterilizing dominant traditions those who have little interest in creches & carols can choose to emphasize other aspects of Christmas, that is, promote diversity rather than try and impose deracinated homogeneity. While some moderns fear the Christianity in Christmas many Protestant sects have been suspicious of what seems plain naked heathenism associated with the holiday's rituals and so it comes as no surprise that groups like the Puritans banned the festival so as to blot out a dollop of the paganism of old from their stern faith. They failed, and that should teach us something.

Posted by razib at 04:30 AM