What Today’s Americans Need to Know about Xmas
by Tom Flynn
Back in 1993, I wrote a book called The Trouble With Christmas. In part, I did it to explain how the variegated cultural train wreck known as some people’s favorite winter holiday came to be.
In the process of researching and writing the book, I learned that “O Little Town of Bethlehem” and “The House of the Rising Sun” have the same metrical structure; one can be sung to the other’s tune. On a more serious side, I also learned that the modern Hallowe’en, Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s all descend from the same ancient northern European holiday, sharing more elements in common than most people suspect. The old English tradition of wassailing reappears in American trick-or-treating, except that the costumed beggars are younger and (usually) not drunk. And no wonder Thanksgiving and Christmas dinner are celebrated in millions of homes using the same menu!
America’s dominant holiday season is almost upon us. That’s good news for coroners, as it happens. Did you know that more people die from heart disease on Christmas Day, New Year’s Day, and Canada’s Boxing Day than any other dates on the calendar? Let’s hear it for January, which – perhaps not coincidentally – is the biggest month each year for credit card delinquencies. January also sees each year’s greatest month-to-month jump in the suicide rate.
Personally, I’ve been boycotting Christmas since 1984. So this marks my twenty-fifth year “Yule Free.” I think of it as my Silver Anti-versary. To my mind, if Jesus Christ is not your savior, Christmas is not your holiday. Nor do I observe any of those fuzzy "halfway holidays" like the Winter Solstice.
For me, Christmas is precisely just another day. On Friday, December 25, I’ll be behind my desk at the Center for Inquiry / Transnational in Amherst, New York. There’ll be few interruptions; I’ll get a lot done. Though it is sometimes difficult to find somewhere to go for lunch!
What does a modern, more-or-less secular American need to know about Christmas? For starters, the observance is nowhere near as old as most people think it is. In 1653, the Puritans assumed control of England; their leader, the religious fanatic Oliver Cromwell, became the head of state. The Puritans disdained Christmas on religious grounds, and made a totalitarian effort to eradicate Christmas across the land. Sadly, it didn’t last. By 1661, the monarchy was restored and Christmas roared back. Yet while under the Puritan boot, the holiday had sustained injuries that would eventually prove fatal.
After the euphoria of the Restoration subsided, the English Christmas celebration began to falter. In fact, the ancient feast observed since medieval days literally died out between 1790 and 1820. The entire English-speaking world became Yule-free. Researchers reviewing December 25th issues of the Times of London from the early 1800s could find no mention that anything out of the ordinary was going on!
The holiday Christians celebrate doesn’t go back 2000 years, or even 500 years. It is a revival – perhaps more accurately, a re-animation – that only took form in England and the U. S. during the Victorian era.
And I mean “England and the U. S.” This brings us to the second thing modern, cosmopolitan Americans need to know about Christmas. The celebration America embraces it is not a universal Western holiday, not even a broadly European holiday. Our Christmas is narrowly Anglo-American. Foreign traditions like the German tannenbaum could enter the Yuletide canon only as they were refracted through the preoccupations of a startlingly small number of English-speaking Victorians.
How small? That brings us to the third thing modern Americans need to know about their favorite holiday. Without the personal, if sometimes accidental, contributions of just six eminent Victorians, contemporary Christmas would not have the form it has today. Who were these people?
The first culprit was Washington Irving, who wrote a fanciful history of the Dutch colonizers of New York City. Irving made all sorts of outrageous claims about what the New Amsterdam Dutch used to do at Christmas time – including their children’s supposed fascination with a legendary character named Sinter Claes. This was satire, but later generations took it all seriously, as though, centuries from now, archaeologists might find a trove of Daily Show episodes and use them to reconstruct a history of the health care reform debate.
In other words, today's figure of Santa Claus did not develop out of a real tradition. It grew out of a misunderstood satire of a tradition -- an ironic heritage, to say the least.
Our second culprit was Charles Dickens. In his novel The Pickwick Papers, Dickens described an “old-fashioned English Christmas” of a type that never really existed. Dickens could never have experienced that kind of “traditional Christmas” in his own youth, because no one in England celebrated Christmas that way when Dickens was a youth. Instead, Dickens projected back onto an idealized past a Christmas celebration such as was only then taking shape in his own day. Generations of writers and artists would learn from this to package newly-made holiday practices in false nostalgia, as though they were venerable at their birth.
Dickens also gave us A Christmas Carol and Ebenezer Scrooge, who just became three-dimensional this year. All told, Charles Dickens did more than any other human to dress Christmas in Victorian garb and bring the moribund festival back to life.
Our next culprit is England's Queen Victoria. Like other monarchs in her line, she married a German royal. Prince Albert brought with him the Christmas tree, already popular in Germany. But remember, nothing became part of Anglo-American Christmas until the English or Americans made it their own. In 1848 the Illustrated London News showed Victoria, Albert, and their family gathered around a scrawny four-foot tree on a Buckingham Palace tabletop. The English idolized the young Victoria, much as they later would the Lady Diana, and the very next Christmas saw trees in millions of English households that had never displayed them before. The next year, the fad jumped the Atlantic and quickly spread nationwide.
Next is Clement C. Moore, author of "The Night Before Christmas." This 1832 poem borrowed much of its description of Santa Claus from Washington Irving, made up the rest, and largely completed our contemporary image of Santa.
Our fifth culprit: Thomas Nast, an illustrator for the magazine Harper's Weekly. Nast’s cross-hatched cartoons gave us much of the iconography we associate with nineteenth century America. For example, Nast designed both the Democratic donkey and the Republican elephant. Between 1862 and 1886 Nast gave Santa his definitive appearance, his North Pole workshop, his big book of good and bad children, his first telephone, and much, much more.
The sixth and last Victorian without whom Christmas wouldn’t be what it is journalist Francis Church. On September 21, 1897, eight-year-old Virginia O'Hanlon wrote to the New York Sun, asking whether there was a Santa Claus. Church responded, "Yes, Virginia," and off he went, slamming together Christian mysticism, and nineteenth-century Transcendentalism, odd Romantic touches – some of them quite odd – all yoked to a snarling distrust of scientific objectivity. Newspapers often quote parts of “Yes, Virginia,” while omitting other parts. One deathless Frank Church sentence that ought to get more attention today: “Not believe in Santa Claus! You might as well not believe in fairies!”
With "Yes, Virginia," Frank Church crafted a masterpiece of doublespeak. But he was only trying to make a deadline. How could he know that generations of parents would mismanage their children's first suspicions about Santa Claus according to the idiotic guidelines he offered?
That completes our roster of the six Victorians who brought Christmas back from the dead. Without this tiny clutch of Britons and Americans, without their narrowly-clustered perspectives, Christmas would not be what it is today.
So … what is it? Is Christmas Christian or pagan, sacred or secular? The fourth thing modern Americans need to know about Christmas is that it embraces contradictory elements, right to its core. In my book I call this the “paradox of Christmas.”
On the one hand, almost nothing we do at Christmastime is historically unique to Christianity. Most of the religious trappings are pre-Christian, drawn from varied pagan sources. Of course, paganism is just another religion, or more properly, another family of pre-Christian religions. Neither Christians nor secular humanists who have renounced both Christianity and paganism should find much that appeals here.
Yet even those aspects of the tradition that are clearly non-religious – or post-religious – still pick up color from the holiday’s Christian halo. To devout, non-Judaeo-Christian public school students, Christmas in all its aspects acts as an unwelcome reminder of Christianity’s lopsided social dominance. Studies reveal that children from these backgrounds feel the same threat to their faiths and identities when they see any holiday symbols in public spaces, religious or secular. Jesus or Santa, a flight of angels or a flock of reindeer, a cross or a snowflake: to these children, all prove equally emblematic of Christianity’s excessive power over our culture.
So now we turn to the Nativity. Most Americans naively assume that Christmas has something to do with the birth of a child in a manger in Bethlehem in or around the year zero – or was it the year one? Well, neither. And here’s the next thing Americans need to know about their favorite holiday: the story of the birth of Jesus is utterly without historical warrant – and it surely is not unique to Christianity!
Ancient history shows us many redeemer man-gods, each once believed to have come to earth under miraculous circumstances and become a savior. Recognizable precursors of Jesus – and of conspicuous Christmas traditions – can be traced at least as far back as the ancient Egyptians. They observed the time around the winter solstice as a time of merriment, a time for the veneration of evergreens, and a birthday season for gods.
The ancient Egyptians also had the legend of Horus the Younger, who is said to have come into the world by a process closely resembling virgin birth. Like Jesus in the gospel of Luke, Horus next appears in legend as a lad of 12. The myths don't say another thing about young Horus until he is thirty, when he is baptized and received into godhead. (Compare to Luke, which shows us the virgin birth, Jesus at twelve debating the temple elders, and his baptism by John the Baptist at age thirty.)
There were many other man-god legends. None gave Christianity more competition than the cult of the sun demigod Mithras. Mithraism’s popularity peaked in the third century C.E. In 274, Emperor Aurelian proclaimed the birth of Mithras an official holiday. Its date: December 25. Believers said Mithras was born of a virgin and passed part of his infancy in a cave, where shepherds and traveling wise men paid him homage. Mithraists observed this event on January 6, the Christian Epiphany. As an adult, Mithras was said to have healed the sick, made the blind see and the lame walk, cast out devils, and raised the dead. Mithraism powerfully influenced early Christianity. It is the reason Christianity moved its holy day from Saturday, the Jewish shabbas, to Sun-day. Even the notion of celebrating the birth of Jesus reflected Mithraic pressure. Early Christians didn’tobserve birthdays; they observed the day of one’s death, when one was imagined to enter heaven.
Enough about the pre-Christian record. What do the gospel writers say about the birth of Jesus? And here’s the sixth thing more Americans need to know. As a group, the four evangelists say nothing about Christ’s birth. Only Matthew and Luke mention the Nativity, and they contradict each other on almost every detail. The popular image of shepherds and wise men side by side? Matthew says wise men. Luke says shepherds. Neither says both. The Star in the East? Only in Matthew. Hark, the herald angels sing … but only in Luke. Matthew never heard of them. But that's okay, only Matthew heard of the slaughter of the innocents. That’s right, the indiscriminate killing of every male baby in Judea – with, of course, one significant exception – was not important enough to merit Luke's attention.
Of course, no Roman historian chronicles this atrocity either – not even Flavius Josephus, who detested Herod and accused him of every crime for which there was a shred of evidence. Had Herod slaughtered those innocents, Josephus would have written it down.
Matthew says Joseph and Mary lived in Bethlehem and moved to Nazareth after the flight into Egypt. Luke says Joseph and Mary lived in Nazareth all along; Luke has Jesus born in Bethlehem only because Joseph and Mary traveled there to enroll in the census. Yet Roman records mention no such census. In fact, Roman history records no census ever in which each man was required to return to the city where his ancestral line originated. That’s not how the Romans did things.
Our litany of error continues. Matthew and Luke both list Jesus's ancestors – through Joseph – back to David. Matthew counts 28 generations between David and Jesus. Luke … counts 41. Matthew and Luke disagree on the name of Joseph's father. They disagree on the name of Joseph's grandfather.
In fact, they give different names for every ancestor separating Joseph from Zerub'babel, a Jewish leader who lived around 500 years before the common era.
That's right, over the 500 year span preceding the birth of Jesus, Matthew and Luke, whom most Christians consider divinely inspired, cannot agree on the name of a single one of Joseph's ancestors! Apparently the gospels of Matthew and Luke developed independently. Neither evangelist knew that the other had guessed differently about story details -- or had made different choices about which pagan traditions to expropriate. By the time the New Testament was compiled, each gospel was too well known among its partisans to permit reconciling their contradictions.
But why should either evangelist include a genealogy through Joseph if Jesus was born of a virgin? If Jesus was born of a virgin, Joseph was not his father, so what did it matter who Joseph’s ancestors were? Conversely, why borrow all those stories about the virgin birth, and veneration by kings, and miracles at age twelve, and such from sundry Hellenistic mystery cults, if the idea was to show that Jesus was the Jewish Messiah, descended through Joseph from King David?
The gospels of Matthew and Luke preserve, as if in amber, contradictions that embroiled the early church. Early Christians wanted to convert as many Jews as they could; recruiting Gentiles was not on the agenda. Only after an embarrassing span of time after which the world still stubbornly refused to end as predicted by prophecy did Christian missionaries begin to approach non-Jews.
For their part, Gentile converts didn’t care that Jesus was the Jewish messiah descended from David. If they were going to take this new religion seriously, they needed to see the kinds of elements they were accustomed to from Hellenistic mystery religions like Mithraism.
They needed to see a hero demigod born of a virgin, worshiped by strangers in the crib, quick to work miracles, and fated ultimately to die and rise again.
The logics of Davidic descent and virgin birth are mutually exclusive. Forced into one narrative, they collide like a southbound freight train and an eastbound propane truck. Yet each had its zealous proponents. Unable to jettison either the Jewish messiah tradition or the Hellenistic virgin birth tradition, Christianity just held its breath and charged forward carrying them both. Amazingly, the new religion got away with it.
And that brings us to the seventh thing modern Americans need to know about their favorite holiday. Remember that contradiction I mentioned? It goes clear to the bone. The very idea of a savior who was born of a virgin and a descendant of the male line of King David contradicts itself. We hold these immiscible ideas, mortared together only by centuries of tradition, because the Christian religion we have inherited is a synthesis of Jewish and Gentile Christian movements that once had precious little in common.