Christmas Wars 2

Another brief essay of mine about Christmas. A shorter version of this was published in the Fort Collins Coloradoan in 2007. Enjoy…

U.S. Americans of my generation know the winter holidays as “Christmas.” The recent controversy in Fort Collins over downtown decorations inspired me to look up a little on the history of Christmas.

“Midwinter” has, of course, been around ever since the Earth settled into its current orbit, and has been celebrated in some form by every people on earth outside the tropics since there have been people.

During the height of the Roman empire, an entire month, starting a week before winter solstice, was celebrated wildly with much food and drink as the Saturnalia – a festival honoring Saturn as a God of Agriculture. Like our modern Mardi Gras, the social order was temporarily inverted, leaders were publicly mocked, and social restraint was abandoned. Two special celebrations within the larger Saturnalia were the Juvenalia, a feast celebrated near solstice honoring the children of Rome, and the birthday of Mithras, a Persian sun deity, which was generally celebrated by the upper classes on the 25th of December.

The early Christian church celebrated only Easter, and the birth of Jesus was not considered a holy day until the 300’s, when Pope Julius I instituted the Feast of the Nativity – “coincidentally” placing it on top of the birthday of Mithras in order to assimilate the Pagan celebration under the Catholic umbrella. The idea of a Christ Mass celebrating the birth of Jesus, the child-god, reached Egypt in the early 400’s, England by the end of the 500’s, and as far as Scandinavia by the end of the 700’s. Throughout the European Middle Ages, Christmas was generally celebrated in the Roman style of the Saturnalia, with much drinking, feasting, and wild partying.

The Puritans rejected Christmas as decadent, and Oliver Cromwell cancelled Christmas entirely in England through his brief rule in the mid-1600’s. In Boston, Christmas was outlawed from 1659 to 1681, with a fine imposed on anyone exhibiting “Christmas spirit.” Then, after the American Revolution, English customs in general fell out of favor and Christmas was abandoned as an American holiday of any sort.

The modern U.S. American Christmas began in the class conflicts in the early 1800’s between the wealthy and the poor. The poor would often riot around midwinter in the larger cities, and the first police force in New York City was created in 1828 to deal with the recurring Christmas riots. In 1819, best-selling author Washington Irving published a book extolling the peaceful coexistence of the upper and lower classes in England in their celebration of “ancient Christmas traditions,” many of which he was accused of simply inventing. This same theme was echoed by his English contemporary, Charles Dickens, in his famous story, A Christmas Carol. The images were powerful, if fictional, and for the first time Christmas began to enter the American imagination. Christmas became an official federal holiday in 1870, only 140 years ago. The many “ancient customs” we now consider an essential and eternal part of Christmas have been drawn from many sources: the Dutch Sinter Klaas, the German custom of decorating trees, the Norse Yule Log, the Swedish candlelight traditions of Saint Lucia’s Day, and dozens of other customs and traditions from around the world — to say nothing of the fanciful inventions of Washington Irving, Charles Dickens, Clement Moore (‘Twas the Night Before Christmas), and Robert May (the Rudolph story, written for Montgomery Ward to boost their holiday sales).

To say that there has ever been anything particularly religious about Christmas in the United States is … well, absurd. 

And yet, there is something truly and deeply magical about this time of year, the Longest Night, the season of cold and silence. Where I see this magic most clearly is, oddly enough, in the harmonious and peaceful blending of all these diverse customs of our “traditional Christmas.” Seeing a Christmas Tree next to a Bethlehem manger scene, a Menorah in a window while people sing traditional English carols outside, egg nog and midnight mass – none of these things belongs with any other, and yet somehow, they all work together, beautifully, gracefully, effortlessly. It moves us beyond tolerance, into true acceptance. 

And so we come together this midwinter season to celebrate the Longest Night by whatever name moves us, in the spirit of acceptance and joy that graces us so effortlessly in this long darkness.

Christmas Wars

With the tragi-comic “Christmas Wars” being fanned once again into flames by the Fox Propaganda Network, I thought I would post a Christmas letter I sent to friends back in 1997. Enjoy…



Dear Friends:

When I sat down to write this year’s Christmas letter, I found that after excluding everything I simply did not want to talk about, all that remained was boring. I took a pleasant trip to the Boston area in June to visit friends – that was 1997. It scarcely seemed worth a letter.

Sitting here on New Year’s Day, however, musing on many things, particularly holy days, I found a few random thoughts that might bear sharing. If my musings afford you a few moments’ pleasant meditation, they will have accomplished all I hope for them.

The Great Mystery of all religions and philosophies has always been that of time itself – the great worm that devours the future, digests it in the present, and leaves the past in its wake. But it is not merely this movement-without-movement that is the heart of the Mystery, but the endless cycle of that movement – day follows night follows day – the moon grows from nothing to fullness, then declines to nothing – season follows season – death follows life, yet life arises out of death. That great worm of Time is no ordinary worm, but a snake devouring its own tail, gaining its sustenance from its own destruction. This cycle of creation and destruction, death and life, is the core of the Mystery.

Our cyclic celebration of holy days is a reflection of this Mystery. It is a way of recognizing the past in the present and future, of death in life and life in death. And there is no holy day more evocative of this Mystery than the day of the New Year, that moment at which we actually see the snake devouring itself.

The end of the old year and the beginning of the new was not the same in all places. In the agrarian communities of Old Europe, the year was often taken to end with the Last Harvest, toward the end of October, when the last of the summer’s abundance must be taken in before Jack Frost claims it for himself – this was Samhain, the Day of the Dead, what we now call All Hallows. Further north, nearer the land of the midnight sun, where agriculture gives way to hunting, fishing, and herding, the defining event was Yule, Winter Solstice, the Longest Night. To the east, where the yearly rains preside over the crops, the new year began in the shadow of the monsoon.

So what of us? We are a different community, we modern urbanites. We know the seasons mainly as times to scrape ice off the car, or turn on the air conditioner. Our life rhythms are driven by clock and calendar, not the rhythms of hunt or harvest. Our dance is a Sun dance – ours is a solar calendar, indeed, the most painstakingly precise and accurate solar calendar ever devised; we add or subtract one second every few years to keep it tuned. But Yule, Winter Solstice, the natural turning point of the solar year, passes without remark. Christmas, birthday of the Persian/Roman Sun-god Mithras in the last great flourishing of Roman Paganism before Roman Christianity became the state religion and appropriated the date for the Son-God, is a kind of penultimate grace-note to the turning of the year. But we city-dwellers encounter the deep Mystery of Time, not at Yule, nor at Christmas, but in that arbitrary moment when the atomic clock in Boulder ticks midnight on December 31, and causes the serpent of time to swallow his tail.

Every year, the cry goes up about the commercial desecration of Christmas. But critics don’t understand that Christmas is the Last Harvest of the urban world. We no longer grow our food, we city-dwellers, nor do we hunt it down on the plain or raise it in our own pastures. We buy, and we sell – that is our livelihood. The commercial frenzy of Christmas is the Last Harvest of the year, disrupting all our normal daily schedules in the common labor of commerce. But this commercial climax in Christmas Day is only the beginning of the end. That final week, between Christmas Day and New Year’s Eve, is not a time for starting new things, but a time for finishing the old. It is the final putting-up of the harvest before the annual End of Time.

Our mode of celebrating this event is also interesting. Joseph Campbell notes that there is a profound difference between the mythologies of the agrarians, and that of the hunters and pastoralists. The seasonal life-cycle of the crop dominates the agrarian cultures. Death is merely a precursor to life, and often figures literally in agricultural rituals in the form of animal or human sacrifice. Veneration or worship of the dead is common. The individual, like a single stalk of grain, is less important than the community. The Mysteries are the domain of the priesthood, an official class that embodies the divine within the community.

By contrast, hunting and herding societies are dominated by the violent death of the slaughtered animal. Death is an ending, by which others might live, and the dead – especially the unquiet dead – are deeply feared. The individual is held above the community: the Mysteries are the domain of the shaman, who embodies the divine within the individual.

In the agrarian communities of Old Europe, where Year End coincided with Last Harvest, it was not surprising to also see the Day of the Dead coupled. Samhain – All Hallows – was an auspicious time to seek oracles for the New Year from the dead, and to contemplate and commune with one’s ancestors, visit their graves, and leave them offerings of food and drink.

As city-dwellers, we are no longer either agrarians or herders. But we are, in a sense, hunters. We hunt for our jobs, our spouses, and our bargains – the family business, the arranged marriage, and the local tradesman are the exception rather than the rule. We send our young men and women off on vision quests to discover, not their totem animals, but their careers. We venerate the individual, fear the dead, and seek our wisdom from the guru or from within, rather from any established priesthood.

So it is not surprising that we urban hunters face the Mystery of Time, and its related mysteries of life and death, with a great, death-denying party. We drink too much, laugh too loudly, flirt and even descend into sexual abandon, to celebrate yet drive away the vision of those great toothy jaws slipping silently over us. And when midnight passes, we cheer, for we have once again survived the Great Swallowing, and have cheated death for one more year.

The worm Ouroboros has once again swallowed his tail. We all face a New Year, a tabula rasa, a blank slate, a field of opportunity. It is my Christmas and New Year’s wish that each of you will find all the love, joy, and prosperity that 1998 has to offer – that the new year will be a good year.