Christmas – the time of peace on earth and goodwill to all men.
Leaving the sexism apart, one would like to think so. However, seeing the attitudes of some people, you would be hard pushed to find it.
Every December the claims start; the accusations of a “war against Christmas”, of “taking Christmas out of Christmas” and the online memes stating that “It’s Merry Christmas not Happy Holidays”. Some of these state “share if you agree”, others carry the really unattractive, bullying, attempted guilt trips one finds all too often, which goes along the lines of “99% will not share this, the 1% who care will”. Frankly I don’t put up with crap like that and not only do I not share the memes, I tell the person posting it that I don’t react to emotional blackmail and have been known in extreme cases to remove some from my online friends.
The argument that “Happy Holidays” is pushed continually nowadays by those claiming that it is political correctness to appease atheists and / or to avoid offending Muslims, and there are those who claim that is the genesis of the wishes. Nothing could be further from the truth.
‘Happy Holiday(s)’ in fact became a common festive greeting in the USA in the early 20th century, at the time when there was a large influx of Jewish immigrants from Europe. The term came about to make the festivities more inclusive of these settlers and all Jews, who celebrate Hanukkah every December. The saying was made really popular when the song Happy Holiday was sang by Bing Crosby in the 1943 movie Holiday Inn, the song being written by Irving Berlin, himself a Jew. What is more, “Happy Holiday(s)” as a greeting covers the entire festive period, not just 25 December alone. Holiday Inn is in fact set upon New Year’s Eve.
And just what is so wrong about making the festive period inclusive of all? To maintain that it is ‘Christmas’ only is not only exclusive, it is a nonsense when one considers that the Christian celebration of the birth of Jesus not only was set in December to tie in with the celebrations of other faiths and beliefs, but has ‘borrowed’ from many of these. In pagan belief the winter solstice was marked as the day of the rebirth of the sun. Our ancient ancestors recorded this with stone circles. In northern folk beliefs the sun was seen as a wheel which changed the seasons, and it is from the Norse word for this wheel, Houl, that the name Yule is derived. Yule remains an important celebration for those of Pagan belief to this day. Horus, Heracles, Zeus and Sol Invictus are all associated with the festive season. Mithra was born to a virgin in a stable on 25th December 500BC. Does this sound familiar by any chance Christians? The Roman Festival of Saturnalia also reached it’s climax around the winter solstice.
The festive period therefore takes on many guises which have been assimilated into ‘Christmas’, and none the least than our old friend Father Christmas or Santa Claus. The origins of this character are quite fantastic, for he has his genesis in one of the world’s oldest folk-worship figures, the Green Man. In Celtic countries the Green Man – or ‘Wild Man of the Woods’ – became transformed into just one of his many guises, the Holly King. Through these early mythical legends, The Holly King begins his battle with his twin brother the Oak King at the Summer Solstice. As the year is waning the Holly King prevails and begins preparations to save and maintain his people through the cold winter. In order to accomplish his mission, he travels the land to hunt, fish and harvest. Transporting these life saving items in a wagon or sled pulled by eight deer. These ‘gifts’ of life are provided to all his people, and in exchange they provide care and comfort to his team of deer. In England and some other European countries, a man from a village would go into the woods around the winter solstice to dress as the Holly King. He would then be carried on a litter, or dragged involuntarily in some traditions, into the village, where he would chase the girls and women with a large fake phallus. These celebrations would culminate with him handing out bounty to the villagers.
In Norse countries Odin would ride a sleigh on a hunting party with his 8-legged horse, Sleipnir. Children would leave their shoes and boots by the hearth with treats for Sleipnir (leaving a carrot for the reindeer) and Odin would repay their kindness by leaving food, candy and gifts. The tradition of leaving treats in shoes was eventually replaced by hanging stockings from the mantlepiece.
The Christian contender for Santa Claus is however Saint Nicholas. Nicholas was the son of wealthy parents in fourth century Patara, then in Greece but now part of Turkey. He used his entire inheritance to aid the poor, and became through legend known as the protector and patron of children. Folk tales about him, and traditions such as children dressing as bishops and begging for alms on his feast day, 6 December (12 December in the Julian calendar), eventually gave way to the exchange of gifts. With the spread of Christianity, first throughout Europe, then to the new world, the traditions of the old became confused with those of Saint Nicholas, and so it was the Father Christmas / Santa Claus we all know and love was born. It was also down to Saint Nicholas that Santa wears red, the colour of his bishops robes. There is a claim that the red-clad Santa was purely down to the 1931 Coca-Cola advertising campaign, which depicted him as such. Not so. The Holly King who became father Christmas was for centuries bedecked in green, but European Christmas cards from the 1860s show the transformation into red beginning to happen. There is little doubt however that the Coca-Cola Corporation undoubtedly helped to reinforce the image, and to assimilate Father Christmas and Santa Claus as one and the same entity.
I never cease to be amused when I see Christmas Cards or memes with Merry Christmas on them, and a picture of Santa Claus, or snow scenes, robins, Yule logs, ‘Christmas’ trees (another pagan symbol, introduced to Britain from Germany by the Hanoverian monarchy), holly, mistletoe, or anything else which would have been completely alien to Jesus, in his middle-eastern Jewish home. Yet those who keep insisting Christ is being taken out of Christmas are usually all too willing to use these very depictions on social media. I guess to some people ‘irony’ means ‘containing a lot of metal’.
Another claim that I have heard is that ‘traditional’ school Nativity plays are being spoiled by new characters being put in them, which some see as being anti-Christian. Leaving apart that there should not be Nativity plays in multi-cultural, non-denominational state schools, in the first place, let’s just look at some of the characters, namely the Three Wise Men. Nowhere in the Bible does it mention how many wise men there were. There were three gifts – gold, myrrh and frankincense – but that does not mean only three wise men. There could have been three, there could have been three hundred. There could have been only two, or over a thousand. The claim that the Magi were three in number is an assumption, wholly made up by the early church. Some Nativity plays even go further and give the names of the three Magi as Caspar, Melchior, and Balthasar. This is equally an invention of the early church, which one will find nowhere in any Bible. Likewise, the Innkeeper, so central to the Nativity play, is not at all mentioned in. Luke 2:7 (KJV) states “And she brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger; because there was no room for them in the inn.” (note also that Jesus was not born in a manger, which is in fact a feeding trough, but laid in one). So, parents, before you start getting uptight about fictitious characters being added, take note that what you are complaining about has in fact been a central part of them since Nativity plays began.
If Muslims are so supposedly offended by Christmas, I for one am certainly not seeing it. In fact, I see quite the opposite. Here in my home town of Edinburgh, there is a very popular curry house which is situated near the Edinburgh Central Mosque and whose owners and staff are very devout Muslims. That restaurant is one of the first places to have their Christmas decorations up every year, and just like the majority of similar restaurants, they put a sign up “Wishing all our customers a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.” Are Muslims ever offended by Christmas? Given how many Muslims own their own businesses, or are involved in the family business, I very sincerely doubt that they are ever going to be offended by what is boom time for them.
I am not saying that there isn’t some sort of daft PC idea that the mention of Christmas may offend Muslims and other non-Christians. I sincerely doubt however that it is ever coming from these minorities. I suspect it is more likely to be middle-class, white liberals, who think they are being well meaning, but who in fact are being extremely patronising, and in assuming they know what others want, are in fact making stereotyped generalisations. And when they do so, it is they who are in fact being bigoted. I certainly know as an atheist I could not care less about anyone saying “Merry Christmas”, and I would be hard pushed to find anyone among my fellow atheists who would. What I and other non-Christians do object to is having Christianity rammed down our throats by those who would claim that the festive period is solely about the birth of Jesus.
And really, what are the chances of “Christmas” ever being eradicated? Slim to none. Go shopping in any city or town in December and you encounter Christmas everywhere, whether you want it or not, including your ears being blasted in almost every shop by Christmas songs. Turn on the radio or TV, there are the same songs, and Christmas messages. And with Christianity being the largest faith in the world, it seems to me it is not going anywhere any time soon. I would therefore suggest that Christianity dominates the festive season and if there were ever a “war against Christmas”, those opposing it are getting a sound hiding, as they always shall.
Yet we see from the above that while Christianity may dominate, it does not have the monopoly upon the festive season, and neither should it. The period surrounding the winter solstice is celebrated by many faiths and cultures all around the world. It is only right and proper then that it should be all-inclusive. Happy Holiday(s) therefore is a perfectly valid greeting to give.
Yet Merry Christmas is equally a perfectly valid greeting, as are Seasons Greetings, Compliments of the Season, Yuletide Wishes, or any other variant. When anyone however insists that it has to be Merry Christmas and no other greeting, then that is immediately making the season exclusive to Christianity alone, which excludes all who do not follow the Christian faith. The memes which state that it must be Merry Christmas and none other, are in fact religious and cultural bigotry.
And should there be any who would be wont to share such memes, or want to keep Christmas solely Christian, are reading this, given that you are purporting to celebrate the birth of a man who embraced all and turned away none, just exactly what does that say about you?