Thursday, December 6, 2012

Thursday Rant: Holiday Style~*

Please forgive me.  I haven't given a history lecture in a good long while.  And it's why I made Thursday's for ranting after all~*

I think most of us agree that this time of year should be about love, compassion, charity, family & generosity.  In reality, no one religion or ideology owns Christmas, there is no "right" way to celebrate it & saying happy holidays is humble and polite {characteristics that used to exemplify the season}, not persecution.  It was a sad day when the chucklehead-who-shall-not-be-named  first used the phrase "War on Christmas"-- and it was sadder still when thousands upon thousands of Americans felt it their right to turn a compassionate loving time of year into an opportunity for anger, arrogance and aggression

I firmly believe people should be allowed to celebrate the holidays however they choose without fear of judgement or condescension or sanctimony-- particularly since the celebration of Santa Claus lost its religious meaning long ago and is actually entirely separate from the Christian celebration of Jesus' birth.

Allow me to explain...

December 25th was chosen by the Catholic church in the 4th century under the leadership of Pope Julius I as the date to celebrate the birth of Jesus {aka Christ's Mass aka Christmas} for two reasons.  Firstly,  it was already a holiday-- the celebration of the Roman winter solstice, & since many early Christians considered Jesus to be the "Sun of righteousness" prophesied in Malachi 4:2 it seemed fitting.  Secondly: the prevailing theology of the day in the western church was that whatever it took to assure religious conversion was acceptable-- the important part was the salvation received.  In other words, if people wanted to celebrate the Roman winter solstice, or the spring solstice, or portray Jesus in art {aka iconography} as looking like them {i.e. the blond/blue eyed Jesus, the red haired Jesus, the African Jesus)  then so bet it, so long as they where members of the church when they did it. 

As an aside, it was that same thinking that created a rift in the church during the Great Schism in 1054-- the eastern church had a less pragmatic view of things and argued that based on their calculations the birth of Jesus had been on January 6th.  Couple that with their views toward religious art and some other theological debates and you have a schism-- the two churches split, never again to meet.   

Biblically, there is no date given for Jesus' birth, and it was on that basis that Protestants during the Reformation rejected Christmas {Sola Scriptura, to scripture alone, was one of the slogans of the Reformers-- meaning, if it wasn't in the Bible, it didn't belong in Christianity}.  Most reformers {including the Puritans, Brownists and Pilgrims} saw the holiday as Catholic & ultimately pagan.  They did not celebrate any religious holidays, let alone Christ's Mass.  John Calvin, one of the leading theologians in the Protestant Reformation, actually addressed the issue in two letters-- discussing both how Protestants had done away with the feast days against his wishes, and how they were doing violence to those who continued to observe Christmas {both letters are reprinted here and some comments of other early protestant leaders regarding the feast days are here}.

In the 1400s, the celebration of St. Nicholas had been quite popular across western Europe.  As the patron saint of children, it was customary to mark his feast day {December 6th} by giving presents to children and generally making merry.  But Protestants did not celebrate saints, and so the holiday fell into disfavor in much of western Europe during the age of Reformation.

In Germany and eastern Europe, however, the traditions of St. Nick stayed alive-- right down to the decorations of trees {another hold out from the pagan world institutionalized in the Christian one}, feasting, giving of gifts, and filling of stockings. It was in this period that the celebration of Christ's Mass and the celebration of St. Nicholas converged on December 25th-- they remained separate celebrations, but they were commemorated on the same day. 




When German immigrants came to the American colonies, they brought their feast of St. Nicholas, and the idea caught on, particularly among the Dutch in New Netherlands, later renamed New York.  They referred to St. Nicholas as Sinter Klaas, which in short order became Santa Claus in the American vernacular   In January 1809, Washington Irving {the same author who gave us the headless horseman} wrote Knickerbocker's History of New York, which featured a jolly St. Nicholas-like character.  This Nick, however, was not the saintly bishop-- he was a jolly gentleman with rosy cheeks, twinkling eyes, long clay pipe, and a generous heart.  You can read the full story here, thanks to gutenberg.org {the best online library ever}.  Irving's character was not associated with religion, and as the jolly elf caught on in an American tradition, he lost his religious origins almost entirely.

New York's historical society declared the first St. Nicholas Day in 1810, along with a poem entitled The Knickbocker Santa Claus by John Pintard, that deftly explained the celebration of Santa:

Oh good holy man! whom we Sante Claus name,
The Nursery forever your praise shall proclaim:
The day of your joyful revisit returns,
When each little bosom with gratitude burns,
For the gifts which at night you so kindly impart
To the girls of your love, and the boys of your heart.
Oh! come with your panniers and pockets well stow'd,
Our stockings shall help you to lighten your load,
As close to the fireside gaily they swing,
While delighted we dream of the presents you bring.
Oh! bring the bright Orange so juicy and sweet,
Bring almonds and raisins to heighten the treat;
Rich waffles and dough-nuts must not be forgot,
Nor Crullers and Oley-Cooks fresh from the pot.
But of all these fine presents your Saintship can find,
Oh! leave not the famous big Cookies behind.
Or if in your hurry one thing you mislay,
Let that be the Rod--and oh! keep it away.
Then holy St. Nicholas! all the year,
Our books we will love and our parents revere,
From naughty behavior we'll always refrain,
In hope that you'll come and reward us again.

Cartoonist Thomas Nast gave us the iconic image of Santa Claus in 1862.  By that time, 
the celebration of Santa Claus had caught on-- ironically, it was the secular nature of Santa Claus that drew Protestant groups to the celebration.  Since he was no longer directly associated with Catholicism, his celebration did not violate the religious principles of reform faiths. 

And so the religious celebration of Jesus' birth and the secular celebration of Santa Claus more-or-less peacefully coexisted for decades.  In the 1960's and 70's, people began questioning the nature of consumerism and the institutions of capitalism as defined in the '40's and '50s {when, you'll notice, most Christmas songs were written}.  Some Americans decried the commercialization of  Christmas, a tradition which had started in the 1930's as a way of easing our economy out of the Great Depression-- Black Friday, so named because it was the one day stores were guaranteed to make a profit and "be in the black."  At any rate the youth of the 60's argued that the true meaning of fellowship and family had been lost in the bright and shiny corporate version of the holiday.  









That argument aside, the holiday remained unmarred...until, in the early 2000's, a deeply cynical media personality decided to stir up his viewing audience by staking claim to Christmas & even better, to imply that anyone who disagreed with his historically inaccurate view was somehow persecuting everyone else.

This year, lets agree to allow people to celebrate {or not} however they see fit.  Whether you celebrate the religious version of the holiday, or prefer the secular, it is irrelevant-- one is not truer than the other.  The only  true meaning of Christmas is now, as it has ever been, love. 



We all wish you the happiest of holidays from the bottom of our hearts~*