The spirit of Christmas

silenus

“Drunken Silenus Supported by Satyrs” by Anthony van Dyck (c. 1620)

Here in the Winter Solstice, Christmas is only a few days away, and none of us can wait for much longer. We look forward to the presents, the food, and the presence of family members, especially after we move out of our parents’ house. If all the Christmas movies, songs, and zany Christmas promotions are anything to go by, we all love Christmas, but every year, there’s always going to people who complain about how Christmas has “lost its true meaning”, and every year, they’re dead wrong.

The argument that Christmas has lost its true is based on the supposition that Christmas is about celebrating the birth of Jesus, which isn’t strictly true. Prior to the church’s hijacking of various pagan customs, Christmas, or rather Yule, was a winter holiday observed by pagan countries in celebration of the Winter Solstice and the emergence of new light. There was also the Roman festival of Saturnalia, where for a short while, the masters were slaves and the fools were kings, and everyone celebrated in an orgy of festive drunkenness (part of that sounds familiar). The modern Christmas draws very heavily from both of them, and a myriad of other traditions, but it would be totally unrecognisable without the invention of Santa Claus, an advertising character created from a composite of various European folk tales and mythological characters (e.g. the Dutch Sinterklaas, the French Père Noël, the Norse god Odin and the Roman god Silenus). How Santa Claus became seen a Christian figure is somewhat baffling, considering he’s probably committed at least one of the seven deadly sins.

It’s quite baffling that Christmas is taken by Christians to be associated with Jesus Christ, even though, for all we know, Jesus wasn’t even born on December 25th, assuming he existed at all. In fact, there’s no solid consensus on when Jesus might have been born. Some scholars say he was born in May, others say September, but none of them say December. Besides, the Bible doesn’t mention anything about Christmas, whether in the modern context or the ancient pagan context, so I don’t know where we got the idea of Christmas being a religious holiday (though taken in the pagan context, it still sort of is).

Of course, Christians are so convinced that Christmas is their holiday that every year when secularists celebrate Christmas their own way, they declare a “war on Christmas” with Fox News blowing the trumpets every hour of every day until Christmas is over. It’s all so childish, and all because we can’t accept that Christmas is for everyone. I can’t help but think that conservative Christians only insist on Christmas being a Christian holiday because it’s the last thing anybody likes that they have left. From a marketing point of view, Christmas is a valuable asset for the church, and so is Santa Claus. If Christmas were only about Jesus, then it would be boring, especially since, if Jesus were alive today, he certainly wouldn’t take kindly to all the fairy lights, Christmas decorations, or the Christmas turkey, at least if he were the same anti-materialist thinker the Bible records.

Why is it so important that Christmas not be a materialistic holiday? Is there something wrong with mankind indulging in all his earthly pleasures once a year? In fact, when did that become something to be ashamed of? Unfortunately, that’s all the major religions are good for – suppressing our desire for earthly pleasures and replacing them with solemn reflection and prayer, and that simply isn’t any fun at all. If anything, the true spirit of Christmas is found both in materialistic consumption and in the connections we have with other people. So despite what some cynics might be keen on telling you, the materialistic side of Christmas isn’t shallow at all. In fact, I’d say it’s the religious veneer that is far more shallow in the end.

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