In the bizarre 1959 Mexican film Santa Claus (or Santa Claus vs. The Devil as it is popularly known), Santa dwells high above the North Pole in a cloud fortress, and through the help of Merlin (yes, the wizard) and some snazzy space-age technology, distributes gifts to the children of the world on Christmas Eve. The Devil, always out to ruin Christmas, sends his minion Pitch to foil Santa’s mission. The layers of meaning here are incalculable. Equally unadulterated and preposterous, the film illustrates with uncanny vision the profound confusion most Americans retain when it comes to Christmas. Feliz Navidad!
If you are a Christian of the Evangelical or Fundamentalist bent, you might be inclined to see Santa Claus as an enemy of Jesus- part Catholic saint, part agent of American consumerism- sent forth by reindeer-drawn sleigh to shroud the true meaning of Christmas with presents and candy canes. It seems logical for Santa to be in cahoots with Merlin, that would make Santa an ally of the Devil. Do not put your trust in warlocks and exalted pagan saints! Only Jesus can defeat Satan and his followers!
We Christians say “Merry Christmas”. “Xmas” takes Christ out of Christmas! To hell with “Happy Holidays” and other non-Christian expressions! We sing O Holy Night and Away In A Manger dammit! We decorate a Christmas tree, not a holiday tree! To hell with Frosty and Rudolph and to hell with acknowledging other faiths who also celebrate the Winter Solstice in disguise! Wait, what? Yes, this is shaping up to be an epic One American rant.
In the weeks leading up to Christmas Day, Facebook and other social media sites have been littered with angry and defensive declarations like, “It’s not Happy Holidays, it’s Merry Christmas! Share if you agree!”, lashing out against attempts to secularize Christmas by removing any mention of the birth of Jesus Christ. But is there really a “war” on Christmas? Well, yes and no. You see, this whole separation of church and state idea has been completely bastardized from its original, Constitutional meaning. The Constitution only forbids the state from making an establishment of religion. The Constitution does not forbid the singing of Christmas carols in public school. It does not forbid a public display of the Ten Commandments. As Americans, do we not understand the difference between the free exercise of religion and the government declaring an official religion (or banning religion altogether)? In this country, the Hare Krishnas have every right to dance around on the street corner as a preacher has a right to stand on the same street corner warning of Armageddon. As Americans increasingly fall victim to poor education and corporate manipulation, the debate over the celebration of Christmas in a capitalist, secular society gets more and more nebulous.
There has been a backlash from Christians who feel like the true meaning of Christmas is under attack, and understandably so. This year, a fifth grade choir in Long Island, New York performed an altered version of the traditional Christmas hymn, Silent Night. “The children at Ralph J. Osgood Intermediate School did not sing the line “’round yon virgin, mother and child,” or the line “Christ the Savior is born,” reported WNBC New York. Obviously, this is highly offensive to people of Christian faith; the song is about the birth of Christ, not some quasi-spiritual Winter’s eve. The school board issued an apology to parents who were upset about the omissions in the song. This is just one of many examples of infringement on our Constitutional freedom of religion. It does sometimes appear as if Christianity is under attack, but the response from many Christians has been equally as ridiculous. While I have heard many measured responses to this sort of nonsense, I’ve also heard many statements like, “America is a Christian nation, love it or leave it.” In their eyes, Christmas should be the only celebration acknowledged this time of year. If you don’t accept Jesus Christ as your savior, then you should remain in the shadows where you belong. A decade ago, Wiccans were under attack for wearing pentacles, with teens being accused of being Satanists and sent home from school. Now Christian kids are being told they cannot wear crucifixes, pray or read from the Bible on school grounds.
Growing up as kids, if we, in our ignorance, happened to greet a Jewish person with “Merry Christmas!” they would generally reply, “Oh sweetie, we’re Jewish, we celebrate Hanukkah,” to which we would in turn reply, “Oh. Well, Happy Hanukkah then!” Done and done. In a civilized society, we educate each other and through that process, learn to coexist. The problem with political correctness is that it does not originate with the people, it originates from special interest groups. In our quest to never offend, political correctness has warped and perverted the natural evolution of an increasingly more multicultural society. When it comes to religious holidays, political correctness seeks to strip away meaning and tradition and replace it with sanitized, all-encompassing, non-religious symbolism: A tree, a star, a snowflake, a toy soldier. Today’s graphic on Google’s homepage is an illustration of a city street in Winter. The buildings are decorated with Christmas lights and there is a car with a Christmas tree strapped to its roof. If you mouse-over the graphic it simply says, “‘Tis the season!” Google wouldn’t dare use a graphic of the Nativity or have a mouse-over that says, “Merry Christmas!” Why? Because Jewish people use Google too. And so do Muslims and Buddhists and atheists. We don’t want to impose our religion on them. We don’t want them to feel left out. Maybe I should capitalize it: Atheists; I wouldn’t want them to feel like they’re any less significant than people of faith.
Here’s a curve-ball for all those conservative celebrities rambling on about the “war” on Christmas: most of the illegal immigrants crossing the border into the United States from Mexico and Central America are Roman Catholics who celebrate Christmas. As the population balloons with illegals, it seems there is more of an incentive than ever to acknowledge this most holy of Christian holidays as such: Jesus Christ was born on December 25th, two-thousand and thirteen years ago.
Let us first establish that Jesus of Nazareth was not born on December 25th. The exact date of his birth is not known to history or revealed in biblical accounts of his birth. The reason Christians celebrate his birth on this date is because it was officially declared by Pope Julius I in the 4th Century A.D. The exact reason for this is cause for debate, but it is presumable that the date was purposely chosen to compete with or coincide with other, existing celebrations occurring around the same time; most notable among these are the Jewish Hanukkah and Roman Saturnalia, marking the Winter Solstice. Interpretatio christiana was the doctrine by which the early Church rebranded pagan festivals, rites and temples for worship of the Christian God. They surmised that Christian teachings would encounter less resistance from the heathen if superimposed over their local traditions, as they set about in their Christianization of the Mediterranean, Europe and the Near East.
The fact that I even need to explain this is embarrassing. Christmas, as celebrated in America today, is a conglomerate of Christian theology and pre-Christian, European traditions and folklore. It is generally agreed upon by scholars that the legend of Santa Claus is based both on the 4th Century Greek bishop Saint Nicholas, who was known for his charitable gift giving, and the Dutch character Sinterklaas, a white-haired, bearded holy man dressed in red and white, with a long red cape, who carries a shepherd’s staff and a big book, where he keeps written the names of good children and bad children. Parallels between Sinterklaas and the Germanic god Odin have also been drawn. Sinterklaas rides the rooftops with his white horse and has mischievous helpers who listen at chimney tops to hear if children are being bad or good. Odin rides across the sky with his horse Sleipnir and has two ravens at his employ, Huginn and Muninn, who travel about and report back to him. It is conceivable that reindeer were substituted for the horse as the story spread to North America. The tradition of the Christmas tree, decorated with candles and ornaments can also be traced back to Germany and may possibly be linked to an earlier custom of decorating the home with evergreens in Winter. During the Christianization of Germany and Scandinavia, the celebration of Christmas also absorbed elements of the pagan festival Yule, celebrated in December. Modern traditions including the burning of the Yule log, feast of the Christmas ham, caroling and even the toast at mealtime can all be traced back to the celebration of Yule and Odin’s Wild Hunt.
So the question is, do you partake in any of these traditions with your family? Do you entice your children to get to bed early on Christmas Eve so Santa can load up the Christmas tree with gifts? Do you clomp through the snow at night, going door-to-door with a group of reluctant neighbors singing We Three Kings? Do you stagger to your feet at Christmas dinner to praise Aunt Carolyn’s miraculous zwieback crust cheesecake before downing another glass of champagne? If so, then you have participated in a glorious pagan rite! These traditions intrinsically link us all together as human beings. Instead of seeking to distill and define the “true” meaning of Christmas, we should recognize the wonderful, muddled history of it all. Instead of stripping the holidays of all their significance and restricting where, when and how they should be celebrated, we should be allowing the free expression of all traditions. We have the freedom to participate or not participate, but we do not have the authority to regulate other celebrations.
It’s not so much that there’s a war on Christmas, there is a war on freedom. Christians are just one spoke on a wheel of constantly revolving victimization. The reason? Everyone wants to wrangle the Constitution into their corner and use it to restrict others. The rights of all citizens need to be protected. I find it hard to fault those who, in their desire to be more inclusive, use expressions like “Season’s Greetings”, but at the same time there is no reason to exclude the mention of Jesus Christ when talking about Christmas. We should not live in fear of our neighbors who may be different than us. We should fear the puppet master. We should fear the authoritarians who wage war against culture, and pit race against race and religion against religion. We should beware of those who wish to commercialize our sacred traditions. Stand up for your right to believe and worship as your God commands. Stand up for your right to live according to your conscience. But also be a defender of everyone’s right to do the same, lest the wheel turn toward you.