In Defense of Christmas!
The recurring theme of a “War on Christmas” is now a tradition. Annually, stalwart intellectuals like Sarah Palin, Bill O’Reilly, Michelle Bachman et. al. will take to the air waves and will announce that our Christmas spirit is somehow less than Christian because we say ‘Holiday’ rather than ‘Christmas.’ The only thing more vitiated of actual intellectual content is the peals of outrage over Duck Dynasty’s Phil Robertson’s suspension because he managed, in a single interview, to shred whatever veil of civility his on air persona once presented. There are millions of writers, thinkers, speakers of all political and cultural persuasions who will never garner the kind of audience Phil has, precisely because speech, of the variety that Phil has the privilege to practice, is NOT free. It is very expensive. Considering the banality of Phil’s assertions, it should cost him more than his pathetic job is worth.
But the ‘War on Christmas’; now that has something of value to it, aside from the unintended humor it invokes: a great ‘teachable’ moment, as they say. After all, its history is the story of one makeover after another. In truth, it begins before Jesus was even a twinkle in Joseph’s eye. In those heady pagan days, when the unconquerable sun was worshipped in all its pagan glory and the winter solstice rejoiced at the coming gift of the sun (or ‘son of God’ if you want to be playful) there was an honored period of about 7days – running approximately from just before the Solstice (Dec 17,18th) through to Dec 25th that became one long party ride, a kind of burning man for the pagan era.
The premise from today’s principle talking heads is that Christmas has always been about Christ, and any sense of holiday or festivity outside ‘Christ’ is somehow an interloper watering down the spirituality of the time. This, of course, is exactly backwards. Most of our cherished Christmas traditions have nothing to do with Christianity—and everything to do with the underlying pagan traditions that celebrated the winter solstice and the return of the so called ‘unconquerable sun.’
The infamous Roman holiday of Saturnalia is really at the center of all this. It was a huge party, a gigantic fair and festival of the home. The ancient Greek writer, poet and historian Lucian (in his dialogue entitled Saturnalia) describes a time of widespread intoxication; going from house to house while singing naked; where, as he said, “sexual license” was taken; and even incidents of human sacrifice were recorded. These incidents were given a culinary representation in human-shaped biscuits, something we still see in traditional Christmas cookies. Remember those ginger bread men?
According to Janet Shotwell, lamps were kept burning to ward off the spirits of darkness. ” Riotous merry-making” took place, and the halls of houses were decked with boughs of laurel and evergreen trees that were brought in by the citizenry in the hopes that they would guard the life essences of the plants until spring. As one comic put it, our Christmas tradition is based on an act of sympathetic magic. Schools were closed, the army rested, and no criminals were executed. Friends visited one another, bringing good-luck gifts of fruit, cakes, candles, dolls, jewelry, and incense. Processions of people with masked or blackened faces and fantastic hats danced through the streets. The custom of mummers, visiting their neighbors in costume, which is still alive in Newfoundland, is descended from these masked processions.
But one of the most equalitarian aspects of Saturnalia was a sit down feast shared by masters and slaves. In fact, during the festivities slaves were given the freedom to do and say whatever they liked. A Mock King was even appointed to take charge of the revels, and from this fantastic class reversal, developed the so called “Lord of Misrule’ of medieval Christmas festivities.
About 354 AD, Christianity came along and tried to co-opt solstice festivities, but couldn’t really suppress the whole merry making, drinking, gift giving thing. They did manage to make the climax of the winter festivities the official day to commemorate the birth of Christ, however, and, of course, gave it the name we know and love. Christmas.
Since the hero of the New Testament was born in the Middle East, forcing native pagan activities to mesh with the birth of Jesus creates a weird iconography for the season. Do we actually ever look at the classic manger scene, laid in a bed of snow like cotton, ringed in red and green, under a evergreen spruce and begin to wonder? The iconography of Christmas is ridiculously mixed in with reindeer, holly, snow scenes and other phenomena peculiar to northern European myth. There’s an urban legend of a Japanese department store that tried too hard to symbolize the Christmas spirit by mounting a display of a Santa Claus figure nailed to a cross. Crucified Santa would be just as surreal as a chocolate Jesus. The iconography which presumably represents the ‘spirit’ of the Holidays is nothing more than a co-opted pagan winter Saturnalia that Christians for the last two thousand years or so have been trying hard to forget.
In fact, if you want to find the first real Grinch in history, you need only travel back to the time of real conservatives: the Puritans of England. Under Oliver Cromwell’s reign, Christmas was officially cancelled. During the English Interregnum, when England was ruled by a Puritan Parliament, Puritans sought to remove elements they viewed as pagan from Christianity—this effectively meant the entire holiday. We will bomb the holiday in order to save it!
Under Cromwell, in 1647, Parliament banned the celebration of Christmas, replacing it with a day of fasting. They considered the festivities “a popish festival with no biblical justification.” Protests followed as pro-Christmas rioting broke out in several cities and for weeks Canterbury was controlled by the rioters, who decorated doorways with holly and shouted royalist slogans. Now that’s a true defense of the Christmas spirit!
Taking Cromwell’s lead, in Colonial America, the Puritans of New England outlawed Christmas celebrations in Boston from 1659 to 1681. The ban was eventually revoked, but by the Declaration of Independence in 1776, Christmas was not widely celebrated in the US. And it wasn’t until the flux of immigrants in the next century (especially the good Irish and Italian ‘papists’) when the Christmas spirit would really take hold again.
So sadly, there have been moments when Christians themselves almost succeeded in destroying the Christmas holidays. But this isn’t one of them. In fact, one suspects that the only thing which can kill Christmas are the religiously intolerant set on defending their ahistorical sense of the season’s ‘spirit’ or the concomitant commercialism that seems to accompany the season every year.
I can’t wait for the right wing talking heads to start harping on that.
A Handy Template Article for Your Next School Shooting, Mass Murder, or Inexplicable Slaughter of Innocent People
As many of you know, one year ago on December 14, 2012, Adam Lanza murdered twenty children and six adult staff members at Sandy Hook Elementary School in the village of Sandy Hook in Newtown, Connecticut. Before driving to the school, Lanza shot and killed his mother Nancy at their Newtown home. As first responders arrived, he committed suicide by shooting himself in the head.
Notable things have occurred since that shooting. Talks with Iran have been opened and years of diplomatic antagonism between the US and Iran are beginning to thaw. The Affordable Care Act has gone into effect and hundreds of thousands of US Citizens have health insurance for the first time, ever. Also, the website has been fixed. We hope.
Cuccinelli did not become Governor of Virginia. God whisperer, E.W. Jackson, went down in flames for the Lt. Governor slot and Herring is likely to seal the deal for the Attorney General office, making it a clean sweep for Democrats in an off-year election with their own party holding the Executive Branch. This is something that almost never happens. The take away is that change is possible in many things. Except one, apparently.
Based on data compiled by Slate.com using mainly media reports (because Republicans passed a law promising to defund the Atlanta-based CDC should it start tallying gun deaths), since Newtown, more than 11,400 people have been shot and killed in this country. Impressive! But that’s a low tally, actually, because the majority of gun deaths are suicides and the vast majority of suicides aren’t covered in the news. Of those shot and killed, at least 194 were children under 12.
Other notable non-happenings: since Newtown, no federal gun legislation has been passed, though multiple gun control measures fizzled out in the Senate without even making it to the Republican controlled House. But just that whiff of gun control was enough to send Red states into paroxysms. Kansas and Alaska lawmakers voted to enact laws nullifying federal gun regulations for guns manufactured and kept within state borders. Missouri Republican lawmakers passed a nearly identical bill, but failed to override Democratic Gov. Jay Nixon’s veto by one vote. Montana went to federal court to defend a similar law it passed in 2009. The law was overturned by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
Meanwhile, with the rabid 2nd Amendment secessionists momentarily held at bay, some states opted to double down on the dumb, voting to both loosen gun restrictions and clear the way for armed volunteers to guard schools. The apparent logic being more guns should be able to solve the problems that some guns never caused in the first place. Thus we see teachers ordered to gear up and get trained at shooting galleries. On the surface, this might seem outrageous, a kind of callous attempt by the NRA (and their sponsoring gun manufacturers) to deny culpability for the Newton shooting by devising– in advance– a specialized nationwide insanity defense.
I immediately thought, ‘well yes, arm the teachers and, while you’re at it, lets create a template form for mass shootings so that we don’t have to waste all this time writing up ‘original’ stories about something that will become—if it has not already– more common place than auto deaths.’
But with age comes wisdom. Given the fact that we, as a nation, haven’t done anything to prevent future massacres after 12 long months of slaughter, and, indeed, have gone out of our way to increase their likelihood, I began to realize it just wasn’t a priority for us. The Democrats are bipolar, wringing their hands about wanton massacres but scared to touch the issue for fear of the gun lobby, while the Republicans inhabit their usual cogently direct, if deeply cynical, sucking up to the NRA in all things no matter how deeply misanthropic (and make no mistake, a 30 round ammunition clip is deeply misanthropic).
So let’s just cut to the chase. Since our kids are obviously the root to all our angst –what with worrying about feeding them, educating them, protecting them (or at least our right to protect them with heavy weaponry) providing them with healthcare, and ultimately some form of retirement, we should take the Newtown School shooting as a lesson in one way of handling our many social ills, reduce our ballooning healthcare costs, dramatically cut our Social Security payouts and ultimately still preserve our cherished freedoms and The American Way of Life ™.
Once we arm teachers, and train them so they are excellent marksman (thank you in advance, NRA, we know you’d be willing to help) we’ll have them, on some appointed date—say, December 14—line up and shoot all their children, thus eliminating the future costs of education, healthcare and retirement in one fell swoop. The real glory of this plan, of course, is that we’ll be belt-tightening and cost cutting in the all American way we’ve come to know and love, which is to say, systematically, and with extreme violence. We’ll give the plan a really cool name like, “War on America’s Future.”
I’m betting Paul Ryan will be all over this.
Into this mess stepped Nelson Mandela
This strife among ourselves wastes our energy and destroys our unity. My message to those of you involved in this battle of brother against brother is this: Take your guns, your knives, and your pangas, and throw them into the sea! ~Nelson Mandela
When I was 25 in 1985, I took a course in South African political culture and current affairs. The general consensus at that time, at least among my professors, was that the lower third of Africa was headed inexorably towards murderous race war, probably within the next decade. The Reagan administration had no interest in mediating the situation and, in fact, tacitly supported the apartheid government in South Africa and its satellite in Rhodesia. South Africa had a nascent nuclear capability and a VERY well-armed white populous as well as a highly trained professional army and an extensive and brutal internal police apparatus. The African nationalists including the ANC had plenty of guns of their own, vastly superior numbers, time and moral authority. On the periphery, the Soviets, the CIA, the Israelis and the Organization of African Unity to name just a few, were all sniffing around. In the townships, a state of constant, low-level rebellion existed with civilians being killed on a daily basis either by a vicious police force or a murderous vigilante opposition. It seemed as if every night on the news there were more images of police massacres and the aftermath of “necklacing”. The Afrikaners were trying (and largely succeeding) to buy out the Zulus and make side deals with the mixed race half-casts who had marginally better rights than the blacks. The Communist wing of the ANC was threatening a full-scale reorganization of society if they took power and everyone knew that there was going to be a bloodbath in those circumstances. Would the US and Europe stand by if the Afrikaners lost and a black on white genocide began? Would the rest of the African continent and the US and Europe stand by if white South Africans won and sought to extend and intensify their own longstanding policy of ethnic and racial cleansing? If outside powers were seen to take a hand, would the Soviets get more involved, maybe through their client state Mozambique? After all, there are few places in the world of more strategic importance than the Cape. Southern Africa is a veritable treasure chest full of strategic materials like chromium, aluminum, beryllium, cobalt, diamonds and gold among other things. Many nations might be tempted to intervene for any number of reasons and a much larger and more general continental war was likely to start from a localized apartheid war. The Afrikaner administrations of Botha and later DeClerk were desperately looking for a way to step down from this precipice, ideally with their white supremacy intact, but there were few credible takers.
In the mid eighties, across Europe and the US, young people on college campuses began agitating for their schools and for major corporations to divest themselves of South African investments (I am proud to be one of those students), this threatened the last real connection the South African economy had with the West, and the Afrikaners understood that Reagan wouldn’t be there forever to protect them and Israel alone wasn’t much of a trading partner. The most militant elements on both the Afrikaner and Pan-African and Black Nationalist sides were ready and willing to kick this thing off, and I for one saw little chance that this could end in anything other than war waged on a map as big as the US with millions of civilians trapped in the middle.
Into this mess stepped Nelson Mandela, a man in the midst of his third decade of captivity, a man who had been tortured and abused, often in solitary confinement for as long as I had been alive. South African leader F. W. DeClerk deserves his share of the Nobel Peace Prize he and Mandela were awarded later for seeing the writing on the wall and choosing peace over war, but it is Mandela who shines. He brokered a peaceful transition to majority rule that convinced whites to largely remain in the country of their birth and keep the wheels of the economy turning, and convinced blacks to hold their rage in check and begin building a positive multiracial society. He did this through a brilliant political acumen and masterful diplomatic skill, but also in large part it seems through the power of his personal character and integrity. He had the credibility born through hardship and sacrifice among his colleagues in the ANC. This allowed him the room to negotiate with DeClerk. He had the gravitas and sense of the moment needed for the Afrikaners to take him seriously as a partner.
South Africa is not perfect and neither was Mandela, I am sure. The nation today has a terrible AIDS epidemic, and a generation later many blacks have yet to see much economic progress for themselves or their families. The ANC leaders who have come after Mandela are lesser men and they are prone to the kind of mortal weaknesses that apparently didn’t affect the great man, but one has only to look North to Zimbabwe (formerly Rhodesia) to see the way things might have gone if not for the smooth transition in the south. While Zimbabwe limps along on the verge of becoming a failed state still ripped by racial and class resentment on all sides, the nation Mandela built continues to nurture the seeds necessary to one day become an international powerhouse like Brazil or India.
What has happened in South Africa is still something of a miracle to me, and Mandela was the catalyst. He will of course be compared to Gandhi and MLK and there are clearly many similarities and cross-references, but perhaps the most striking and gratifying difference to me is that Nelson Mandela died in his bed at the ripe old age of 95 in a largely peaceful region of the world that he primarily made, not a martyr for whom we can only speculate as to what he might have done, but as a beloved and respected leader who served his nation and mankind to the fullest of his capacities.
When I was a young man, that part of the world looked set to explode. Because he lived and because he could put aside the wrongs done to him and his people, that never happened. We’ll never know just how bad it could have gotten. His strength gave others the strength to forgive while not forgetting; and for that the world owes Nelson Mandela a massive debt of gratitude.
~ Scott Price, APV President