The 'War on Christmas' myth (Part Three): Happy Saturnalia!

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Rather than being a fundamentally Christian holiday, Christmas is, in fact, built on pre-existing pagan celebrations, writes Stephen Keim SC.

[Read Part Two of The 'War on Christmas' myth: 'Australia is a Christian country']

CHRISTIANITY AND DEMOCRACY have never been synonyms and that, while some followers of Christ have definitely been there at those moments when society turned towards democracy, Christianity has, more often, been the agent of values alien to those with which we identify as part of our own modern Australian democracy.

So, let’s turn to Christmas.

There is another analogy between Christmas – as imagined by the Christmas warriors – and the recently completed same sex marriage debate. Warriors of the right combine an ahistorical consciousness with the claim that the world has always been as they imagine it to be.    

The truth, of course, is that, as a human institution, the celebration of Christmas has evolved over time and, even in Australia, will continue to evolve.

The celebration of the Northern Hemisphere’s winter solstice pre-dated the birth of Jesus of Nazareth. Pre-Christian Scandinavia commenced 12 days of Yule celebrations on the eve of the shortest day. In Rome, the bawdy Saturnalia celebration also went on for days and was a time of fun for all, even slaves, who were given a short burst of freedom. It was good politics, of course, when Christianity replaced pagan beliefs as the official religion to also take over the holidays which were a source of joy and celebration for ordinary people. The historical connections explain many of the pagan derived elements of Christmas celebrations, such as carolling, kissing under the mistletoe, gifts from the mythical Santa Claus, greenery, general gift giving, hanging decorations, holly, the Yule log and many others.   

So, any form of varying Christmas complained of by the Christmas warriors may, on closer examination, amount to taking the holiday back to its historical roots.

After Christianity became the state religion of the Roman Empire through its adoption by Emperor Constantine, the pagan festivities were largely retained, together with the rewriting of the underlying meaning of traditions by giving them a Christian theme. The pagan use of holly was retained, but said to be associated with Jesus’ crown of thorns.

Christmas Day itself took a while to catch on, with the Feast of the Epiphany having more prominence in Western Christianity during the early middle ages. Charlemagne did his thing for Christmas in 800 CE by getting crowned on Christmas Day. Just over 800 years later, in 1607, King James I insisted on plays and games on Christmas night. During the Reformation, the newly emerging Protestants added their emphasis by shifting the tradition of gift giving from 6 December to Christmas Day.

But one form of Protestant, the Puritans, conducted their own war on Christmas. Christmas has, in most ages, retained some of the spirit of the Saturnalia and, in part, the Puritans railed against the revelry including the indulgent eating and drinking. In both England and the American colonies, Puritans were heavily against Christmas celebrations of this kind. Puritans also, argued, that there was no scriptural basis for concluding that the Christ child was born on December 25. They complained, correctly, that celebrating Christmas was a thin excuse for continuing the old pagan celebrations of the longest night, and the prospect that the days would grow longer and, eventually, warmer.

At the same time they were supporting the power of parliament and opposing the idea of King Charles I that kings were divinely appointed by God, with emphatic success at least in the case of Charles, personally, Puritans were opposing pagan rituals, especially those associated with Christmas.     

Having gained power in England, the Puritan dominated Parliament prohibited the celebration of Christmas in 1647. Traditional Christmas merriment was banned, as was preaching on Christmas Day. In 1659, Puritan dominated Massachusetts banned the celebration of Christmas. The law described Christmas as superstition and a dishonour to God, and banned any observation of the day even by taking the day off work. A fine of five shillings was the defined penalty. 

Christmas values did not recover in the U.S. until about 1840 and the day became a national holiday only in 1870. In the United States, some short stories by Washington Irving were influential in the comeback and, in the United Kingdom, Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol was even more important in defining the spirit of Christmas.

The history of Christmas shows us that, in a community or a nation, customs and celebrations change over the years. Sometimes, the Christian contribution to Christmas added joy and meaning. At other times, the Christian influence wished to call the whole thing off. Most of the time, even in devout households, the excesses of the Saturnalia have still been honoured. (One only has to think of that sleepy feeling that one feels by about 3pm on Christmas Day to acknowledge that fact.) The beliefs and values of a community are a confluence, like a mighty river. All of us contribute our ideas but they mix with and are diluted through time by the ideas of others. No one owns orthodoxy. It is the same with Christmas.  

Which brings me to this year’s war. Sometimes, killing Christmas can take strange forms. The theme we have observed is that Christmas warriors accuse other people of killing Christmas by not acknowledging the religious – indeed, the specifically Christian – significance of the holiday, for example, by saying a non-religious alternative to “Merry Christmas”. In the words of Donald Trump, we’re saying “Merry Christmas”, again.

Surprisingly, however – and it is not just the times – the strain of religio-politics that, on religious grounds, opposes a woman’s right to have an abortion and champions tax cuts at the cost of vulnerable people’s access to medical care, also opposes a woman’s right to complain about sexual harassment and sexual assault. And taking the sexual assault out of Christmas is the latest complaint made by Fox News’ anchor Laura Ingraham, on behalf of Christmas warriors everywhere, about other people killing Christmas. Still, sexual assault is facilitated by excessive consumption of alcohol — all round, any suggestion of moderating the alcohol intake is also a contribution to the death of Christmas. The Christian Christmas warrior, in the form of Ms Ingraham, has come to defend Christmas from the pagan fun-killers by spruiking the (pagan) Saturnalia. Some kind of weird turn of the wheel has taken place.


The irony would be delicious if there was any irony there at all. Perhaps the lesson is that the religious right’s culture warriors care little about either people or religion. Their religious concerns have been sublimated to the pursuit of political power. That is not to say certain conservative Christians do not have sincere views about the perennial question of what it means to live a good life. But the cost of political power is perpetual compromise and Faustian bargains lie at every corner. Political power means that one has to deal with people like President Trump for whom the good life was never a concern. One has to pursue attack-lines that have, themselves, nothing to do with living the good life.

The killing Christmas myth is, essentially, a narrative among many like the idea of their being only one template of marriage laid down by God and adhered to through all of human history. Such narratives are valuable to cultural warriors. They provide opportunities to straw case your hated political opponents and to reinforce your supporters’ acquired prejudices.

At the end of the day, however, such narratives, like the killing Christmas narrative, are myths, pure and simple.

You can follow Stephen Keim on Twitter @StephenKeim1.

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