The Reason for the Season
Copyright © 2004 by Stephen W. Potts. All rights reserved.
Once again, as most of us busy ourselves with Christmas preparations, we are often reminded — by the presence of church-sponsored billboards and Salvation Army Santas ringing in the change — to contemplate the real reason for the season.
For that, of course, we have to reflect back a couple thousand years, to the empire ruled by Rome.
There, around the winter solstice every year, Roman subjects celebrated the winter planting with a prolonged feast of partying, purging, and cleansing — the Saturnalia — named for Saturn, originally a fertility god most likely inherited from the Etruscans. Even the Mediterranean could appear bleak and lifeless in the darkest days of winter, and during Saturnalia celebrants decorated their homes and public places with evergreens, burned candles and lamps against the long nights, and warmed themselves with fertile imaginations.
Even after the embrace of Christianity, in the empire’s decadence, Romans continued to greet winter with toga parties that put the modern versions to shame and that clearly embarrassed the early church fathers. In a desperate act of co-optation, in 354 Bishop Liberius of Rome proclaimed Brumalia — the festival of the light-worshipping Mithras cult, celebrated on December 25 — to be the birthdate of Jesus Christ. This date was officially adopted by Constantinople, center of the Eastern Empire, the Orthodox Church, and the increasingly less fashionable Mithras cult, in 379.
As Christianity spread north to the Germanic lands, it found winter festivals every bit as lusty as those of ancient Rome. Like the Saturnalians and Brumalians, the Teutons, Angles, Saxons, and Vikings were fond of spending their even darker solstices in drinking and feasting. Choruses of semi-inebriate party-goers, frequently women, wandered around the villages, chanting traditional songs known as “carols.” To salute the persistence of life in these snowbound northern winters, they burned Yule logs and hauled into their homes the only green things growing that time of year: freshly cut fir trees, boughs of holly, and sprigs of mistletoe. This last was especially worshipped as a symbol of fertility, since it bore berries in winter and was thus hung over marriage beds and other sites where fertile behavior was anticipated. The Germanic tribes were not familiar with kissing, by the way.
Happily, the Yuletide feast also reportedly began around the night of December 24 (at least according to the English monk-historian Bede), so here again it was not difficult to superimpose the Christian holiday on the pagan celebration. By the millenium — the year 1000 or 1001 — only a few diehard Vikings were chiding their fellows to hark back to the true meaning of Yule, and to forego that outlandish kissing under the mistletoe in favor of some serious fertility.
For nearly a thousand years, the Christian reading of our winter celebration has reigned dominant, if superimposed upon the original pagan date and trappings. Now in our times we are witnessing yet another paradigm shift in the West, one being led — naturally — by the United States. Just as Christianity co-opted the pagan holidays, we now see Christmas reinterpreted by the 21st century’s new religion. I mean, of course, consumerism.
Somewhere in the 20th century, the feast of St. Nicholas (December 11), when good children received toys and candy and bad children a chunk of coal or a spanking, became conflated with the birth of Jesus. Suddenly, good children — i.e., those whose parents could afford it — were receiving birthday presents, delivered by St. Nicholas not on his feast day but on December 25. The name “Saint Nicholas” itself got de-sanctified into “Santa Claus.” My parents informed me — so it must be true — that as late as the 1930s good children still only received a few trinkets and sweets in their stockings. But as America became a consumer society after World War II, the humble stocking was superceded by mounds of presents beneath the Christmas tree. Boomers carried that practice, in turn, to their own children. A new tradition was born.
Just as our pagan ancestors celebrated the winter solstice with fertility rites, and as past Christians acknowledged it with worship and charity, the modern American now endures the darkest days of the year with an orgy of spending. Instead of celebrating mass, we celebrate mass consumption, in our own Holy of Holies — the Mall. Oh sure, we nod to the practices of our forebears — the pagan fir tree, the Christmas Eve service — but we devote the overwhelming chunk of our spirit and energy to buying and consuming. The holiday season is the most hallowed time of the annual business cycle, when the year’s bounty pours out of our checking accounts into the coffers of capitalism’s high priests.
Many continue to claim this is first and foremost a Christian country, but hard evidence speaks to the contrary. In this case, we are definitely, as a people, not putting our money where our mouths are. Reliable figures are surprisingly hard to find, but most suggest that Americans spend over $1000 per capita on consumer goods between Thanksgiving and New Year’s, but barely double-digits on seasonal charity. Just ask yourself how much you lavish in money and time each December on shopping for gifts, decorations and libations, compared to how much you donate to genuinely needy strangers or the organizations that serve them.
It’s clear that the new paradigm has absorbed the old ones in a time-honored pattern. Have your Yuletide feast and then nuzzle under the mistletoe; hum a hymn or two and drop a dollar in the Salvation Army bucket. Just face up to the fact that consumerism — in the new millenium — is the real religion of most Americans. Spending money to engorge ourselves and fatten the economy is now the Reason for the Season, whether we like it or not.
The time has come to flaunt your new true faith, America. Haul out those credit cards and checkbooks. And let us pay.