Yule Wars, Episode Three: Attack of the Clowns
Copyright © 2006 by Stephen W. Potts. All rights reserved.
For the third year in a row, the Religious Right declared a War on Christmas. In the stables of Faux News, Blowhards Bill O’Reilly and Sean Hannity have been joined by anchor John Gibson, author of a screed with the windy title The War on Christmas: How the Liberal Plot to Ban the Sacred Christian Holiday Is Worse Than You Thought — published by Sentinel, one of those rightwing vanity presses.
In the tiny minds of these Christian soldiers, the celebration of Christ’s birth is under uniform assault by “secular progressives” in public and private sectors alike. For instance, would you believe that the municipalities of Plano, Texas, and Saginaw, Michigan, have officially banned the use of red and green together during this season, according to, respectively, Gibson and O’Reilly? Or that (according to other Christmas warriors) the megaretailer Target has banished all references to Christmas from its advertising and sales floors?
Maybe you would believe this if you were among the Faux Faithful. But, once again, you would be believing falsehoods. In fact, when contacted, the town supervisor of Saginaw reported that “O’Reilly’s comments are flat out not true. . . . [T]he township has red and green Christmas lights adorning [its] building.” As for Target — when Washington Post journalist Ruth Marcus logged onto the store’s website and searched “Christmas,” she got 39,197 matches. If the Christian soldiers are not actually divorced from the truth — as conservatives they do not believe in divorce — they are certainly estranged from it. So what’s new?
Certainly not the deep ignorance displayed by so-called traditionalists, matched only by that of too many public officials who seem to feel that any seasonal display — of decorated trees or strings of lights, for example — might give offense to non-Christians. We see such shared misunderstanding in the case of Sea-Tac International Airport, which responded to Rabbi Elazar Bogomilsky’s demand that an electric menorah be placed in the public spaces by removing all Christmas trees. By the time the controversy reached the wingnut media as more evidence of the War on Christmas, Bogomilsky had received dozens of death threats from devout Christians.
This is the time to ask the BIG QUESTION, the one both sides of this particular controversy have failed to ask: What the hell do fir trees and electric lights have to do with the myth of Jesus? I mean, really?
Nothing, is the BIG ANSWER. One seeks in vain for allusions to either in the New Testament tale. In fact, it is noteworthy that today’s version of the Nativity, as conveyed from the pulpits of many a nave — and knave — has been cobbled together from two of the four Gospels. Only Matthew and Luke, both written eighty years after the First Noel, make any reference to same. Matthew begins the story at 1:18 with Joseph’s embarrassment at having a pregnant fiancée and continues through chapter 2 with Herod’s response and the wise men bearing gifts. Luke proves far more extensive and inventive: here we have a prolonged angelic annunciation that takes up much of Chapter 1, followed in Chapter 2 by the census that sends the holy family to Bethlehem (an addition not supported by history, needed to get Jesus born in the city of David), the babe in the manger, and the shepherds. But no wise men. No reference to December 25. And no trees, no tinsel, no lights, no wall-to-wall gifts — not so much as a Chia Pet.
The holiday punch-line? Both sides of the so-called War on Christmas are confusing the secular celebration with the religious observance. Most of the trappings of the season descend — as is widely known but rarely acknowledged — from pagan solstice festivals like the Germanic Yule and the Roman Saturnalia. From the former come the yule log and glögg, as well as the “Christmas” tree, the holly wreath, and mistletoe — all evergreens that betokened the endurance of life in the depths of those dark northern winters. The Romans bequeathed us the lighting of lights, overeating, the office party, and the date December 25, the day on which these sun worshippers welcomed back the sun. Gift-giving was not a big part of the holidays until the twentieth century; the closest Christian analogy was the token reward or punishment of children by St. Nicholas, who actually arrives more than two weeks before Christmas.
Indeed, since the rise of the modern Yule celebration in the mid-nineteenth century, usually dated to the publication Dickens’s A Christmas Carol, all of these popular trappings of the holiday have been attacked by the religious, making it even more bizarre that these very practices have now been embraced by O’Reilly and ilk as sacred. Regarding the replacement of “Merry Christmas” by “Season’s Greetings” and “Happy Holidays” in the bedecked halls of commerce, His Holiness fumed, “Every company in America should be on their knees thanking Jesus for being born. Without Christmas, most American businesses would be far less profitable.” So even this Über-Christian now views holiday materialism as religious observance. Equally screwy is that the Reverend James Dobson and others in the pre-Rapture crowd identify as blasphemy the phrase “Happy Holidays.” But why? “Holiday” stems etymologically from the Old English “haligdaeg,” to wit, “holy day.” That’s right: the objectionable phrase actually means “Happy Holy Days.”
For them, of course, this seasonal greeting is evil because it is too inclusive. In their poor benighted state they want — and even believe — Christmas to be the only holy day on the winter calendar. Quite sensibly, most of us welcome all the traditions devised by our various ancestors to get us through the dark, S.A.D. days surrounding winter solstice. Though not a believer myself, in honor of the oldtime pagans I hang a string of lights around my door and buy a tiny living tree to hug. I give Christmas presents, if only a handful for immediate family members, and party with friends. I seek out seasonal tamales at my local Mexican market, and this year I updated my latke recipe in honor of Hanukah. I would be happy to celebrate Kwanzaa or Eid if I knew how, but in any case I know where to find dishes from Africa and the Middle East. I look forward to Tet, when I hope to revisit my local Vietnamese restaurant. Holiday eclecticism tastes great.
Anyway, true followers of Christ have no business wallowing in paganism and materialism. As many a more hands-on Christian has noted, faith-based charities like the Salvation Army and the American Friends Service Committee could use all the support they can get this time of year. If you want to honor the message of Jesus in this season, isn’t that the best way? The energy that Hannity and Gibson and O’Reilly spend bashing FAO Schwarz and Toys “R” Us — for daring to market toys to all Americans and not just to devout Christians — could be better spent actually manifesting some Christian spirit. It is possible that the fighting Irish of Faux News are helping out Catholic charities who are feeding and sheltering the needy, but I am inclined to doubt it.
One might hope that the money collected by the most vehement Christian Right organizations to fight this holy war were likewise going to the least of our brethren, but one would hope in vain. The American Family Association took in $550,000 this year selling buttons and refrigerator magnets sporting War on Christmas slogans; the Christian Right law firm Liberty Counsel has taken in $350,000 by taking in believers with a “Christmas Action Pack” that includes buttons, bumper stickers, and a printed guide to harassing the secular, eclectic majority. This sounds suspiciously like war profiteering.
Whatever happened to “Peace and Good Will”? The Christian Right embraces neither. In fact, one news story coming out of Colorado in mid-November reported that a woman who hung a wreath shaped like a peace symbol got fined by her homeowners’ association when a number of her conservative Christian neighbors complained. Some thought it conveyed a Satanic message. So for these true believers Satan — not Christ — is the Prince of Peace!
Ultimately, the War on Christmas comes down to a postmodern war of words. The Christian soldiers are trying to commandeer all the trappings of the season for the explicit reason that they are called “Christmas” trees, “Christmas” presents, etc., and “Christ” is the key syllable in “Christmas.” By the same logic, however, Easter is indisputably pagan, because it is named for Eastre, the Old English goddess of the east, the dawn, and the spring sun. Anyway, why should the date of Christ’s resurrection float around on the lunar calendar? Why celebrate it with symbols of vernal fertility like eggs and rabbits? If the Christian exclusivists refuse to share the holy days on linguistic grounds, they lose that one, and sunrise services revert to their original purpose: worshipping the goddess rising in the East.
In fact, however, the Über-Christians have already lost, as they unwittingly admit given the fractured arguments they make. By whatever name, the Reason for the Season is fun and profit, not religious devotion. For most seasonal celebrants, Christmas has no more religious significance than any other holy-day.
The spiritually cramped can’t even look forward to the New Year. This January the secular progressive party continues as, right around Epiphany, the Republicans lose control of Congress. So let us end this holiday season by sticking another thumb in the myopic eye of the Right and proclaiming: HAPPY 2007!