Let’s start with a Christmas joke:
Q: "What's the difference between God and Santa Claus?"
A: "There is no God."
Ha ha ha. The fact is, dear readers, at least Santa—well, Saint Nicholas at least—was a real figure, if not a real bloke, even if the other inspirations for the Santa Claus character were not.
And the harsh fact is, I’m sorry to have to tell you, Christ himself was never even in Christmas --except in fiction and by order of the first Popes.
[The New Testament itself gives two different and incompatible stories of the birth of Jesus.] None of the four gospels gives any notion of what time of year (let alone in what year) the supposed Nativity occurred. Only two gospels mention the virginity of Mary and only one has any mention of a "manger" [i.e., a trough]. Nowhere is there any record of a "stable." Wise men and shepherds are likewise very unevenly distributed throughout the discrepant accounts. So that the placement of a creche surrounded by a motley crew of humans and animals has no more Scriptural warrant than does The Life of Brian. Moreover, the erection of this exhibit near the turn of the year is actually a placation of the old Norse gods of the winter solstice - or "Yule" as the pre-Christians sometimes called it.
I myself [says Christopher Hitchens] repose no faith in any man-made text or made-man redeemer, so when it's Christmas I say "Merry Christmas" with a clear conscience, as I respect Ramadan and Passover, and also because "Happy Holidays" is so thin and insipid. I don't mind if Christians honor the moment by displaying, and singing about, reindeer (a hard species to find in the greater Jerusalem/Bethlehem area). Same for the pine and fir trees that also don't grow in Palestine. I wish everybody joy of it.
And so do I. I just wish the Christians would leave off bashing us over the head with their myth—and their values.
And God doesn’t even like Christmas trees, for Chrissake!
Historians themselves know the "reason for the season," and it's not because of anything that happened away in a stable at a time of a non-existent census. Even the Archbishop of Canterbury knows the truth, conceding a few Christmasses ago that the Christmas story and the Three Wise Men -- the whole Nativity thing itself -- is all just "a legend." Legends borrowed in whole cloth from other times and other places, and usurped by the Christian church.
Speaking for myself, I really like myths and legends.
I’m even happier when we remember they’re stories, not historical accounts.
Fact is, 'Christmas' itself was originally not even a Christian festival at all. The celebration we now all enjoy was originally the lusty pagan festival to celebrate the winter solstice, the festival that eventually became the Roman Saturnalia (right). This time of year in the northern hemisphere (from whence these traditions started) is when days stopped getting darker and darker, and started once again to lengthen.
This was a time of the year for optimism. The end of the hardest part of the year was in sight (particularly important up in Lapland, the pagan home of the Norsemen where all-day darkness was the winter rule), and food stocks would soon be replenished.
All this was something worth celebrating with enthusiasm, with gusto and with plenty of food and drink and pleasures of the flesh -- and if those Norse sagas tell us anything, they tell us those pagans knew a thing or two about that sort of celebration! They celebrated a truly Salacious Saturnalia.
One popular celebration involved having a chap put on the horns and skin of the dead animal being roasted in the fire (worn with the fur side inside and the blood-red side outside ), and giving out gifts of food to revellers. This guy represented Satan, or at least some species of evil-doer, and the revellers celebrated beating him back for another year by making him a figure of fun (I swear, I'm not making this up).
Observant readers will spot that the gift-giving and the fur-lined red outfit (and even the name, almost) are still with us in the form of Santa. So Happy Satanmas, Santa!
SUCH WERE THE celebrations of the past. But the Dark Age Christian do-gooders didn’t like the pagan revels. Instead of bacchanalia, these ghouls of the graveyard wanted instead to talk about suffering and their sores, and to spread the misery of their religion worldwide; instead of throwing themselves into such lewd and lusty revels, they thought everyone should be sitting at home mortifying their flesh – and very soon they hit upon a solution: first they stole the festivals, and then they sanitised them. Instead of lusty revels with Satan and mistletoe, we got insipid nonsense around a manger along with Magi, stars and shepherds. (Just think, the first 'Grinch' who stole Christmas was really a Pope!)
So given this actual history, it's somewhat churlish of today's sanitised saints of sobriety to be complaining now about history reasserting itself and folk claiming Christmas back for their revels.
BECAUSE THE VERY BEST OF Christmas is still very much pagan, thank Odin. The mistletoe, the trees, and the presents; the drinking and eating and all the red-blooded celebrations; the gift-giving, the trees and the decorations; the eating and the singing; the whole full-blooded, rip-roaring, free-wheeling, overwhelming, benevolent materialism of the holiday -- all of it all fun, and all of it fully, one-hundred percent pagan. Says Leonard Peikoff in 'Why Christmas Should Be More Commercial', the festival is "an exuberant display of human ingenuity, capitalist productivity, and the enjoyment of life." I'll drink to all that, and then I'll come back right back up again for seconds.
Ayn Rand sums it up for mine, rather more benevolently than my brief introduction might have led you to expect:
“The secular meaning of the Christmas holiday is wider than the tenets of any particular religion: it is good will toward men—a frame of mind which is not the exclusive property (though it is supposed to be part, but is a largely unobserved part) of the Christian religion.
The charming aspect of Christmas is the fact that it expresses good will in a cheerful, happy, benevolent, non-sacrificial way. One says: ‘Merry Christmas’—not ‘Weep and Repent.’ And the good will is expressed in a material, earthly form—by giving presents to one’s friends, or by sending them cards in token of remembrance....
“The best aspect of Christmas is the aspect usually decried by the mystics: the fact that Christmas has been commercialized. The gift-buying is good for business and good for the country’s economy; but, more importantly in this context, it stimulates an enormous outpouring of ingenuity in the creation of products devoted to a single purpose: to give men pleasure. And the street decoration put up by department stores and other institutions—the Christmas trees, the winking lights, the glittering colors—provide the city with a spectacular display, which only ‘commercial greed’ could afford to give us. One would have to be terribly depressed to resist the wonderful gaiety of that spectacle.
And so say all of us. I wish you all, wherever you are a Cool Yule, a Salacious Saturnalia, and a very Happy Christmas.
And while I’ll be posting occasionally between now and next year, maybe about some of the neat myths stolen by the Christians, possibly even this afternoon, it might be a good time now to say formally, as far as this year goes, So Long, Farewell, Auf Wiedersehn. Goodbye.***
Be as good as you’d like to be over the break.
PS: Here’s some related Hot Facts from the Hot Facts Girl. Concentrate as well as you can…
** "A cancer. Like religion." Think that's harsh? You should try Landover Baptist's Bible Quizzes. Or Sam Harris's 'Atheist Manifesto.' Ouch! [Hat tip for both, good old Stephen Hicks] And, I confess, I pinched the quip from Australian comedy team The Doug Anthony All Stars.
*** Panic not, I won’t be away long. I’ll be posting occasionally over the summer break, and be back for good around the second week in January. Or so. Enjoy your holidays. I will be.