Thursday, December 22, 2011

Jesus, the Reason for the Season? Or Not?

There is more to Christmas than Christ, and for some
there's less to Christmas than Christ, much less than
Christ, but that's just fine.
A friend of mine recently told me a story about Christmas and grinches. My friend teaches at a private school somewhere in the Northeast.  The school has adopted a strong secular identity and few of the students come from Christian homes.  There is a policy forbidding so much as a poinsettia plant in the faculty lunch-room or a jolly elf in the library.  Even reading The Polar Express is verboten and a teacher was reprimanded for wearing a green sweater with a red and green plaid skirt.  Boy, anybody who thinks only conservatives are rigid needs to visit this school!!!  Well, my friend told me, one parent was upset because—horror of horrors—there was a Christmas tree near the entrance to the parking lot.  You see, this school rents its property from a Christian Church to whom the parking lot belongs but this particular parent obviously thought that the landlords should refrain from decorating their property because she did not want her child to be exposed to Christmas.  A Christmas tree has no religious significance.   And so let’s take a break from this Founding Father and Christian Nation thing and indulge ourselves a bit in a look at the history of Christmas.  After all Jesus “is the reason for the season.’  Or not.  Now when I say that, I am not being anti-Christian or on the “Take Christ out of Christmas” bandwagon.  I am a devout Roman Catholic—more devout than most I would suggest—but we need to look at Christmas in its wider picture context if we want to consider intelligently the issue of the crèche on courthouse lawns that we have been looking at. 
      While Christians began celebrating the birth of Jesus on December 25th in the fourth century they built their celebration on already existing “pagan” festivals.  History does not know the actual date of Christ’s birth.  Some argue that the story’s relating to us that “shepherds were keeping watch in the fields by night over their sheep” argues against a December date as in the winter the sheep would be kept in barns through the cold nights.  I am not familiar with sheepherding protocols in first century Palestine but I do know that December in Israel/Palestine has long nights with low temperatures—not as low as Idaho or Colorado and American sheep, but regularly in the 40’s and occasionally below freezing.  And, in any case, contemporary biblical scholarship would not consider night-time temperatures of Bethlehem fields relevant to whatever historical/biographical shreds might be recoverable from the gospel texts.   Suffice it to say that we don’t know the actual date of the birth of Jesus.  Nor do we need to. The Queen’s Birthday is a Saturday in June—any Saturday her government might choose for the festivities—though she was born on April 21st.  But it rains a lot in London in April (April showers,May flowers, and all that) so it is celebrated another day.  Same with Jesus.  Who knows when he was born, but December 25th works well as everybody needs a lift from the dark days and longer darker nights of midwinter.  And long before Jesus was even a twinkle in some celestial star (I am speaking here of the man born, not the Word who became incarnate in that birth) people were reveling at midwinter.  According to the historian the Venerable Bede (8th century) the ancient Anglo-Saxon peoples celebrated Modranecht (Mother’s Night) on December 25th.   The Celts had Meán Geimhridh—the festival of the winter solstice.  Germanic and Nordic folk had Yule.  Baltic peoples had Ziemassvētki.  The Slavs had Rozhanista.  The Roman/Graeco culture had a variety of feasts in honor of the god Bacchus, the god Saturn, or the Sol Invictus: the unconquered Sun.  Customs varied from culture to culture but certain common features included gift-giving, revelry (usually to excess), hospitality, and the use of light.  The further north, the darker and longer the nights, the more ardent were the celebrations.  Greens were often brought indoors to decorate the home (and probably to freshen the air of the houses closed tight against winter cold) and to keep the awareness of nature when all outside seemed dead and awaiting the rebirth spring would provide. 
     Initially there seems to have been some resistance among Christian theologians to the idea of celebrating the Birth of Jesus as it was too close in concept to the pagan celebrations honoring the birth of various deities.  Of course Kings, Pharaohs, and Emperors regularly had their birthdays celebrated but primitive Christianity distanced itself from such royal celebrations as well because the implication was attributing divinity to the monarch being celebrated.  It does seem by the middle of the fourth century however that the feast was being celebrated at Rome from where it spread eastwards to Constantinople and the Churches of the East.  This makes it somewhat of the exception as most of the ancient feasts began in the Eastern Church(es) and spread westward to Rome.  The Church in the West was always inclined to a more Spartan liturgical style than the more exotic East.  By the end of the fourth century Christmas had achieved great popularity as it was used to combat the Arian heresy that denied Jesus full divinity, equal to the Father.  Christmas became an affirmation of the idea that in the birth of Jesus, God (the Word, the Second Person of the Trinity) became human, uniting in one person the human and divine natures. 
     The name Christmas derives from the Old English Christemaesse—Christ’s Mass—even as other feasts were called after the Mass celebrated on that day—Michaelmas  (St. Michael’s Day, September 11th ) or Martinmas (St. Martin’s Day, November 11th). 
     It’s clear that our contemporary Christmas is an amalgamation of Christian and Pagan elements.  Christianity has often adopted and then adapted indigenous customs, “baptizing” them as it were with Christian meaning.  The Chinese Rites controversy of the seventeenth century is one of the more interesting examples of this practice and the rejection by Rome of the use of Chinese practices by the Jesuit missionaries was a huge mistake from an evangelizing point of view.  Pius XII, in one of the first acts of his papacy, admitted the mistake and to remedy it repealed much of the legislation of Clement XI that had outlawed the incorporation of Chinese practices into Catholic liturgy and devotions.  We will have to do a study of the Chinese Rites issue in the future but before we blame Clement XI for his narrow mindedness we need to locate him in the ambiance of the late seventeenth and early eighteenth century.  This was the same time, incidentally, that Puritans in Boston were outlawing Christmas because of its pagan roots.  And so we should distinguish between the Christian meaning of Christmas (the liturgical celebration of Christ’s birth with its worship services, scripture readings, and sacred songs) and the cultural survivals of pre-Christian practices with evergreens, blazing lights and fires, revelry and (not so sacred)songs.   They both have their place but a Festooned and light-bedecked tree is no more a Christian symbol than is a Halloween Jack-o-lantern or a Fourth-of July firecracker.  So get over the Christmas tree in the Park or the wreath of lights on the lamppost.  And while you’re at it, let Ms. Paula wear that red sweater and plaid skirt: she looks real cute in it. 

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