The Two Faces of Christmas

In Comment, Non-fiction on December 25, 2011 at 2:09 am

An Essay by Alex Ashley

I expect to garner the wrath of thousands by writing this article; I’m sure that hell will rain down on me without an umbrella.  Death threats, perhaps? Maybe one of those nifty little exploding packages by Post? I imagine if I make this article too long, I’ll soon be blacklisted and joining the Dixie Chicks wherever they are.  Nevertheless, I come fully prepared to accept the blazing inferno of bitter, hateful controversy I am about to ignite.  And here’s why:

I hate Christmas.

It isn’t, of course, that I hate the people who celebrate Christmas, any more than I hate the people who drive Hummers or draw obscenities on the walls of public restrooms.  But I loathe the holiday, and wish it were illegal.  In fact, it was illegal.  In my research, I found it fascinating to learn that in the 1600’s, the holiday we now call “Christmas” was formally banned, on the grounds that it was a pagan festival that threatened a Christian nation, England, and some American colonies.  If you celebrated the holiday, or even stayed home from work on that particular day, a penalty was exacted.  It took over 200 years for Christmas to become legal in the United States, beginning in 1856.

But here’s what I’d like to know: How has a holiday with such a scarred past become one of the world’s most popular celebrations?


            According to history—and this is the part that really gets me—the evolution of this holiday  really began with a sort of “shotgun wedding” between the story of Jesus’ birth, or “the nativity,” and a host of pagan traditions and observances that would make the hairs on the back of your neck stand up if you’re a Bible reader in any sense of the word.

The establishment of December 25 evolved not from biblical precedent,” says The Christmas Encyclopedia, “but from pagan Roman festivals held at year’s end.”  This was about the time of the winter solstice in the Northern Hemisphere; these were festivals that included the Saturnalia, in honor of Saturn, god of agriculture, “and the combined festivals of two sun gods, the Roman Sol and the Persian Mithra.” Both birthdays were celebrated on December 25, (the winter solstice according to the Julian calendar).  Get this: It wasn’t until the year 350 that this date, the 25th of December, was labeled Jesus’ “birthday,” and of all people by Pope Julius I.  Mister Pope had just “Christianized” a long lineup of Pagan traditions.  “The Nativity gradually absorbed or supplanted all other solstice rites,” states the Encyclopedia of Religion. “Solar imagery came increasingly to be used to portray the risen Christ (who was also called Sol Invictus), and the old solar disk . . . became the halo of Christian saints.

Add to that spine-chilling-slash-nauseating backstory the fact that the very symbols of Christmas are equally joined at the hip with mysticism and heathen religions of old.  The Christmas tree is one example.  The New Encyclopædia Britannica says: “Tree worship, common among the pagan Europeans, survived after their conversion to Christianity in the Scandinavian customs of decorating the house and barn with evergreens at the New Year to scare away the devil and of setting up a tree for the birds during Christmastime.” There’s the mistletoe, which Britain’s Druids of the middle-ages believed would ward off demons spells, and other kinds of evil.  Holly branches were formally used to adorn temples during Saturnalia, the week-long midwinter festival devoted to Saturn, the god of agriculture.

And then you have our dear friend, old St. Nick, disappointing children and turning trusted parents into petty liars since forever ago.     The “Saint Nicholas” in question “is said to have been bishop of Myra, a city of Asia Minor, in the fourth century C.E. In antiquity, the details of his life became confused with those of another cleric of the same name, who lived in the sixth century. So legends of different origins surrounded this person. One, among the many, called this Nicola the protector of children because it was said that he resurrected three children who had been cut to pieces and pickled by a wicked innkeeper! It is not surprising, therefore, that during the Middle Ages, an unscriptural veneration of this personage spread and supposed relics of his were much sought after.  According to the book Puglia-Dal Gargano al Salento, Nicola, known in Latin as Sanctus Nicolaus, “became Santa Claus in lands north of the Alps and later in North America; his bishop’s cloak was transformed into a fur-trimmed cassock, his miter into a hood, and the saint into a charitable, white-bearded old man with a bag full of presents.” Lo and behold, Father Christmas! (Awake! Magazine).  Apparently, Santa Clause was also “executed” in 1951 in Dijon, France, for being ” a usurper and a heretic.” In front of some 250 horrified children, an effigy of Santa Clause was set of fire, and a communique declared: “Falsehood cannot awaken the religious feelings of children, and is in no way a method of education.”


      Take away the repulsive link Christmas has with Satan worship, however, and you’re still left with the debilitating effect the avaricious commercialization of Christmas has come to have on modern culture.  Forced into debt by the giving of obligatory gifts, Christmas—according to the complaints of many—often does little more than send the whole country spiraling downward into a vortex of financial burden and economic anxiety.  Too, there’s the keen anticipation of children round the world who are met with astonishing disappointment when their explicit requests are neglected by the big, fat, man in red.  There is even a statistic that links an increase in child suicide with Christmastime dissatisfaction, which makes me think of the mythical Santa Clause as less like a big, fluffy teddy bear, and more like the diabolical, twice-evil brother of Doctor Kevorkian—in a manner of speaking.

Family Values

      If I were to go on record as saying anything positive about the holiday, however, it would be that the genuine interest in family values many people have is admirable.  People all across the nation go to great lengths to be with their loved ones during Christmas.  But again, there’s a catch: If family is the focus for so many people during the Christmas season, why are they dependent on a Government-sponsored holiday? And if the “Christmas spirit” is so heartwarming and exemplary, why does it come around only once a year?

An essay entitled “The Spirit of Christmas,” published by the Royal Bank of Canada, stated: “All too many ‘Christians’ only qualify for that description conceptually for a few weeks every year, oozing good will towards their fellow men until after the New Year, when they can go back to their dog-eat-dog existence and their indifference to the plight of other human beings.” What is “essentially wrong” with the Christmas spirit, continued the same letter, is that people do not have it “all year round.”

Whatever the case may be, I’ve come to see that there are two faces to the Christmas holiday: The one people talk about—the face that glorifies the long-held, beloved traditions of the American family, the one that puts exemplary qualities on display for all to see.  And then there’s the other face, the one most people know about, but will never acknowledge; the face that dupes families around the globe into living a lie; the face that could not be built more blatantly on a foundation of brazen duplicity.  Dated February 22, 1841, Abraham Lincoln wrote in his letter to George E. Pickett: “I never encourage deceit, and falsehood, especially if you have got a bad memory, is the worst enemy a fellow can have. The fact is truth is your truest friend, no matter what the circumstances are.”

I agree.

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