Confessions of an Anonymous Coward

Saturday, January 06, 2007

The Holiday Season

Okay, I've gone a long time again without posting, but I've spent much of the last two weeks over at my parents' house. My brother was in town with his family, and given that I don't get to spend much time with my brother I stayed at my parents' house for the holidays.

I've mentioned my brother in my post about Utah, and I said then that he had become "rather sanctimonious". Actually, that was a poor choice of words. He's perhaps somewhat overzealous in some ways, but the definition of "sanctimonious" implies an element of hypocrisy, and I really don't think there's anything hypocritical about my brother's zeal. I may think him misguided, but I don't think him insincere. I may disagree with his berating my mother for the sin of shopping on Sunday--but after all, he was only sticking by what he believes in, and there's an admirable side to such integrity, however misplaced. Heck, I was much the same myself before my deconversion, in some ways--I've referred before to the fact that I'd followed the church leaders' advice in eschewing seeing any R-rated movies, despite the fact that this advice is widely ignored by most of the church members I know. There's something to be said for being faithful to one's principles, and I shouldn't fault my brother for that.

And anyway, despite his misguided zeal (and having only recently escaped from such indoctrination myself, I really can't hold that against him too much), my brother is someone who, overall, I enjoy spending time with. Which is part of why I kind of dread coming out with my atheism, because, while it's certainly not going to mean my brother will want nothing more to do with me, it is going to change our relationship. But anyway, I didn't intend to write this entry about my brother. No, mostly I guess I want to write about the holidays.

I've been giving some thought to Christmas. It's pretty well known that most of the traditional trappings of Christmas--from Christmas trees to yule logs--are pre-Christian in origin. What we now call Christmas didn't start out as a Christian celebration at all; it was co-opted by early Christians to encourage the celebration of the birth of their Savior by tying it in with celebrations already existing. There's good reason to believe that Christ wasn't born anywhere near Christmas at all; if we take the Biblical account of his birth at face value (and of course if we don't the whole question becomes moot anyway), then the fact that the shepherds were watching their flocks outside, among other things, points to the event's having more likely taken place in the spring. (As a matter of fact, LDS doctrine is that Christ's birth has been revealed to have taken place on April 6, which fits in with the available evidence--though it also holds that it took place in the year A.D. 1, which raises some chronological issues involving Herod's death.) Christmas, as it's now celebrated, is a thin Christian veneer over a rich pagan core.

None of this was news to me since my deconversion; I'd known all of it when I still considered myself a faithful member of the church. Most educated Christians are, I assume, aware of the pagan origins of Christmas festivities. But only the most perfervid fundamentalists--and a few sects like the Jehovah's Witnesses--presume to forbid the celebration of Christmas because of these pagan roots. Most Christians who have some knowledge of the history of Christmas have much the same attitude as I did about it--that it doesn't really matter; that the point, from a Christian perspective, is just that the birth of the Savior be commemorated, and whether or not that commemoration happens to take place on the day he was really born isn't particularly relevant, nor are the precise customs that accompany it. Might as well stick with tradition.

But what I'd been thinking about this holiday is that, well, since virtually nothing about Christmas is really Christian, I didn't see any reason to feel uncomfortable still celebrating it. Which I'd like to, because I tend to have a certain fondness for tradition, and there are a lot of Christmas traditions I'd be loath to leave off completely. I'd still like to celebrate Christmas. Oh, sure, maybe not with all the religious hymns (not that I have any problem with singing those in a choir or anything--and some of them really do have beautiful music--but I'm certainly not going to take them as seriously as I used to), but for the most part I can still celebrate Christmas perfectly comfortably, without feeling like a hypocrite. Although it's sometimes claimed, in the furtherance of certain political interests, that Christmas has really become a fully secular holiday, the truth is that it hasn't...yet. Most people still regard Christmas as a Christian holiday. But it needn't be, and maybe that can change.

Except...then I realized that there was one important detail in which Christmas still had a strong Christian connection. Take out the overtly religious Christmas carols, the crèches, the angels or stars of Bethlehem topping the trees, and there's still one big thing left that betrays the holiday's religious connection. Its name. Christmas. Christ-mass. The mass of Christ. Yeah...there's really no turning Christmas into a fully secular holiday as long as it's got that name.

But...what to do about that? We can't just arbitrarily slap another name on there. And while the holiday does perhaps have other names, they're not much better. Xmas--no good; even if you pronounce it "eks-mas", it's still far too obviously just Christmas in a thin disguise. Noel--that derives ultimately from a word for "birth"; it refers to the nativity. It's another clearly Christian name. And going too far back to the pre-Christian roots just gets silly. Call me a traditionalist, but I'm not about to say I'm celebrating Saturnalia.

Ah, but then it occurred to me--there's one word that's often still used to refer to the Christmas season, but which doesn't have a Christian origin at all. Yule. Though Christmas is still often called Yuletide--and the most common word for Christmas in many languages even today is cognate to "Yule"--Yule was originally a pre-Christian festival, from which most of the aforementioned Christian traditions first stemmed.

So I think maybe next year I'm celebrating Yule. At least, that's what I'll be telling myself. If by then I haven't come out as an atheist yet, then as far as my family's concerned I'll still be celebrating Christmas.


At 1/07/2007 7:24 AM, Blogger Deacon Barry said...

Christianity co-opted the midwinter festival into its own festival calender. All that's happening is the pagan festival is now sucking the christian connotations from the name. The word 'Christmas' no longer evokes the meaning 'Christ's Mass', but instead has become a one word evocation of green and red, holly and mistletoe, sleigh bells, reindeer, tinsel and trees.
Like it or not, the Christian add-ons are now permanently part of the festival. They do act as a focus though. Without them Yule might have gone the way of the other festivals at Beltane and Midsummer, and there wouldn't be any big celebration at this time, only smaller celebrations for each country at different times. In America, Thanksgiving or Independence Day might have taken its place. Certainly here in Scotland it would be Hogmanay which would be celebrated big time.
Actually, until the middle of the 20th century, Christmas was a normal working day here.
What's in a name anyway? You get out of Christmas what you put into it.

At 1/07/2007 8:34 PM, Blogger Qalmlea said...

Eh, call it what you want. I wish people a Merry Christmas, as well as a Happy Solstice, and any other titles that suit my fancy. Whichever name works for you, go with it.

At 1/08/2007 5:56 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Everything I need to know about life (or holiday celebrations), I learned from watching Seinfeld.

"Festivus for the rest of us!" has become my motto since leaving mormonism.

Eh, who am I kidding? I still celebrate Christmas, but only because I like to give (and get) presents. Bring on the yuletide cheer!

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