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Dec 22 2008

The True Meaning of Christmas

So what does Christmas really mean?

War on christmas
Among all the traditions of the holiday season, one that’s becoming increasingly familiar is the War on the Supposed War On Christmas. In this tradition — one that dates back to the sweet olden days of overt anti-Semitism — the Christian Right foams at the mouth about the fact that not everyone has the same meaning of Christmas that they do, and works themselves into a dither about things like store clerks politely recognizing that not everyone is a Christian by saying “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas.” Because in the mind of the Christian Right, it somehow disrespects their faith and impinges on their religious freedom to share a country with people who feel and act differently than they do.

Okay. Insert rant here about how the Christian Right isn’t actually interested in religious freedom and respect for their faith. They’re trying to establish a theocracy. They don’t care about religious and cultural plurality. They don’t care about the fact that winter holidays mean different things to different people, and that different people celebrate different ones and in different ways. They don’t care about the fact that not everyone in the country is Christian, and that lots of people who do call themselves Christian are actually pretty secular in both their everyday life and their celebration of the winter holidays.

No, scratch that. They do care about it. They think it’s bad.

But that’s not actually what I want to talk about today.

In the face of Bill O’Reilly and company screaming hatefully about the true meaning of Christmas, I want to talk — in true grade-school essay form — about what Christmas means to me.

Because I actually like Christmas.

Lights_in_the_tree
Christmas; Solstice; Hanukkah; Kwanzaa; Festivus; “the holidays”; whatever. I don’t have a strong attachment to any particular name or date or occasion. Any mid-winter holiday around the end of December will do. Lately I’ve been calling it either “the holidays” or “Santamas” (in honor of what Bart Simpson has described as the true meaning of the holiday: the birth of Santa). I was brought up culturally Christian, though, with Christmas trees and Santa and all that, and I do tend to refer to it as Christmas at least some of the time.

And I love it. I always have. I know it’s fashionable to hate it, and I get why people get annoyed by it — but I don’t. I love it. It’s one of my favorite times of the year.

And here’s what it means to me.

Axial_tilt
I think that holidays tend to rise up naturally out of the rhythms and seasons of a particular geographical area. And in parts of the world where winter is a big nasty deal, I think it’s almost inevitable that a winter holiday, at right around the darkest, shortest day of the year, is going to become the biggest holiday in the culture.

It’s been noted many times, for instance, that Hanukkah is far from the most important holiday in the Jewish religious calendar. What’s less well known is that Christmas isn’t the most important holiday in the Christian calendar, either. Christmas is pretty much a pagan midwinter holiday shoehorned into the Christian religious calendar for convenience. From a strictly religious standpoint, Easter is a much bigger ticket. (Getting born? Big whoop. Everybody gets born. Dying on the cross as a sacrifice for our sins, and getting resurrected three days later because he’s God? Now that’s what they’re talking about.)

Xmas shopping
And yet — in parts of the world where winter is a big nasty deal — Christmas has almost entirely eclipsed Easter, for all but the most devout. Christmas gets an entire month of frenzied eating and drinking and shopping and traveling and party-going and family drama. Easter gets — maybe — a nice dinner or brunch, plus for kids it acts as a sort of secondary candy- frenzy holiday to Halloween. If the holidays were really about Jesus, we’d be having a nice quiet dinner with friends and family in late December, maybe with a hunt for hidden chocolate Santas for the kiddies… and a massive social and economic whirl in March or April. As it’s commonly celebrated — at least in the U.S. — the meaning of Christmas is only partly about the Christian religion. And a pretty minimal part at that.

So what is the meaning of Christmas? Solstice? Santamas? The holidays? Etc.?

It’s cold. It’s dark. The days are short, and the nights are long. Life is harder than usual right now, and we’re cooped up in close quarters more than any other time of the year.

So let’s celebrate.

Whoville
Let’s sing. Let’s decorate. Let’s eat and drink. Let’s light candles and put up electric lights. Let’s have parties. Let’s visit our families and our friends. Let’s give each other presents. Let’s spend time together that’s specifically devoted to enjoying each other’s company, and take part in activities — like gift- giving and parties and big group dinners — that strengthen social bonds.

Let’s remind ourselves that life is worth living, and that the cold and dark won’t be here forever. Let’s remind ourselves that we care about each other, and remind ourselves of why.

That’s what this holiday means to me.

Happy holidays, everybody!

17 comments

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  1. 1
    Maria

    I read about this “war on Christmas” on different blogs and forums last year too, and I had trouble wrapping my brain about what it was all about. Here in Sweden Chistmas is probably the smallest of the non-issues, and I just couldn’t get what there was to fight about. But I think I am starting to understand it better now.
    Here Christmas is sprung partly from Christian traditions of course, but it has been mostly successfully secularised, and it is not even called ‘Christ Mass’ here, but ‘Jul’ (yule).
    As a life-long non-believer I have never felt weird about celebrating Jul. In my family it is all about a welcome holiday in mid-winter times, and about being with family and friends and the food and the presents. Jesus is never mentioned and never thought about.

  2. 2
    vel

    great post, Greta. Love that last paragraph.
    Happy Hannuchristmakwanzakah!

  3. 3
    Jim Robinson

    How did I miss Santamas? I’ve been using xmas, but really don’t care what we call it much. Eggnog, cookies, fire, booze, blinky lights, dance-along-nutcracker, pine trees, presents, carols, what’s not to like?
    Merry Xmas!

  4. 4
    John the Drunkard

    How much stronger than Xianity is the appeal of solstice celebration?
    Luke, ch2 v8:
    “And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night.”
    Shepherds don’t do this in December in the middle east. Its too damn cold, and their is nothing for the flocks to eat. The lad’s birthday was probably in spring.

  5. 5
    Elaine

    I so appreciate this blog posting. I’ve been having a really, really rough time about the whole holidays issue this year and this posting is very insightful and helpful. Next year, I will get off my butt and actually plan something.

  6. 6
    Julanar

    Actually, Yule/Jul came before Christmas, so it really isn’t a “secularized” version of Christmas. It’s the other way around: Christians started celebrating Christmas in December in order to lure people away from celebrating Yule and other pagan winter holidays, NOT because anyone actually thought that Jesus was born in December. So all that “keep Christ in Christmas” and “Jesus is the reason for the season” crap is based on a shameless lie. The Pagans are the REAL reason for the season.
    By the way, as a person who really hates Pennsylvania winters and would gladly move to Hawaii if I ever got the chance, I totally agree with you on the meaning of winter holidays.

  7. 7
    Engineer-Poet

    Just wanted to comment on this from Pharyngula:

    “Brains! “Brains! We don’t want brains!”

    And they don’t have any to begin with!

  8. 8
    Engineer-Poet

    Don’t ask me why “Brains” appeared twice, it wasn’t in the original paste and I inserted it but once. :/

  9. 9
    Rieux

    Julanar, I’m with you, of course, about the immediate provenance of Christmas, but….

    So all that “keep Christ in Christmas” and “Jesus is the reason for the season” crap is based on a shameless lie. The Pagans are the REAL reason for the season.

    But of course, even those Pagans wouldn’t have come up with the idea if it hadn’t been for the solstice.
    So c’mon–it’s axial tilt, baby! The planet preceded the Pagans.

  10. 10
    Maria

    “Actually, Yule/Jul came before Christmas, so it really isn’t a “secularized” version of Christmas. It’s the other way around:”
    Quite right!!
    I did not quite mean that Jul is a secularized version of Christmas though, in case I might have been unclear. It has always been called Jul here, and there has always been parts of it that are pagan in origin.
    Yes, the tradition to celebrate a holiday in mid-winter is much older than Christianity. What I meant was, that this holiday that at some point in time was ‘Christianised’ has now been mostly secularised here. But we do not call the now securalised version anything, or think that ‘Jul’ is the secularised version. It has been ‘Jul’ all along. They didn’t manage to change the actual name of the holiday it seems :-)
    Anyway, It’s sort of my point actually. Here this secularisation has been a rather smooth affair. There’s no discussions about Jul/Christmas here that equal yours.

  11. 11
    J. J. Ramsey

    John the Drunkard: “The lad’s birthday was probably in spring.”
    Considering just how much stuff in the birth narratives of Jesus was probably made up, I doubt that we can say whether he was born in the spring or not.

  12. 12
    stillwaters

    Hunting for hidden chocolate Santas!
    That’s really funny.
    Happy Holidays!

  13. 13
    clytia

    what about those of us in the hemisphere where christmas is in mid-summer (eg new zealand). and it’s still the biggest holiday in the year. sure, people have “midwinder potluck dinners” in july, but the whole midwinter thing doesn’t seem to have taken off much.
    and we don’t have the “happy holidays” thing going on here. it’s all about christmas, and the christians put all their shit on tv to remind everyone about the “reason for the season”.
    until people stop gawping at me like i’m mad and asking if i’m jehovah’s witness (wtf?!) when i say i don’t celebrate christmas, i will continue not to celebrate it.
    especially where the family’s concerned, because listening to the bible story and praying about it before presents are opened really isn’t my cup of tea.

  14. 14
    LissaMonster

    Me and my Joe call the holidays, “TAGGS.” Which stands for ‘Traditional American Gift Giving Season.’ :)

  15. 15
    Coran

    Like Clytia said, It’s still the bigest holiday of the year Down Under, but I think we have a different take on it. For a start, we don’t get so much ‘Happy Holidays’, possibly because our Jewish minority isn’t as vocal or maybe just not as sensitive. Festivus is gaining some ground, but most people still go “What’s that?”. Consequently, it’s always “Merry Christmas” here in Aus. At the same time, I don’t think we take the Xtian aspect as seriously. I mean, a few people put “Reason for the season” stuff in their windows, and nativity scenes pop up in lots of places, but I think they’re highly outnumbered by displays of jolly fat men with elves and reindeer. Our Xmas iconography still features holly and snowmen. Which is hilarious, because we don’t have holly here and it’s the middle of Summer, so every poor bugger who does have to dress up in a fur-lined suit to entertain the kiddies is sweating like a pig in minutes.
    The local churches put out flyers telling everyone when their services are one. They mostly go straight to the recycling bin. In our neighbourhood, one small flyer contained everyone from the Baptists to the Reformed Catholics – hey it’s inter-denominational co-operation.
    So in Aus, it’s early Summer. The days aren’t really stinking hot yet, so you can go outside and play. The year’s over and people are contemplating the year to come. We spend Christmas day with family, opening presents, eating hot sausages and cold ham and drinking cold beer.
    And now the most important part of the season is here … the Boxing Day Test (that’s the cricket). Happy (Your Holiday Here) Everyone.

  16. 16
    konrad_arflane

    Re: the Australian take on Christmas, it’s worth noting that the summer solstice is also a pretty significant event in sufficiently Northern latitudes (and, like Jul, has traditional dishes associated with it in Sweden).
    So it’s at least theoretically possible that Christmas in Australia simply taps into a different “natural” (that is, astronomical) holiday instead. Although I expect most of it is simply cultural inertia and possibly continued influence from the UK and/or US. I certainly wouldn’t expect the solstices to be feel particularly relevant to people in Cairns or Darwin.

  17. 17
    Buck Fuddy

    Maria,
    Someone told me recently that in Sweden, like other Scandinavian countries, Lutheranism is the official state religion. Is that true? If so, your observations on the secularization of Christmas are especially interesting.
    One of the reasons we unbelievers are so appalled that certain Christian blowhards feel “attacked” if some of us don’t bow and scrape to their imaginary friends is that, in spite of specific constitutional provisions to the contrary, Christianity has almost become a de facto state religion. (For example, almost every major holiday in the Christian calendar just happens to be a federal holiday, bank holiday and school holiday.) So the complaints about this so-called “war on Christmas” cause concerns that some people won’t be satisfied until the establishment becomes official–including criminal sanctions for nonobservance. But if Sweden already has a state religion, and heathens like you ;-) are allowed to disbelieve with impunity, it makes me wonder if we’re focusing on the wrong issue.

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