For my money, the purest celebration of the Christmas holiday was portrayed in a Vietnam movie.
In Full Metal Jacket, Sgt. Hartman, played by R. Lee Ermey, leads an entire platoon of Marine recruits in a singing of “Happy Birthday Dear Jesus.” He then blusters about how God loves Marines because they “kill anything they see” and “keep Heaven packed with fresh souls.”
In a rousing finish, he reminds his recruits that “you can give your hearts to Jesus, but your ass belongs to the Corps!” A more direct, yet realistic expression of the holiday cannot be found.
I’m not kidding.
Christmas was once, I’m sure, a very simple affair. A simple celebration of the birth of Jesus, the single most important historical figure in Western civilization. I’m aces with Big J—more of us should listen to his teachings. Thus, celebrating his birthday is not a bad thing.
Then Western civilization’s less civilized elements, i.e. Europeans, decided to graft numerous pagan rituals and décor onto the holiday. Spread on lavish doses of English fiction, American consumer capitalism and global media networks, and you have Christmas as Moloch, a Biblical all-consuming monster that starts well before December 25 (sometimes on December 26 of the previous year) and continues its onslaught until someone mentions the day’s true meaning.
The response is inevitably, “Jesus who?”
I’m no Holy Roller, nor am I some anti-consumer, anti-technology Luddite that scorns all modern society. In fact, I’m just as guilty as the average slob in hyping up 12/25 as the capitalist Armageddon (pardon the Biblical pun). My critical eye and cynical brain, however, cannot overlook what Christmas has morphed into—the Darwinian evolution of celebration due to economic necessity.
In this edition of Mr. D’s Guide to the Holidays, let’s look at how Christmas became “CHRISTMAS,” with all the bells and whistles. How did the birth of a Jewish carpenter’s son become Christmas specials with the Jonas Brothers and 24-hour carol marathons on soft-rock radio?
Let’s face it, we can’t even get the date right.
December 25 is, by tradition, the date of Jesus’ birth. None of the Gospels, or any of the letters of Paul, gives an exact date. Some scholars suggested May 20 (such as Clement of Alexandria), March 28 (A feast calendar from 243 CE), and others didn’t bother, suggesting that birthday celebrations are a pagan influence. In a time when worshipping Jesus meant a date with a hungry lion, celebrating his birth would’ve drawn undue attention to oneself.
Somewhere in the Third Century, theologians got into their head that he must have been conceived on the Vernal Equinox, or around March 20 or so, making December 25 a logical choice for a birthday. Funny how that same date had a “perfect storm” of pagan celebrations from which to draw influences. December 25 was also the feast day of the Persian cult of Mithras, a soldiers’ god—a popular cult of 3rd Century Roman society, which helped Christians get an “in” with Roman elites. Also thrown in was the winter solstice festivals of Rome (Saturnalia, where gift-giving comes from) as well as the Germanic tribes that ultimately destroyed the empire. Evergreens, feasts, gifts, lights, Yule logs—they all come from pagan feasts of the early Dark Ages. Even the word “Yule” is pre-Christian, from pagan Scandinavian winter festivals.
Until the Protestant Reformation, Christmas was a solemn religious holiday with a lot of other holidays around it. There was Advent, the four weeks before the 25th (which coincided with the pre-Internet shopping season), as well as the twelve days between the 25th and the Epiphany (Jan 6th), or the day Christians celebrate the arrival of the Magi to Jesus in Bethlehem. Through the late Middle Ages, it was good political sense for a king to Celebrate Christmas: Charlemagne, William the Conqueror and Richard II would all agree.
Then the Protestants came.
Along with their usual beefs about papal authority and church corruption came this unseemly pet peeve about Christmas. Puritans, Calvinists, and other killjoys denounced Christmas as a Popish extravagance, a Catholic gala that had the “rags of the Beast.” Oliver Cromwell, the famous Puritan English general who had a negative view of fun, banned the holiday in 1647, causing riots in the streets. Wreaths, holly and carols became an act of political rebellion. Even with the restoration of the holiday in 1660, British clergy discouraged its celebration.
This translated into the American colonies as well. Massachusetts outlawed Christmas until 1681, and even then was never really celebrated in force until the mid-1800s. Christmas was rarely celebrated outside the German communities of Pennsylvania and North Carolina, where it was popular. It was even less popular after the Revolution, since it was scene as an English holiday. It’s no coincidence that Washington won at Trenton on Christmas in 1776: The only folks around celebrating were the Hessian mercenaries passed out drunk in their camp.
Christmas really got its modern start from a novel. In 1843, Charles Dickens released A Christmas Carol, his ode to the old traditions of the holiday. In his story of Ebenezer Scrooge’s misery, fall, and redemption, Dickens reconfigured the holiday as less of a Christian religious feast and more of a family-oriented event that celebrated compassion and goodwill. In England, the book was a monumental success, and completely revived the holiday. Trees (a tradition imported from Germany), carols, feasts and gift-giving suddenly sprang up again in Victorian England. This fever spread to America as well, as Christmas became an official holiday in 1870.
It was not long after that Christmas, the consumerist monster began to emerge. It began with Christmas cards.
In 1875, Louis Prang introduced an English tradition to America: Christmas cards. Thus began over 130 years of sending cards to a book full of people you hardly talk to anymore. Santa Claus came over from the Dutch SinterKlaas, a variation of St. Nicholas, a saint of the 4th century known for gift-giving. This led to the discovery, by the real pain-in-the-ass children, that Santa didn’t exist; producing long lists of toys that now had to be handled by overworked parents. Hence, the shopping season was born. The day after Thanksgiving (Black Friday), as well as the first Monday after that (Cyber Monday) start the mad dash to buy crap before the prices get rolled up..oh wait, this stuff’s already too expensive.
By the time of Thomas Edison’s invention of motion pictures, Christmas now had a mass audience. Christmas movies abound during the season, from the great (It’s a Wonderful Life) to the okay (Miracle on 34th Street) to the God awful (Fred Claus). Soon after, television came into the scene, providing all sorts of new ways to keep children occupied while Daddy breaks their college fund to pay for their presents. The Grinch, Charlie Brown, Rudolph and Frosty share a place in the Christmas pantheon thanks to the boob tube.
The Christmas carol, many of which date to the Middle Ages, gets new life in the 20th and 21st centuries. It is no wonder that the single most successful song in history was Irving Berlin’s “White Christmas” by Bing Crosby in 1942. Bing has a lot of company now, and most of it is a pale imitation—although the new kids probably didn’t suffer the red asses that Bing’s kids got so frequently.
So now we have the current incarnation: lights, media, dazzle, the blown fuse on the icicle lights on the roof again, etc. Somewhere along the way, Big J got lost in the shuffle. Again, I’m no snake handler nor faith healer, just someone who likes to get back to the heart of things.
Therefore, I’ll give the last word to the Gospel of Luke:
“Now in those days a decree went out from (A)Caesar Augustus, that a census be taken of (B)all [a]the inhabited earth…and everyone was on his way to register for the census, each to his own city. Joseph also went up from Galilee, from the city of Nazareth, to Judea, to the city of David which is called Bethlehem, because (D)he was of the house and family of David, in order to register along with Mary, who was engaged to him, and was with child…and she (E)gave birth to her firstborn son; and she wrapped Him in cloths, and laid Him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn.”
“In the same region there were some shepherds staying out in the fields and keeping watch over their flock by night. And (F)an angel of the Lord suddenly (G)stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them; and they were terribly frightened.”
“But the angel said to them, ‘(H)Do not be afraid; for behold, I bring you good news of great joy which will be for all the people; for today in the city of David there has been born for you a (I)Savior, who is [c](J)Christ (K)the Lord. (L)This will be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.’”
“And suddenly there appeared with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying,
14’(M)Glory to God in the highest,
And on earth peace among men [d](N)with whom He is pleased.’” — Luke 2:1-14