What’s the deal with killing Christmas?
Honestly, it seems that every year we get more detached from the glory and value of tradition, while succumbing more and more to the whimsies of popular politically-correct fancy.
Case in point: it’s that time of year for the big dead tree in Pioneer Square to be displayed. Don’t try calling it a Christmas tree though. The proper term, as every sensitive, open-minded individual knows, is Holiday tree.
Because, ya know calling it a Christmas tree is just a little too, well, Christian.
Perhaps a little history lesson is in order. You see, our present-day holiday actually has quite a rich tradition behind it. A tradition steeped in secular violence, cultural appropriation, religious imperialism and social unrest. "Christmas," as we know it, has been killed and resuscitated several times now, and it’s beginning to look a little worse for the wear.
Most people have at least a passing familiarity with Saturnalia, the ancient Roman holiday that included a month of feasting and a topsy-turvy upending of the social order. The masters became slaves, the slaves became masters, and everyone was very naughty for about a month in the middle of the winter. Whether this happened to celebrate the imminent return of the sun or because nobody wanted to bother keeping their cows alive through the coldest part of the winter and instead slaughtered them for feasting, we may never know. Suffice to say, the temporary sanction of social insubordination probably acted as a pressure valve that preempted a real revolt by the proletariat that otherwise may have foreshortened Rome’s 1,200-year rule.
The first Christian contact with this pagan holiday occurred in the fourth century. The Christian Church, perhaps disgusted with all this vile play-acting of class warfare, decided to make the birth of Jesus an official holiday. Before this time the Christians’ primary holiday was Easter. Problem was, the Bible gave no hint to the actual date of Jesus’ birth, although the shepherds watching their flocks by night would tend to suggest spring or summer. Pope Julius I chose Dec. 25 as the day Christ was born. This choice may seem slightly less arbitrary in light of the fact that Dec. 25 was also the date celebrated by the ancient Egyptians as the birthday of Mithras, the sun god.
But just calling Dec. 25 the day of Christ’s birth didn’t solve the problem of all the revelry. In fact, by the eighth century the holiday had spread as far as Scandinavia. It returned to Egypt in its new, re-imagined form early in the sixth century. Egyptians may or may not have appreciated the irony. Ancient Egyptians celebrated with a sort of month-long, alcohol-induced state of social torpor, characterized by the crowning of a "King of Misdeeds" as opposed to the modern "King of Peace" and lots of trick-or-treat-style behavior from the lower castes of society. In fact, during the Middle Ages, Christmas became a sort of Mardi Gras. Picture "Peasant Girls Gone Wild."
Fast forward to England, 1645, and along comes Oliver Cromwell who put an end to all of this debauchery. Christmas dies its first death when Cromwell and cronies actually outlaw the holiday.
Early Americans took very different approaches to the holiday. The Puritans, those staunch religious separatists who made the voyage to America to be alone and different, took Cromwell’s suggestions one step further and not only outlawed Christmas for 22 years, but penalized those showing "Christmas spirit" with a five-shilling fine. Christmas died its second death at the hands of religious fundamentalists.
This time, the holiday stayed dead for almost 200 years until the Victorian Era, when Charles Dickens’ engaging tale "A Christmas Carol" seemed to persuade the bourgeoisie that the holiday ought to be about sharing, caring and family values, and Christmas was recognized as an official holiday by the government.
Fast forward to the present day. For most of us, it seems that Christmas is more or less about the same things it has always been about: drunken revelry, overindulgence in sweet things, burning logs, a superstitious evergreen fetish, and an orgy of spending.
The only thing missing, really, is the social-class distortion games. What was perhaps its intended purpose, to co-opt an existing pagan holiday for the greater hegemony of the Church, seems to have gotten lost. If anything, corporate America has done a better job co-opting a Christian holiday than Pope Julius I did co-opting a pagan one: Santa Claus is an Americanized version of a real saint, Rudolph is a product of the Montgomery Ward corporation, and even Charles Dickens’ "A Christmas Carol" sounds suspiciously like an apologia for the Victorian bourgeoisie.
And that brings us back to why Portland and other cities have to call a Christmas tree a Holiday tree.
The word "holiday," incidentally, comes from Old English "haligd퀨͌_g," or "holy day." Perhaps the idea being that, in the true spirit of Hanukwanza and Festivus (the holiday for the rest of us), now we can all celebrate whatever ubiquitous holiness we like. Christ? Mithra? Saturn? Low-interest home equity loans that increase our spending power?
For my part, I’m on my way to Northwest to get myself a Bentley. But just for the month.