600 – Chorka • 09

The True Meaning of Christmas

This year a little history. For those of you who wish everyone would drop all the secular commercialism and get back to the real spirit of Christmas.

Three examples of pre-Christian Christmastime.

The extremely ancient Persians worshipped a god of the sun Named Mithra. (Not even his original name, the Persians swiped Mithra from some tribe the Zoroastrians conquered.) Mithra was one-third of a holy trinity, was considered infallible, redeemed humanity through his death and subsequent rebirth, and was born in the fields and attended by shepherds at the winter solstice, which would have been on or around December 25th. (Any similarities to modern-day deities is completely coincidental and does not reflect the opinions of god-fearin’ Christians.) Mithra’s birthday was celebrated with feasting, inebriation, and, ahem… certain affirmation of life activities… if you take my meaning.

In early Rome, once Persia was plucked and stuck into the Imperial feather hat, the Mithra celebration was joined to Saturnalia, a festival where the social order was upended and the servants became the masters for a day, rewarding themselves richly with food, drink, and lots and lots of sex.

In Norse Germany, during the celebration of Yule, Odin flew the night sky in a sleigh and decided who was worthy of living and dying throughout the rest of the winter. While inside the yule log burned, the people ate the cattle they knew they couldn’t keep alive throughout winter, drank wassail, (then called vas heill), and fornicated  under boughs of evergreen brought indoors as a symbol of life in winter.

Then comes baby…

Once Christianity popped people continued to celebrate pretty much the way they always had, eating, drinking and fucking for a good 400 years without involving any kids in mangers. Christianity celebrated the rebirth of Christ as his primary gimmick, thinking that since everyone was born, it was probably less special. Therefore, Christianity had no celebration of Christ’s birth. After 400 years though, the church had finally gotten big enough that they felt the need to own this winter solstice celebration. All the other religions had one, and the Christians lost congregants to the competition every December. The 25th was the most popular feast day, so they picked that one and taped the nativity over the top of it. The people didn’t care who’s day it was as long as they got to get drunk and screw, so one god was as good as the next. After a generation, everyone had pretty much forgotten Saturnalia anyway. (Bear in mind that from here on out, everything we cover is officially a “Christmas” celebration.)

Christmas grew rapidly as a day of raucous and licentious behavior (think Mardi Gras without cops) and spawned all sorts of fun traditional activity. Buttoned up England proved the most fertile ground for these kinds of blowouts, with multi-day festivals, Beggar Kings, (usually some homeless guy plucked off the street and crowned the King of Misrule) topsy turvy social conventions a la Saturnalia, sex, fighting, and drunkenness everywhere, and my personal favorite, wassailing. (Or I guess it would have been wes hal-ing in Ye Olde Englishe.) This was when unruly and inebriated mobs would take to the countryside and sing bawdy songs while battering down the doors of the gentry for food, booze, and cash. The wealthy were more or less obligated to let their homes be used as party grounds for the unwashed or else the mobs would “play a trick” in retaliation. “Tricks” could include beating the servants, burning down the barn, or raping the wimminfolk. I believe Christmas was the biggest impetus behind the advent of toilet paper. It may be a bitch to get out of the trees, but at least no one ends up in the hospital.

So okay, this is all well and good, but what about Baby Jesus? What about the church? What about the good and righteous folk of High Morals? Is there no one to claim Christmas for Christians?

Well, no.

Modernizing the holiday

Puritanical England, in the person of Oliver Cromwell, First Lord Protector of the Commonwealth of England, Scotland, and Ireland, put the stamp of the church back on Christmas by outlawing the holiday completely. (1645) Anyone found to be celebrating and in good cheer was thrown in the hoosegow, with all the other hooses. A few years later when King Charles II reestablished the monarchy, Christmas was brought back by popular demand. For his trouble, Cromwell’s corpse was disinterred, strung up, and posthumously beheaded. Yay!

By this time the colonies at Plymouth and Jamestown in what would become the good ol’ U.S. of A. were already a going concern, and über-corn cobbed Plymouth never even instituted a Christmas to be outlawed. After the Revolution nobody wanted to have anything to do with English traditions, which is pretty much what Christmas was seen as at the time. In 1659 Boston went so far as to fine citizens 5 shillings each for having too much fun on December 25th. Hard to blame them though, since for the most part Christmas in Boston = armed riots in the streets. Think mall traffic on Christmas Eve, only everyone is drunk and carrying baseball bats.

Although it’s unofficial status never kept anyone from celebrating the rebellious “outlaw” holiday, Christmas did not become a holiday in America until 1870. That’s your great-great grandmother’s America guys, not so very long ago at all. Immigrants from Holland brought with them the legend of of Sinter Klaas, a shortened form of Saint Nicholas. Ol’ Saint Nick was the Bishop of Myra in Turkey, and later became the saint of sailors, archers and children, and his birthday was celebrated by the Dutch on December 6th. Clement Clark Moore changed this to Santa Claus when he wrote T’was the Night Before Christmas in 1822 and essentially created the modern Santa Claus myth, forcing parents nationwide to start buying stupid crap for their little brats. Upon his creation, Santa was immediately pressed into service as a marketing gimmick, although no one could make up their minds what he looked like. Then in 1863 Thomas Nast, a cartoonist for the New Yorker created a version of Santa as the jolly fat man in red we all know and love today, and advertisers ran with it. 76 years later (1939 for those keeping track) Robert May wrote a story called Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer for Montgomery Ward Department Stores with the notion of making the holiday even more children-centered. (Apparently someone in marketing had noticed that people will spend WAAAY more cash on their damn kids than on themselves.)

So what was the meaning again…?

Fine. There’s the nutshell history of modern Christmas. But what’s the takeaway? How does this help me if I want to act morally superior about the way I choose to celebrate and how lost and forlorn everyone else is? I have two things to say about that.

First, if your bitch is that when you were growing up you went to church and strung cranberries and popcorn for Christmas, then take your kids to friggin’ church and make ’em string cranberries and popcorn. It’s your holiday. No two homes are going to celebrate the same way, so shut the hell up and make your own memories. We all love you, but we’re not listening. We’re getting drunk and having sex.

Two, if you’re looking for the true meaning of Christmas, here are your choices:

  1. The popular original meaning: Get drunk, get laid, and rampage the countryside.
  2. The anything with Santa meaning: It’s all marketing, so relax and go with it. Buy twice as much shit as you can afford, and tape the receipts to the undersides of the boxes.
  3. The religious meaning: Pretend Christmas doesn’t exist and sit quietly at home. (Actually celebrating Christ on Christmas is a relatively new thing, and I give it maybe a another year at most.)

Whatever you pick, do it with gladness and love, and know that I for one and Lena for two, wish you and yours a very merry Christmas.


34 Responses to 600 – Chorka • 09

  1. Hope you have a very Merry (insert holiday of your choice)! May you spend the day (insert appropriate holiday activities) with your friends and family. Hope you get lots of (insert whatever)!

    Wow, political correctness is tiring. Fuck it… Merry Christmas!

  2. I love this myth about Christmas being politically incorrect, something propagated by the Daily Mails and Fox Newses of this world. Any organisation that fails to prominently display the word “Christmas” in it’s holiday celebrations is deemed to be some left-wing liberal commie atheist conspiracy heralding the end of civilisation. In fact even when organisations do spend vast amounts of money on genuine proper “Christmas” branded pap, but then decide to spend maybe 0.1% of their budget acknowledging the non-Christian population by doing a few cards with “Seasons Greetings” or the famous example of the “Winterval” festival, they still get branded as pandering to political correctness.

    Meanwhile the Fox Newses and the Daily Mails continue to produce output railing against immigration, multiculturalism, social care, health reform, secularism, diplomacy… who needs peace on earth and goodwill to ALL men?

    Incidentally, thank you for your Christmas present Kevin! Velvet in a Santa outfit!! Just what I asked for 🙂

    On another point, what is it about Christmas and popes being physically attacked by women?

    • I love Christmas. I love the lights and the presents and the hugging and seeing my brother and sister and the Christmas specials and everything. I also love it when people get all out of sorts about how other folks choose to celebrate their Christmases… because there is no easier target in all the world than someone who takes a non-serious subject that they are ill-informed about so seriously that they ruin it for themselves. It’s funny on the face of it, and only gets better the more you dig down.

      As for Vorpine, I never considered his attackers being exclusively female, but now that you mention it, it does give me a warm and fuzzy feeling.

      Merry Christmas, Noodlebug!

  3. Sweet essay! Don’t forget Isis, an Egyptian goddess worshipped throughout the Roman Empire as the “virgin mother of god”, in her case, she was the mother of sun god Horus.
    nitpick: The sun god worshipped by Roman soldiers was called Mithras. (According to Wikipedia, that’s the hellenised version of Mithra, a god worshipped in Persian Iran and in India.)
    A mitra, on the other hand, is a bishop’s special liturgical hat.

    • …and mitra is not to be confused with metre, a unit of measure with an alternative spelling.

      Love the essay! Felt like it was a school report someone had to do… is that where you get your material from? Not bad – gives kids a reason to stay in school!

      Happy Isaac Newton’s Birthday! We celebrate that today by ingesting large amounts of food and seeing if we can create a gravitational influence similar to Peter’s from Family Guy. No one has succeeded yet.

    • Thanks for the notation Christina. I wasn’t aware that the Romans changed the name. (I think I only discussed the Persian version, which would be why you only see that spelling.)

      I pulled information from a bunch of different sources Glen, and tried to cross-reference as much as I could. I ended up spending WAY more time on this one than I do a normal blog, and kinda did feel like I was writing a report in spots. Still, I think it says what I wanted it to say, which is basically that the holiday belongs to everyone to do with as they please, and it always has.

  4. It’s Sinterklaas, not Sinter Klass. We Belgians celebrate it too, at least the children do. Sinterklaas is a jolly fat man dressed in red, with a big white beard, who gives presents to the children. He rides the rooftops on a white horse and drops presents through the chimneys. He also has a moorish servant called Zwarte Piet (‘Black Pete’), who has become quite politically uncorrect lately. He is supposed to come from Spain, although in Spain they have never heard of him, and the actual Saint Nicholas came, as Kevin already wrote, from Turkey.
    In recent years, because of American movies and such, Dutch and Belgian children now get gifts twice in December, much to the delight of shopping mall-owners.

    • Perhaps both iterations of Sinter Klass are correct, Joris. (Maybe it’s two words in Holland?) I found both versions, though the one attributed to the creation of Santa Claus was the legend brought to New York by 1800s Dutch immigrants. Perhaps it is not exactly the same everywhere.

      (Rock on with your two-gift-getting self!)

      • really Kevin, it was probably a typo. It’s Sinterklaas or (very rarely) Sinter Klaas, not Sinter Klass. There are no words or names in Dutch ending on -ss. Trust me, I live here, I speak Dutch (as most Belgians do), I would have no reason to start correcting your very interesting essay if I wasn’t sure I was right 😉

    • Here in Germany, we have St. Nikolaus bringing presents to children on December 6th by filling the shoes of children that were nice with sweets, especially marzipan, walnuts, apples and oranges (or these days mostly with sweets and toys), while the naughty children used to be told that the Nikolaus would be filling their shoes with coals and bring a bundle of birch rods to beat them with.

      As this holy Saint Nikolaus is being despicted as an old man in a red coat with a long white beard, there is inevitable visual confusion with the Weihnachtsmann (Father Christmas) which comes later in the month, dropping presents under the Christmas tree to be opened on the evening of December 24th. Although here in Germany, dspite the fact that the Weihnachtsmann is merging with the American Santa Claus, the Weihnachtsmann does not drive a cart drawn by reindeer, or drop through the chimney, nor is he accompanied by a bunch of green-clad elves. Or at least he wasnt when I was young. These days, the children probably watch American Danta-themed movies from an early age so they may expect elves. Nevertheless, no-one dresses up in pointy ears and green tights when a Santa actor in a fake beard visits children in a hospital.

  5. My favorite politically correct Christmas greeting: Have an acceptable consecutive twenty-four hours! Can’t really go wrong with that. Merry Christmas though, from me and mine and I hope you all had a great day today. Also, shuriken in the back of the head? Classic!

  6. Merry, merry you guys! I loved your essay so much, I posted it on Facebook! 😀 Hope you don’t mind. If you do, then I will gladly take it down.

    See you guys next year! (Or maybe for dinner on Lena’s bday.)

  7. EXCELLENT. As usual Kevin you do your homework. I actually learned couple of things I didn’t know. I want to go Wassail my asshole rich neighbors next door with a pirate flag now. But you did leave something out: Under the priests of Odin, it was known as the Blud, wherein nine of every animal including people were hung from the sacred oak trees. Then the corpses were bled, and the blood sprinkled on everyone’s faces. Even the vikings got sick of it after awhile. Here’s the wikipedia article: HOLY SHIT IT’S GONE. Um… awkward… Glitch in the matrix that… can’t find it anywhere. Anyone got any help?
    Anyway there’s your green and red Christmas tree tradition. Look at those swinging ornaments and enjoy. My wife made me drive two counties over cause there was a run on trees this year. Everyone in Cali is poor and praying to them for $$$

    • I do remember something about sprinkling blood on faces for some kind of festival, but I didn’t connect it with the winter solstice. Thanks for that Cthulhu҉Hungers! And I hope you had a great Christmas!

  8. there is no way the three wise men traveled such distances during winter or a pregnant woman could have done so especially in such a harsh winter area of the planet.

    so its unlikely Jesus was born in December and some scholars believe it was actually early fall, maybe September

    • I read that the shepherds would likely only have been in the fields watching over their flocks in the middle of the night (and thus seeing the star) in the Spring, placing the birth then. Before they wedded it to the winter solstice, Christians never even really thought much about Christ’s birth. They didn’t know when it was, and that didn’t bother anyone. From that perspective, any ol’ day would be just as good as any other, and December 25 seems just fine.

      I have read the early Fall theories too, and they seem just as valid as any other notions. Given how little of Christmas tradition actually has anything to do with Christ, I don’t think I’ll quibble.

      P.S. You’re right Noodlebug! I once saw a pregnant virgin lift a station wagon (bare-handed!) off of a cat she had just run over, and then bring it back to life with a roll of Scotch Tape and a Twizzler. (That part was kinda gross though.)

    • Since when is the Middle East a harsh winter area? 😐 Did I miss something?

      Anyway… anyone remember the old Twilight Zone episode The Star, an adaption of Arthus C. Clarke’s short story “The Star”? The Twilight Zone episode added a few more characters and fleshed out the character of Dr. Chandler who is mentioned only briefly in the story itself, so that instead of a monologue by the protagonist, a Jesuit priest astrophysicist, it’s a great dialogue between the Jesuit and the ship’s doctor, often adapted word for word from the story.

      The Twilight Zone version, however, added another scene to the end, turning it into more of a melancholic but sweet ending, while the original story had a rather angry, bitter, desperate ending.

      You can find the Clarke story on the Web, and the Twilight Zone episode may be on Youtube….
      http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SECLzGKDTgY&feature=related Part 1
      http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZgjX9MJTdtM Part 2
      Ignore the spoilerish description of the guy who uploaded it, though….

  9. I am so glad it’s over with.

    You see, I don’t celebrate. So to me, Christmas is a couple of days (~half a week) where I have NOTHING to do. All my friends are busy with family, blah blah blahbity blah. Which makes the relief of it so wonderful because my social persona finally stops being oppressed! Yay!

    EDIT:: Oh, right, I don’t celebrate because I’m a contemporary iconoclast [non-religious meaning] of an atheist resulting in an absolute lack of desire or drive to do anything about a modernized celebration of capitalism or tacked-on-christian-meanings.

    • Well, maybe you could spend it with friends? I’ve been doing this for 2 years, and it’s fine! We get together, eat, have fun, give ourselves presents… And forego all jesus/religious talk completely 😀
      Sadly, we do not have the “lots and lots of sex” part, I’m gonna have to talk to them about this.

      But then, I come from a country with some tradition of secularism, much to the regret of our beloved omnipresident, so this may help somewhat.

        • Oups! Sorry, I missed that 😳

          And I guess there’s no way for you to still spend time with one of these families and/or their christmas are too religious anyway?

          • I have a great Christmas every year and manage to spend time with all my good friends and all the family I like. (The ones here in town, anyway.) Religion has absolutely nothing to do with it.

  10. Here in Iceland our winter solstice celebration has gone through several iterations. Now a conglomerate of christian, old Viking traditions(the Blud mentioned by Cthulhu҉Hungers) and old myths and legends make up our celebration, which lasts from the 4th sunday before christmas on the 25th of December, and until 6th of January.
    Noteworthy traditions would include our 13 jólasveinar(boys of jól(Yule)). Notoriously naughty sons of the trolls Grýla and Leppalúði, they used to raid towns, pillaging and plundering, but have lately settled to bringing candy and toys to good little boys and girls, starting when the first comes from mountains 11th of december, 13 days before christmas(the last one leaves on 6th of January, when the celebration officially ends). Their mother, Grýla, eats the naughty children. There is also a cat, Jólakötturinn, who’s duties are to make sure every home makes appropriate preparations for christmas (similar to Norse Yule ram, where this tradition probably stems from), mainly making sure everyone gets new clothes. Those who don’t, he eats. 4th sunday before christmas, is the time of advent, from christianity(I think. not sure where it’s from).
    One thing that has surprised most foreigners, is the fact that it’s not officially christmas until 6 PM on christmas eve(24th), when the whole family sits down to eat the christmas dinner. It is considered a bad omen, or blatant ill will, if someone who should be there, isn’t. Therefore most everyone tries to make time to spend with their families on christmas, wether or not they believe in any of it, because as you may have seen from the traditions I named, they all aim to bring together the family, and increase good will.
    Over the years we have assimilated many traditions from elsewhere, lately a lot from america, but they seem mostly unable to overrule the old ones that have settled in here over the centuries of our near-isolation from the outside world.

  11. Meery crossmoose everybody.

    My favourite cultural theft is the Jewish holy day whose time & label have nicked for this time of year, as marketted to the gullible as the Jewish Christmas. Check out some of them ‘good times’.

    ..mist (who ain’t Jewish or anything else but hirself)