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?
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:
- The popular original meaning: Get drunk, get laid, and rampage the countryside.
- 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.
- 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.