On the Feast of Stephen

The story of Christmas is the story of assimilation. Sorry to put it so nakedly, but it’s true. Wrapped up in this holiday, this holy day, is a whole history of cultural appropriation, identity theft, and synchretism. And there are no easy answers. It’s all so very messy.

December 25 was the date of the winter solstice in the northern hemisphere according to the old Julian calendar. In the Gregorian calendar currently in use, the solstice falls on the 21st or 22nd. Most ancient cultures held their biggest annual festivals at this time of year; if you take into account all winter festivals worldwide, the list of holidays is staggering.

The Church was pretty open about appropriating the winter solstice (or, more specifically, the Roman celebration of Dies Natalis Solis Invicti, the festival of Sol, the invincible sun god) as Jesus’ birthday. Jesus was almost certainly born in late March or early April, but if you want an instant celebration of a new concept, you simply glom onto an existing festival and add a new face to it.

Not to put too fine a point on it, Jesus is not “the reason for the season.” The reason for the season, as a friend recently pointed out, is the tilt in the earth’s axis, and humankind’s need to celebrate light and life on the darkest day of the year.

Today, the 26th, is the feast day of St. Stephen (the day Good King Wenceslas looked out, as the song puts it, and saw a peasant struggling to survive the harsh winter and did him an act of charity). Stephen was the first Christian martyr, so his life is celebrated right after Jesus’ “birthday.” Such an honor.

Stephen was a Hellenist. These were first-century Jews who spoke and read Greek—intellectuals who had more thoroughly assimilated into Greek culture. (Even though Rome was the occupying force at the time, the intellectual and cultural imprint over the empire was still firmly Greek.) Opposing the Hellenists were the Aramaic-speaking “Hebrews” who, while able to speak Greek, held more anti-assimilationist beliefs.

Vying for control of religious life were the Perushim (Pharisees), a sect of devoutly religious purists and scholars that later became the Rabbinical movement in Judaism; and the Saducees, who represented the aristocratic group of the Hasmonean High Priests. (Two hundred years earlier, the Greek ruler in Jerusalem desecrated the Temple by erecting a statue of Zeus and sacrificing pigs on his altar, prompting the Maccabean uprising; the rebel forces took control, liberated and rededicated the Temple, and installed the new Hasmonean priestly line. That’s the story of Hanukkah.) The Hasmoneans ruled as “priest-kings,” and like other aristocracies across the Hellenistic world became increasingly influenced by Hellenistic syncretism and Greek philosophies.

Then there were the Samaritans, descendants of the northern Israelite tribes of Ephraim and Manasseh who survived the destruction of the Northern kingdom of Israel by the Assyrians in 722 BCE. Judeans viewed them as heretics and the worst kind of assimilationists, for they had sided with the Greeks during the Maccabean revolt.

You had the Essenes, a devout monastic sect whose religious beliefs tended toward the mystical (some historians suggest, perhaps without a great deal of linguistic support, that “Essene” is Hellenized form of the word “Hasidim,” and there are even some legends that the Kabbalah was first developed by the Essenes); and the Zealots, political insurgents who desperately wanted to throw the Roman occupying forces out of the country.

There were also the everyday tensions between rich and poor, city-dwellers and country bumpkins, ultra-religious types and more secular folks. Clearly nothing whatsoever has changed in two thousand years.

So back to Stephen. He was one of those Hellenistic Jews, one of those cultured, civilized people, who tended to view his fellow Jews, the Judeans, as barbarians. One of the “good” assimilationists! In the fledgling community of Jews trying to decide how to go forward after Jesus’ death, Stephen felt that the poor and widowed among the Hellenists weren’t getting the same financial support from the community that they were giving to the Judean poor and widowed. An argument became a rift which led to a conspiracy, a trial before the Sanhedrin, and Stephen’s execution. This in turn led to the first great schism in this new religion, the great antipathy between Jewish Christians (led by Peter) and Gentile Christians (led by Paul).

My question, on this Feast of Stephen, is about assimilation. Cultural assimilation by conquering civilizations is sometimes done consciously and destructively. When one culture appropriates another’s belief system, and changes or adds to it, is that something to be resisted, or is resistance futile?

Sometimes assimilation is a more subtle, perhaps more insidious, occurrence. Sometimes the new culture is seen as more attractive, and people want to assimilate. That phenomenon is certainly prevalent in today’s society. Is it still identity theft?

I call myself a religious synchretist, but that also means I have no home of my own; am I one of those birds who steals others’ nests?

Categories: Christianity, Classic civilizations, Earth-based Religions, Holidays, Judaism, Social Justice | 7 Comments

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7 thoughts on “On the Feast of Stephen

  1. I think it is not so much stealing a the nest of another but, at this point in history, creating a nest from that which history and culture has afforded us.

    If we look to Buddhism as an example, the philosophy is skeletal and allows itself to be well fleshed in the muscle and skin of that culture within which it finds itself. With that, it is still Buddhism. The structure is that strong, that solid, that clear.

    Judaism has been much like that. Hence the Dalai Lama asking the Jews for assistance, for answers for suggestion in how to keep the Tibetan identity in diaspora. The Jewish identity being so strong it remains intact regardless of the culture in which it finds itself.

    But, then, much of that is a result of fighting assimilation, of staying separate, or not identifying with the holidays of the ‘others’ with whom we live. Of being and maintaining distance during this time of year. Of not having an abomination in the form of a Hanukkah Bush just so the kids will not feel different.

    As such, it appears to me I have negated the first paragraph. As such, then, I must admit I don’t know. I did, but I do not now.

  2. Jews in pre-World War II Germany were exceptionally well assimilated into German society. They were in the arts, taught in universities, operated prosperous businesses. This, of course, didn’t help a bit on Kristallnacht. What made them outsiders, like gypsies, homosexuals, and political undesirables? When we are assimilated, whether willingly or not, what parts of our identity do we keep separate and proudly display even if we could otherwise “pass” and become invisible to the oppressor?

    Culturally my ancestors are mostly Anglo-Saxon and Celtic. I’m strongly drawn to that part of the world, and its ancient mythos speaks to me, though other traditions often speak louder, resonate more powerfully. Do I have an obligation to perpetuate my ethic heritage’s culture, even if the Yoruba god Shango has called me by name? Do Jews who feel disaffected by Jewish culture and religion, but find a home in an ashram—or in a society of atheists, or in a Messianic Christian church—have the freedom to repudiate their own heritage?

    What makes a cultural identity so strong that it survives diaspora after diaspora? Why have American whites forgotten their own identities, preferring instead some vague notion of being “just an American”?

    The more I explore this issue, the fewer answers I seem to have. I just keep hearing the lyrics to “I Am Easily Assimilated” from Candide.

  3. Jennie

    American ‘whites’ do not HAVE a common cultural identity beyond that as “just Americans”, and they never have. They can be Irish, Scots, English, Norwegian, Italian, German, French, Russian, Dutch, Portuguese, Lithuanian – and that only counts the national heritages that sat around my family’s holiday table when I was a child.

    Episcopalian, Catholic, Lutheran, Dutch Reformed, Russian Orthodox, Freethinker, Quaker, Baptist, Jewish, Buddhist – all have long history here.

    The conscious choice to place our national identity as “just Americans” above our diverse historical, ethnic, and religious roots is one of the reasons why we are able to have an even mildly functional society, rather than dissolving into the chaos of generational ethnic warfare.

    The task of continually reforging a common American cultural identity is one of the most important in our society. The American identity is one of the stranger assimilated, not into an existing culture, but into the NEW culture of the NEW group that expands its boundaries and definition to include the stranger – not the blotting out of one old group by another old group, but the transformation of both old groups into a new common identity.

  4. White Americans as a collective don’t have a common cultural identity, of course. But we as individuals DO have particular (usually European) cultural identities, or at least our ancestors did. Yet we do little to learn those traditions from which we sprang, if we even know what our ethnic background is.

    There is something to be said for being a mutt. But we Americans have committed so many atrocities in the name of our country, and if that is our cultural identity, I’m not sure it’s such a good idea. The conquered get assimilated, subsumed, or destroyed. The conquerors borrow, steal, or appropriate the culture of the conquered.

  5. Jennie

    We came here, many if not most of us, because, for one reason or another, we (or our ancestors, anyway) turned our backs on the old country. Our ties to those lands and cultures were not strong enough to hold us there. Why then, would the hopeful immigrant look to the past rather than to the future? Why perpetuate the customs of the place that was rejected? So the old ways, however rich and meaningful they might be assumed to be by the wistfully nostalgic third or fourth or twelfth generation sons and daughters, have been neglected in favor of the freely chosen new, however shallow and empty.

    The central myth of America is the myth of the self-made, self-reliant individual, of the free and open society where one’s family history and background is of no consequence, and where merit, personal character, and hard work are the determinants of one’s fate. Such a mythos does not encourage respect for and grounding in long tradition or the wisdom of ancestors, save for those few and much-revered (if oft misunderstood and mis-quoted) Founding Fathers. We are a nation settled by misfits, outcasts, speculators, and fringe religious fanatics, and grown and nurtured by the flotsam and jetsam of the other nations. Traditionalism and respect for authority weren’t really high on the list of Revolutionary virtues, and wave after wave of new immigrants reached these shores eager to cast off the lives they were leaving behind, certain that to become an American was to be reborn, to have achieved salvation, to have reached the promised land. In Russia, they might have been peasants, but in America, they could be anything they desired. Why continue to speak, eat, and behave like Russian peasants?

    Is this wise? Foolish? Probably both.

  6. I rejoice in the knowledge that the Christmas tradition is firmly rooted in a pagan past. To me, the celebration is so much richer when I remind myself of how incredibly ancient it really is, how deeply entrenched in the human psyche and its most elemental connection with the rhythms of the universe.

  7. I am torn. I love Christmas, though most of my celebration centers around singing carols (the more ancient and obscure the better) and solticial remembrances. I too love knowing that Christmas is essentially pagan. But I have a friend—a pagan, and a Jew—for whom Christmas is a constant reminder of how Jews are outsiders in our society. His post from last year on what Jews do on Christmas, and particularly the dialogue that ensued in the comments, were eye-opening for me.

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