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?