The older I get, the more Christmas fills me with a terrible ambivalence. But please note: “ambivalent” doesn’t imply a take-it-or-leave-it attitude. It means I’m of two opposite and conflicting minds.
As a child I was torn between childish greed, a certain delight even then in the decor, music, and “specialness” of the festivities, and a very Christian desire to celebrate the birth of Jesus.
I was a devout little thing. I was on our local Romper Room show with Miss Connie for a whole week, and I created something of a ruckus on Wednesday (which was always snack day on Romper Room) after the prayer over the milk and cookies. Miss Connie led us all in saying, “God is great, God is good,/ And we thank Him for our food.” In my household, the prayer didn’t stop there. It continued: “By His hands we all are fed,/ Give us, Lord, our daily bread.” So I continued. Loudly. After everyone else had stopped. And then, as the cameras rolled, I told her in the most disapproving tones that God didn’t hear her prayer because she didn’t end the prayer with “In Jesus’ Name, Amen.” I remember saying it at least three times — that God doesn’t hear any prayer that isn’t prayed in Jesus’ name — each time more stridently because I thought she was ignoring me. What she was doing was gesturing wildly to the cameraman to cut to commercial. Ah, the days of live television!
When we moved to the Virgin Islands, I experienced my first Christmas there in 90 degree heat. We put our white flocked tree with its pretty blue balls (this was the 1970s, after all) on the balcony where it would be visible both when we were in the living room and when we were on the patio below, but on Christmas morning the trade winds carried the tree over the balcony and into the swimming pool, its pretty blue balls bobbing around happily in the water. Those days, when I was in high school, Christmas became just “what we did” each year. Festive and fun, but without any deeper meaning.
When I got my first apartment after college with my friend Jim, Christmas changed again. I really did Christmas up right. An eight-foot-tall fresh white pine, painstakingly decorated. My father was ill at the time, and while I didn’t realize it at the time, this would be his last Christmas with us. I gave him stocking stuffers filled with wind-up walking toys. I still remember the tears of joy and laughter in his eyes.
In the years that followed, I shared a home in Maryland with my mother, and we took similar pains to decorate well and tastefully. Jim would always come over on Christmas eve and watch TV with us, then I would go to my church for our festive 10 p.m. Christmas Eve celebration; Jim was always asleep on the couch by the time I got home. In the morning my brother Dale would join us in opening the stockings and gifts, then I would make a nice breakfast (usually eggs Benedict).
These were happy times, at least until I started suffering from depression — the chronic, crushing kind, a despair that is independent of circumstance. Because these bouts lasted for months at a time, I never knew if I’d be over it before the holidays or not. On several Christmases I remember going through the motions, putting on my characteristic happy face, when I would actually have preferred to be curled in a fetal position in the dark, weeping.
When I moved back to Florida from Vermont, and lived once again with Mom, we started recreating our Maryland Christmases, after a fashion. Jim would make a trip down once a year, and we would do the whole gift exchange thing and have a great time. But as Mom became ill, she could no longer shop, and couldn’t wrap gifts. Christmas became a burden. She wanted the house decorated, and even though it taxed her greatly, she always added some special touches. In the end, she just felt guilty over the whole thing. She didn’t want us to give her any gifts, and she just gave us money in return, hoping we’d get ourselves something we’d love.
The first Christmas after her death, I drove up to visit Jim in Virginia. Last year he came down here. This will be the first year in nearly a decade that we haven’t spent Christmas together. The only nod to Christmas in my house is my Charlie Brown tree. And it’s all right. Because I am decidedly ambivalent over Christmas.
Adam hates Christmas. I don’t think that’s stating his feelings too strongly. He has a decided antipathy not so much toward the holiday itself — people can celebrate whatever they damn well please, and more power to them — but toward the exhaustive and relentless way our society (not to mention the media) pushes it in our faces. This year I saw Christmas decorations on the shelves next to the Halloween decorations, and our local Walgreens was playing Christmas music well before Thanksgiving. For Jews (not to mention Muslims, Hindus, pagans, atheists, and other non-Christians), having grocery store clerks wishing you a Merry Christmas at every turn, or having Christmas music blasted from every loudspeaker in every restaurant and store, or having televisions broadcast nothing but Christmas dreck and artificially sappy shows with at least a tangential Christmas theme for nearly a month, is offensive in the extreme. I resent government and municipal bodies, which should be steadfastly secular and nonpartisan, celebrating the most Christian of holidays as if everyone in the world believed the same things. We don’t.
Every year I find myself wanting to pick fights with the Salvation Army bell-ringers: “Don’t you realize,” I want to shout, “that this organization you’re volunteering for actively discriminates against gays and lesbians? In 2004, the Salvation Army threatened to close all their soup kitchens and homeless shelters in New York City instead of following an ordinance requiring city contractors to provide equal benefits to domestic partners. Discriminating against gays was more important to them than helping the poor. On top of that, they refuse to give needy children any Harry Potter toys that have been donated because they’re ‘satanic.’ Is that the kind of ‘good’ you want to do in the world?” But I don’t shout. I drop in a Kettle Voucher, nod and give a tight little smile to the bell-ringer, and go about my shopping feeling rather Grinchlike.
One of the biggest reasons I am ambivalent is because Christmas is a fake. Jesus was not born on December 25, or anywhere near it. Assuming we’re using the gospels as our source material on the birth of Jesus, Luke clearly says the birth took place when shepherds were “living out in the field, keeping guard over their flock at night.” This means Jesus’ birth took place in early spring, since it was only at lambing time that shepherds stood guard over their flocks in the field.
December 25, in the older Julian calendar, was the date on which the winter solstice usually fell. Romans celebrated it as Dies Natalis Solis Invicti, “the birthday of the unconquered sun.” Many scholars believe the 4th century church selected the winter solstice as the celebration of Jesus’ birth to appropriate and co-opt a pagan holiday that already had a long history and huge fan base. Others, like S.E. Hijmans in his book Sol: The Sun in the Art and Religions of Rome, disagree: “It is cosmic symbolism [that] inspired the Church leadership in Rome to elect the winter solstice, December 25, as the birthday of Christ, and the summer solstice as that of John the Baptist, supplemented by the equinoxes as their respective dates of conception. While they were aware that pagans called this day the ‘birthday’ of Sol Invictus, this did not concern them and it did not play any role in their choice of date for Christmas.”
Nevertheless, the fact remains that Jesus is not the reason for the season. The reason for the season is the tilt of the earth’s axis relative to the ecliptic.
And the decidedly pagan winter solstice celebrations are the source for most of our hallowed Christmas traditions:
■ Gift-giving was common in the Roman celebration of Saturnalia, which took place from December 17th through the 23rd — in fact, Christmas gift-giving was banned by the Catholic Church in the Middle Ages due to its suspected pagan origins. Christians point to the gifts the magi gave to the infant Jesus, but forget that the magoi were Zoroastrian astrologers. Seleucus II Callinicusis, king of Syria, offered gold, frankincense, and myrrh to Apollo in his temple at Miletus in 243 BCE; this was likely the precedent for the mention of these particular gifts in Matthew’s gospel.
■ The Christmas tree was first seen in northern Germany in the late 15th and early 16th centuries, but winter solstice celebrations, especially in Europe, have always included the use of evergreen boughs as a symbol of life in the season of death, and as an adaptation of pagan tree worship.
■ Santa Claus. He may have been loosely based on St. Nicholas — Nikolaos of Myra, 4th century bishop of Myra, part of modern-day Turkey — but his feast day is December 6, and he really wasn’t much like our modern Santa or even like the more ancient Father Christmas, who typified the spirit of good cheer at Christmas but was neither a gift-bringer nor particularly associated with children. He has been identified with the old belief in Woden or Odin. And as we noted a few years ago, Santa was a shaman.
■ And then there’s the feasting. One reason the winter solstice was so important the world over was because communities were not certain of living through the winter — starvation was common in winter between January and April, also known as the famine months. In temperate climates, the midwinter festival was the last feast celebration, before deep winter began. Most cattle were slaughtered so they would not have to be fed during the winter, so it was almost the only time of year when a supply of fresh meat was available. The majority of wine and beer made during the year was finally fermented and ready for drinking at this time.
Wikipedia has a fascinating compilation of different winter solstice observances, from nearly every culture imaginable.
When someone asks me about my religious beliefs, I never have a great answer. At times I am a Christian, though certainly a theologically liberal one. But by the same token I often feel Jewish, or Buddhist, or Hindu, even though my adherence to any of those religious traditions is tangential at best. I am a postmodern shaman and most decidedly a syncretist. I am, depending on what day you ask me, an animist, a pantheist, a panentheist, and occasionally even a monotheist. And I am generally a pagan, caught somewhere between Paganism and Neopaganism, though I don’t seem to find much in common with the neopagan community at large.
As at least a nominal Christian, I must wrestle with what Christmas means. I certainly believe in the mythos behind the story of Jesus’ birth. Countless gods and salvific figures had miraculous births, and many of them were born of a virgin (though of course the word ‘alma in the Hebrew prophecy upon which the story of Mary’s virgin birth is based described not a technical virgin all but simply a young woman). All the infancy stories of Jesus are mythic: the angelic annunciation, the slaughter of the innocents, shepherds as witnesses, magi traveling to do homage. I like feeling that I’m somehow part of one of the Great Myths of humankind.
My annoyance about the date of Jesus’ birth won’t change the fact that it’s been celebrated this way for sixteen centuries. And while I don’t hide my irritation at the way our society celebrates Christmas (last night someone on television said, “Christmas is about giving! It’s about friendship!!” as if that were the perfect summation of the symbolism of the holiday), this doesn’t seem to affect my need to sing Christmas carols for a few weeks every year — the ancient, modal ones that most people don’t sing or have never heard, the ones that evoke cold winters, or the eternal struggle of light against a pervasive darkness, or joyful dancing and revelry.
I no longer have a long list of people to shop for. I won’t be alone on Christmas day, but otherwise I won’t be celebrating much. I’ll listen to my lovely, relatively unknown carols, but I’ll turn off the TV when the Christmas specials come on. And in a couple of days, on the 21st, I’ll light a candle at 6:38 p.m., the moment the winter solstice occurs where I live. Ambivalence may not be a comfortable place to live, but it’s the best I can do for the time being.