“Christmas Stories,” by Adam Gopnik. The New Yorker (“The Talk Of the Town”) 1/1/2018.
I didn’t hear much controversy about Christmas this year, but that could just be me. Usually, people complain about the shorthand “Xmas,” and the custom of translating every “Merry Christmas” to “Happy Holidays” lest we offend a non-Christian.
But in a letter to the editor of our newspaper, a popular local rabbi suggested that no non-Christian should take offense at being wished a “Merry Christmas.” (At least, I think that is what he said. I could not retrieve the reference on the newspaper’s website, but I agree with the thought.)
I get this every year: People first ask me if I celebrate Christmas. If I say Yes, they wish me a “Merry Christmas.” If I say No, they wish me a “Happy Hanukkah,” as if I surely celebrate one or the other. They ask with trepidation, fearing I will fly into a rage if they get it wrong. But it doesn’t matter. Wish me joy for any day, for any reason, using any words. If I were in India, I would be honored to receive a “Happy Diwali” with a dusting of powdered food dye. How could that be insulting? Messy, perhaps, but not insulting.
We celebrate Christmas on December 25th, but that date could not be historically correct. Jesus must have been born in September, or sometime in the spring, when the shepherds would be out tending their flocks.
Our Latin teacher, Miss Cook, pointed out many years ago, December 25th was selected by a committee in the 4th century to replace the Roman holiday, Saturnalia, which had developed its own traditions to celebrate the winter solstice, the shortest day when the sun would begin its return. Anybody would find that worth celebrating. (Okay, so it is a few days off. They were going by the sunrise whose change begins before the solstice. Yes, for a couple of weeks, sunrise begins slightly earlier each day while the days are still getting shorter because of the earlier nightfall, a result of the tilt of the earth. I bet you did not notice that, yourself.)
It is difficult in our time to appreciate the importance of the winter solstice to people who did not understand the planetary mechanism. For months, the sun, the source of warmth and our very lives, has been slowly dropping lower in the sky. Will it continue until it is gone forever? It usually reverses its fall at the beginning of winter, but will it happen again this year? Yes, YES, it’s reversing! That is really worth celebrating.
According to Gopnik, the primary feature of Saturnalia was a “reversal” feast when slaves were served by their masters. The central figure was the God Saturn and his representative on earth, who was so bursting with fertility he was only allowed in our lives for one day per year (Gopnik does not say what all occurred on that one day, but we can guess.) The representative was played by an actor. He was king for the day, issuing all sorts of nonsense commands. One year, Nero played the role.
Gift-giving and continual partying was part of Saturnalia, making it the most popular Roman holiday. Partying will always trump praying for most people.
Saturn was a complex god of regeneration, among other things. Saturn in art, particularly by Fransisco Goya, is shown as a fearsome creature devouring his children, but this is only an allegory for the passing of generations.
Other northern festivals got woven in, notably the Germanic “Yule” with its burning logs and illuminated trees that brought light to the darkest time of the year.
Modern times added Clement Clark’s “Twas the Night Before Christmas,” in 1823, “Yes, Virginia, There Is a Santa Claus,” by Francis Pharcellus Church (what a great middle name) in 1897, and Thomas Nast who created the sclerotic image of Santa Claus in 1881 (modified later for a coke advertisement).
Add to the mix stories of an early bishop, Saint Nicholas, born in a rich family. Tradition says he distributed his wealth by dropping small bags of gold anonymously down chimneys of the poor, bags that occasionally landed in stockings hanging to dry (although inside the fireplace, not from the mantelpiece).
All of this mish-mash became our “Christmas,” so who cares what we call it? Christians have no monopoly on the celebration. They are only one in a long line of many. Of course, Christmas is over-commercialized worldwide, even now in Asia, but the Christian meaning was never important to most celebrants. What do we remember best from our childhood? Opening presents or going to church? The decorated Christmas tree or a manger scene? It has always been a “Happy Holiday” for all, even more than Festivus, the Seinfeld holiday for the rest of us.
(My favorite place during Christmas is at Longwood Gardens, where the usual tacky ornaments are of superb quality and taste, and the religious aspect is not mentioned. You will not find a manger scene anywhere at Longwood. Christmas at Longwood is really a Yule celebration of light, fire, and regeneration, appropriate for a public display garden.)
If ever there was a universal celebration for all people of the world, it’s Christmas.