Thursday, December 21, 2006

Culture Shock 12.21.06: Non-Christian elements of Christmas there from start

'Twas the week before Christmas, Bill O'Reilly in view
Shouting on the TV as his face turns Yuletide hue.
While his Fox pal John Gibson wrote a book just to say,
"There's a 'War on Christmas'! Purchase your copies today!"

OK, I'll stop now. You get the point. But, really, enough with the "war on Christmas" stuff already. With the shopping and the crowds, folks have enough to worry about without opportunistic blowhards making up a controversy.

Putting the name aside for a minute, Christmas has never been just about Christ. Early church fathers set the date for Christmas to coincide with (and co-opt) pre-existing pagan festivals centered on the winter solstice. Pagan elements have been with the holiday ever since, including the venerable Christmas tree. In fact, it was exactly such non-Christian aspects of the holiday that led many Protestants to virtually ignore Christmas until the Victorian era.

If you think Christmas is "too commercial," blame those same Victorians. They started the commercialization of Christmas back in the late 1800s, along with its transformation into a semi-secular holiday of gift giving and family togetherness. It's that commercialization that made Christmas "safe" for Christians who had religious objections to the celebration.

If keeping the Christ in Christmas meant leaving out everything else, then the result wouldn't really be Christmas. Besides, if O'Reilly and Gibson are looking for a fight, someone should tell them they've already lost.

The secular side of Christmas is firmly part of American culture, and it goes deeper than Rudolph, Frosty, saying "Happy Holidays" instead of "Merry Christmas" and bland Christmastime love songs by The Carpenters played ad infinitum.

The secular Christmas won when "A Christmas Story," the 1983 comedy about a boy's quest to get the ultimate present — a Red Ryder BB gun with a compass in the stock and a thing that tells time — replaced "It's a Wonderful Life" as Christmas Day marathon viewing.

"A Christmas Story" is our new seasonal fairy tale. And it's all about presents and commercialism, with a dash of (dysfunctional) family togetherness tossed in for good measure. It doesn't have a manger scene, but it does have a Little Orphan Annie decoder ring.

The movie appeals to Americans because it appeals to the child in us all. Sure, my childhood Christmas is several decades removed from the early 1940s Christmas of Ralphie and his Red Ryder. For me, it was an Atari 2600, but the spirit is the same. We associate particular Christmases with what we got, and that reminds us of where we got it.

Given its diverse origins — Christian, Roman, Germanic, etc. — it's only proper that Christmas has returned to being a near universal celebration. It's observed even in Japan, where it's become strangely associated with romance and dining on KFC.

Christmas is both secular and religious, commercial and spiritual, Christian and pagan. It has something to offer everyone, including a message of "peace on Earth and goodwill toward men." The wording may be Christian, but the sentiment has many sources.

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