Pushing the limits of Episcopalian latitudinariansim to an extreme, Rev. Raymond J. Lawrence has called for taking the Christ out of Christmas. (Counterpunch, 15 December 2007, Liberating Christmas from Christianity). Lawrence rightly reminds us that the planetary phenomenon known as the Winter Solstice is something experienced (naturally enough) around the world and has been celebrated by the peoples of the world in different ways from time immemorial. It is not, he insists, the property or copyright of Christians.
All that is true enough; and certainly a bit of historical perspective could hardly hurt an ethnocentric U.S.culture that is bloated with self-righteousness and thinks that “ancient” refers to the 1950’s. However, in calling for a return back to pagan Saturnalia and like festivities from which Jesus Christ was absent, Lawrence reverts to a fundamentalist originalism that has always been the Achilles Heel (so to speak) of Protestantism.
To put it in a nutshell: it is perfectly true that Christmas evolved (in significant part) out of pre-existing pagan solstice holidays -- Celtic, Roman and German. However it is equally and no less importantly true the pre-existing pagan solstice holidays evolved into Christmas. The process of change -- of being and becoming -- which is the life force of true traditionalism must take both the alpha and the omega into account. That is why the Roman Catholic Church has always insisted that tradition -- the evolving life and custom of the whole Church in Time -- is as much the source of truth and revelation as Sacred Scripture. To posit some “truer” pre-existing state of being to which we must go back is the way of stunted growth if not, in fact, death.
What would Rev. Lawrence have next? To take the Jesus out of Easter? And if so, what then would there be left for Christians to celebrate? Julian the Apostate himself could not have wished a greater curse on the Church.
Christmas or at least the Roman Catholic variants of it are in fact an amalgamation and permutation of pre-existing customs and beliefs -- AmerIndian and African, as well as Germano-Roman. The star-shaped Mexican piñata illustrates the point. The piñata’s origin is in fact Italian, it having been the custom of Franciscan friars to hand out little clay-bowls -- pignatta -- filled with dried fruits and nuts to the poor on Christmas Day. The friars brought the custom to the New World where, somehow, the charity-crock got painted up and tassled into a star which could be smashed causing a rain of goodies. How did that happen?
It happened because the origin of the pignatta also happens to be Indian. The celebratory or ritualistic smashing of clay pots was an Aztec ritual. The Aztecs used decorated clay pots filled with water to represent the rain god Tlaloc who would be ritually struck with a stick so as to cause a symbolic rain storm. At year’s end, they used clay pots decorated with feathers and filled with trinkets which would cascade to the ground when the pot was hoisted and hit with a stick. And so it is that with a clay pot and a stick this now Mexican Christmas ritual fuses indigenous symbols of fertility and regeneration into a Christian liturgy of re-born hope.
Cultural and religious evolution are continuous. Since the 1950’s Mexicans have enthusiastically taken to Christmas trees, proving the adage that we shall never see something as beautiful as a tree. Today Christmas in Mexico is a riot of customs embracing Azteco-Franciscan clay pots and feathers, Spanish liturgical processions and festivities known as posadas, rituals from the dark Teutonic forests and accounts of miraculous events in Judea.
Around the world, those celebrations we know as “Christmas” reflect similar processes of permutation and amalgamation with pre-existing customs. Taking the Christ out of Christmas would not make these celebrations richer but poorer.
The process of natural and cross-cultural evolution ought not be confused with the insidious commercial bastardization and perversion of Christmas. Not content with gnashing up resources and the environment, the voracious maw of capitalism devours even the way we think about things. The “fetish of the commodity” -- Marx's term for the dementia of seeing and conceptualizing everything through the constructs and needs of the capitalist system -- today has people talking of something known as “Black Friday”. And what day is this? The day Christ was crucified? The day of some crash, plague, outbreak of war or natural disaster? No. In what surely reflects the depths of cultural perversion, Black Friday is a good thing; it is the day after Thanksgiving when merchants’ account balances go from red to black because consumers are so overspending themselves that they go from black to red. If there is a Saturnalia today, it is to be found in a Goya etching.
This corruption of Christmas which inaugurates Advent with a barrage of advertising in lieu of an Annunciation can rightly be called satanic because it undermines everything the Winter Solstice has symbolised, stood for and been celebrated for in all cultures. Lawrence is right to point out that a reaction against this phenomenon founded in moralizing religiosity goes nowhere. Such a puritanical approach simply substitutes one kitsch for another. But taking the Christ out of Christmas is the wrong remedy for the true ill. It would not solve the true problem which is an economic system and a mercantile class that exploits human hope for profit to the detriment of human wellbeing.© WCG, 2007