Did you know that Christmas technically isn’t very Christian at all? Winter festivities have their roots in pre-Christian societies, which celebrated the Winter Solstice for its astronomical significance.
The celebration witnessed the shortest day and longest night of the year, signifying a fundamental change in the seasons. The period of end-of-year frivolities could last for months: for instance, the Germanic festival of Yule could refer to the entire month of December and even some of January. These celebrations, like so much of Pagan life, were integrated into Christianity. This was part of a deliberate policy to merge the old ways with the new, so that the imposing religion seemed less alien. Over time, the origins of Christmastide underwent a serious makeover. Of course it’s of little surprise that today, hundreds upon hundreds of years later, Christianity has something of a moral monopoly on Christmas. However, many of the original aspects have remained, for instance the initial importance of astronomy could be viewed as the inspiration for the Star of Bethlehem.
I’m aware this is all very controversial, and at the end of the day people will believe what they choose to. But regardless of faith, Christmas is an amazing time of year for everyone. Calories are irrelevant and so are the huge electricity bills. It’s almost impossible not to like something which is characterised by food and presents. In a massively secular and increasingly diverse world, the much-debated meaning of Christmas has arguably found it’s home on the shelves of commercialism. More people will go Christmas shopping than to church. It just isn’t about the Three Wise Men any more – it’s about what they’re carrying. But is that a bad thing?
Christmas is the champion of the gift economy. Giving is a universal show of goodwill, and you don’t need to follow a religion to enjoy giving and receiving presents. TV advertisement campaigns from the likes of T K Max and John Lewis don’t portray a Christian message because they simply don’t need to. They’re all about generosity. It’s nice to give the lonely old man down the road a box of chocolates at Christmas because it shows him that you care about him. It’s got nothing to do with fulfilling a Christian value. I’m not saying you need to spend what’s left of your overdraft on the high street, but Christmas is an industry and we all buy into it.
Brands have strayed away from the so-called ‘true meaning’ of Christmas to the same extent that the Christian faith did when it transformed the Pagan festival. It’s the very imagery of Christmas which has changed. Last year, Marks & Spencer made an advert that showed two Christmas fairies spreading Christmas cheer over a city scene – no manger in sight, though. Baubles and conifers are far more common than the Nativity scene. It looks like marketers have made the call between the birth of Jesus Christ and a secular Christmas, which is just as joyful and perhaps a little more light-hearted than the religious side of things.
What about the political arena? Things seem to be quite different. In his Christmas address, David Cameron drew attention to the Christian values which unpin this time of year. He said that Christmas celebrates:
…the birth of God’s only son, Jesus Christ – the Prince of Peace. As a Christian country, we must remember what his birth represents: peace, mercy, goodwill and, above all, hope. It is because of these important religious roots and Christian values that Britain has been such a successful home to people of all faiths and none.
The suggestion that accepting diversity is part of Christianity is ironic, especially when the takeover of Christmas itself was due to a Christian inability to let other faiths function independently of its influence. And has Britain really provided a successful home to the ethnically- and religiously-diverse? I’m sure a great deal of people who still face harassment for their religious persuasion alone would disagree. Either way, the fact of the matter is that a lot of people are totally disenchanted with the Christian Christmas. Dragging Christmas back to its questionable Christian roots seems somewhat unnecessary when arguably the meaning of Christmas has, for many, left the baby in the stable behind.
Perhaps the reinforcement of religious significance is to do with the decision to go to war in Syria; part of an effort to establish a ‘just cause’ for conflict that pits Western Christianity against the extremists. ‘Western Christianity’ is ironic in itself, given its supposed Middle Eastern roots. All the political leaders seem to be jumping on this bandwagon. Even Cameron’s antithesis Jeremy Corbyn, despite opting out of giving a Christmas message, has directly referred to the Nativity story as ‘holding up a mirror to us all’. But are these leaders talking to the majority of people any more? I don’t think so. I think more people are worried about how they’re going to fit their turkey in the oven.
So there we have it – Christmas. A pagan festival hijacked by Christianity and then hijacked by commercialism, characterised today by generosity and not by one world religion. There’s something liberating about that.
Anyway, Merry Christmas! I’ll leave you with this: