It's that time of the year again and, all over the English-speaking world, Christans are complaining about the growing commercialisation of Christmas. The complaints are partly justified but what has happened is not really so much the commercialisation of a Christian festival, as the separation (in time and in character) of two feasts that have coincided for centuries. Only one of these is in any sense Christian. The other was once a pagan festival that meant something important for the non-Christian world, and whose pagan holiness bled over into the Christian festival in a powerful nexus of symbols, but which has now been stripped of any holiness at all and of most of its fun too.
Long before Jesus was born in Bethlehem, the peoples of the Northern Hemisphere felt the need to do something special around the time of the winter solstice. Summer solstice celebrations were much less widespread, but in winter, the growing cold and darkness spurred people to an act of midwinter defiance. On the shortest day of the year, they celebrated the fact that from now on, days would get longer again. Northern people would cut down a large tree, carry the trunk into the hall and set light to it as a "yule log". They also decorated their homes with evergreens such as fir, holly and ivy, to remind the bare and leafless trees that it was their duty to grow green again when the days grew longer. The German christmas tree tradition grew out of this.
The Romans held their saturnalia about this time. It was a time of drunkenness and good cheer when all social mores were turned upside down. Cross-dressing was encouraged, slaves sat at table and their masters served them. Those soldiers who worshipped Mithras, the Persian embodiment of the sun, celebrated his birth on the 25th of December, three days after the winter solstice. The Christian Church adopted the same date to celebrate the birth of Jesus because it seemed symbolically appropriate, Christ being after all the Light of the world and the Sun of righteousness. And in any case, no one actually knows the true date; the gospels are surprisingly shy about details of that sort. Saturnalia continued in a Christian form too as the mediaeval "Feast of Fools". Cathedrals appointed a choirboy as "Boy Bishop". He was not allowed to celebrate Mass but he performed all the other duties of a bishop.
So for centuries the pagan and the Christian midwinter festivals took place at the same time and cheerfully borrowed one another's symbols. It was not that there were still any real pagans around, but mediaeval Christianity had mutated into a folk-religion that often seemed to owe more to paganism than it did to Judaism. Even the Reformation, which tried hard to purge Christianity of its accumulated pagan elements, couldn't really touch Christmas.
The English-speaking world in particular absorbed Christmas traditions from other places. The German Christmas tree came to England in the nineteenth century; Prince Albert is said to have set up the first one. Christmas cards are of similar vintage. Santa Claus was adopted by New Yorkers from Dutch New Amsterdam: Sinta Klaas is the Dutch for St Nicholas, whose feast day falls on the 6th December. Nicholas was a giver of presents, credited with supplying dowries for penniless young girls by throwing bags of money through their windows, so he was readily fused with the traditional English symbolic figure of Father Christmas. Santa however modernised the outfit, replacing Father Christmas's long red robe with a short jacket, trousers and boots. The red robe, trimmed with white fur, may itself derive from the red and white spotted fly agaric toadstool, used by arctic shamans to induce hallucinations of flying. When shamans fly, they go up through the smoke hole, so Santa now drops his gifts down the chimney, rather than through the window. Lapland is one place where you find such shamans, hence the flying sleigh drawn by reindeer.
All this must once have seemed harmless enough, more wholesome indeed than some of the mediaeval excesses associated with the Feast of Fools. But in the mid-20th century, shrewd commercial operators saw that they could make unprecedented amounts of money out of the pagan elements of Christmas. The result has been a cancerous growth which has turned the once harmless midwinter celebration into a fertile source of misery for many. The love of money may not be the root of all evil, as St Paul once said, but it certainly accounts for a great deal. The time has surely come for Christians to stand up and say, "We never ordered this! This is not our Christmas and we want nothing to do with it."
We need to separate the Christian Christmas from the commercial one and keep them separate from now on. Having different names for them would be useful. The other Christmas adopted the name Xmas some time ago; I suggest Christ-mas for the Christian one, since it climaxes with Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve, marking the traditional moment of Christ's birth.
Christ-mas starts at the beginning of December with Advent Sunday. Advent lasts for four weeks, which is just about the right amount of time for the excitement to rise to fever pitch. Advent calendars (nowadays just a way of selling us more chocolate) were originally for counting the days until Christmas arrived. The Christmas tree traditionally went up on the afternoon of Christmas Eve but it can be done a few days earlier without spoiling the symbolism. The presents are distributed on Christmas Day, after the morning service, and this begins a twelve-day period of celebration. It ends with Epiphany (Twelfth Night) on January 6th, which commemorates the coming of the Wise Men to Christ, bearing gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. But Xmas nowadays starts in October, even before Halloween. By the time December 25th comes around, everyone is heartily sick of the whole thing. On Boxing Day, the post-Christmas sales begin and people heave a sigh of relief. Xmas is over for another year! I think the children are the ones who lose out most. Xmas has robbed them of part of their birthright.
Christ-mas is about Christ; Xmas is about money. It is not about children or families or fun or any of the things it is supposed to be about. We have already seen how it takes most of the fun out of the festival, especially for the children. Yes, they will get some expensive presents on Christmas Day, but will those presents stretch their imaginations and give them months of enjoyment like the doll or the book or the meccano set that children of our generation were given? I doubt it! Quite a few people have noticed that children quickly tire of their new battery-operated internet-enabled toys and start playing imaginative games with the boxes and wrapping paper instead.
Xmas claims to be about "family values", yet in fact it is a major destroyer of families. The divorce rate always spikes in early January! People spend time with their relatives out of a sense of obligation and discover anew why they did not want to do so during the previous year. The reason is simple of course. Where there are bad relationships within families, compulsory seasonal bonhommie isn't going to heal them. Yet people continue to believe that a whole year of neglect and dislike will somehow be miraculously neutralised by the magic of Xmas. Like a drug, Xmas promises to solve all your problems and thereby robs you of the ability to deal with them yourself.
And what about those people who have no families? For the lonely, Xmas is a time of prolonged torment. We need to be careful here of course. Many people who live alone do not feel lonely at all. You can be much more lonely trapped in an unhappy marriage! And medical studies show that, while loneliness can be catastrophic for your health, merely living on your own is pretty harmless. Similarly the common equation of loneliness with old age is often misleading. But loneliness is sadly common in our society, and Xmas seems almost designed to make the lonely feel twice as miserable as they did before. It dangles before them a fake picture of being with family which is all sugar and tinsel, nothing like real family life. It tells them that having family around you is the only thing that matters, that you can't possibly be happy on your own, especially not at Christmas. In fact Xmas probably makes a lot of people feel lonely who never feel that way during the rest of the year.
The best cure for loneliness is actually to be part of a community and the Christian Church provides that, especially at this time of year. Christ-mas is not about family or having children. It's about a journey of four weeks and twelve days through a landscape of familiar rituals in company with people who share your faith and know as you do why this season is important. Actually this is true for Christian families as well as for Christians who live alone. Christ-mas will make them happier than Xmas ever could, especially as they will probably have more stable marriages and less greedy and unhappy children than the average secular family.
All idolatry is ultimately a promise by false gods to make you happy, a promise that is never fulfilled. Xmas promises three sources of happiness:
As for the Xmas promise of happiness through the excessive consumption of food and drink, perhaps that is the silliest one of all. A good meal and a glass of wine, partaken of with thankfulness, are indeed very pleasant. Overeating and getting drunk are no great pleasure and the consequences are dire. It's ironically appropriate that turkey has become the compulsory seasonal roast. It is actually one of the driest and most tasteless of all meats. Almost any other roast is superior. I don't think anybody eats turkey for pleasure. You eat it because it's Christmas and you are expected to eat it, just as you are expected to pull crackers and wear a silly paper hat. It's almost like a symbol of all that Xmas has done to ruin what was once the beautiful winter festival of Christ-mas.