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A Brief History of the Christmas Controversy

Can Christmas' pagan roots explain its increasing secularization today?
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For Americans in the past decade, the month of December has not only been about braving the attic, Fraser firs, idiosyncratic family traditions, and Walmart anarchists. For years, conservative television networks, right-wing politicos, and outspoken Christian organizations have lamented the perceived "War on Christmas" and the holiday's increasing secularization among American families.

The war is seemingly fought on two fronts. On the first, Republican shock jocks accuse liberals of taking political correctness too far and whitewashing "Merry Christmas" into "Happy Holidays," effectively burying or at least denying the existence of Christian America. On the second—and more logical—front, devout Christians and their organizations have lamented the secularization of Christmas, noting that the holiday has gradually but inexorably transformed into an American tradition centered on family values, ubiquitous consumerism, and genial trappings and pageantry that no longer have any connection to the birth of Christ, The Nativity, or Christian piety.

The latter of these grievances is undeniably valid. In the United States, December 25th is no longer emblematic of Christ and his life; instead, it is now only the zenith of a much larger, longer "holiday season" that is sprawling and colossal in cultural scope, encompassing parties, advertising, television specials, Christmas albums, and the general leveraging of all forces in media and entertainment. Devout Christians understandably bemoan this onslaught, declaring that it has completely stripped the holiday of its true purpose: celebration and observance of Christ's life. The truth, however, is more complicated. The celebration and holiday spirit surrounding December 25th was never the exclusive province of Christians. In fact, it was around long before Christ was even born.

Around the same time that we celebrate Christmas, the Ancient Romans celebrated Saturnalia, a festival to honor Saturn, the Roman god of agriculture. On December 17th Romans made dedications at the Temple of Saturn, which often included sacrifices. The commemoration of the temple marked the beginning of an epic holiday season that included public banquets, the exchanging of gifts among family, and singing in the streets. During Saturnalia Romans lifted laws on propriety and engaged in the inversion of social roles: gambling was permitted, drinking and public debauchery were rampant, and, in what is perhaps the festival's most striking feature, masters would serve their slaves during one of the banquets.

A "Lord of Misrule" was appointed each year to serve as a madcap master of ceremonies, bestowed with the power to command revelers to fulfill his every crack whim. In his work Saturnalia, the Greek satirist Lucian of Samosata (125-180 C.E.) has one of his characters declare:

During my week the serious is barred: no business allowed. Drinking and being drunk, noise and games of dice, appointing of kings and feasting of slaves, singing naked, clapping of frenzied hands, an occasional ducking of corked faces in icy water—such are the functions over which I preside.

Originally taking place on a single day, under the reign of Emperor Augustus (63 B.C.E.-14 C.E.) the event was extended to multiple days. By the time Emperor Caligula ruled, Saturnalia lasted between five and seven days, with the culmination often falling on December 25th, around the time of the winter solstice. December 25th had added significance for the Romans, as it was the birthday of the sun god Sol Invictus ("Unconquerable Sun"), a date appropriately close to the longest night of the year.

During the first few centuries C.E., Saturnalia reached its extravagant peak. Banquets and performances featured female gladiators, bevies of exotic birds, fireworks, and dwarves in mock combat (yes, just like in Game of Thrones' Purple Wedding). It wasn't until Constantine the Great's conversion to Christianity that Saturnalia would begin to fall under siege. His conversion in 312 effectively ended the persecution of Christians in Rome and, equally significant, opened the doors for royal patronage of the Church. The time frame of Constantine's reign—306–337—witnessed a power struggle between paganism and Christianity.

Sometime around the end of Constantine's dynasty, perhaps 336, Christians celebrated the first Christmas. This was, obviously, well over three centuries after Christ's birth. Further, the date chosen for Christmas—December 25th—had no connection to Christ's actual birthday. There is no mention of his birth date in the Bible, and no true record exists, as ancient Jewish tradition denounced the commemoration of birthdays as a pagan ritual. This would soon take on a profound irony when, centuries after that unrecorded birthday, Church Fathers scrambled to pick an arbitrary date for Christ's birth so that they might compete with paganism.

In the fourth century, as Christianity began to supersede paganism in Rome and Christians ascended to the ruling class, the effort to dissolve the old beliefs and supplant Saturnalia began. As British Museum advisor Sam Moorhead told BBC Religion: "If Christianity moves Christmas into December, at the Saturnalia and the birthday of Sol, you can then fade out these other festivals and incorporate elements into the Christian festival. You can attempt to move on as if nothing has happened." Through this strategy the early Christian elites killed several birds with one stone: they were able to gradually render Saturnalia obsolete; facilitate a rise in the popularity and cultural capital of Christianity by making a Christian holiday the centerpiece of the festival season; and avoid popular backlash by continuing the winter solstice celebrations unimpeded.

In other words, the early Roman Catholic Church did not so much appropriate the trappings and customs of Saturnalia as they simply stuck the flag of Christmas right in the middle of the festival's perennial landscape, changing the underlying religion while leaving the coveted pomp and circumstance intact.

As Stephen Nissenbaum argues in The Battle for Christmas, "In return for ensuring massive observance of the anniversary of the Savior's birth by assigning it to this resonant date, the Church for its part tacitly agreed to allow the holiday to be celebrated more or less the way it always had been. From the beginning, the Church's hold over Christmas was (and remains still) rather tenuous." The elaborate feasts, the gift-giving, the frivolous abeyance of the social order, the weeklong license to debauch—all were retained, with the politically contrived birth of Christ inserted at the climax.

Over the course of centuries, many of these customs, including the exchanging of gifts and the spirit of charity, became strongly associated with Christmas. Alas, gift-giving was an emblem of love and friendship long before Christ, and the kindness and egalitarianism woven through our holiday season hark back to the worship of Saturn, who was said to have presided over a Golden Age of mankind in which all people co-existed in a paradisiacal state of equality (which was honored, among other ways, through the role reversals between masters and slaves).

In a sense, the invention of Christmas was a power play, a religious contrivance and political machination instituted to shrewdly shift the masses from paganism to Christianity while minimizing the resistance that might arise out of wrenching away a beloved time of year. And by using the revered infrastructure of the Saturnalia festivals, the Church could immediately add weight to the figure of Christ, making his birthday a ready-made cause for celebration.

The fusing of two religions or, in the case of Saturnalia and Christmas, the subsuming of one set of religious practices into another is known as religious syncretism. The phenomenon is far more prevalent than one might think.

After the imperial conquests of Alexander the Great merged various cultures throughout central and western Asia, the Hellenistic period (323-31 B.C.E.) saw the blending of Persian, Egyptian, and Mesopotamian religions. In his collection of essays Moses and Monotheism, Freud speculated that Judaism may have been the result of Moses' followers merging with a small monotheistic tribe that worshiped the volcano god Jahweh. Plenty of scholars argue that the characteristic appearance of the Christian God—patriarchal white beard, light-skinned complexion, cloud-wreathed firmament backdrop—draws directly from Zeus. Syncretism is the crucial thread that stitches together religious history, and the story of Saturnalia and Christmas is a particularly unique example of it.

In most instances of syncretism, the fusing religions merge not only their customs and rituals but also their underlying beliefs. In this way, the once-autonomous religions are fundamentally changed, adapting myths and doctrines to create an evolved system of beliefs and practices. But Christianity was able to manipulate the effects of syncretism without ever succumbing to its compromises or relinquishing doctrine.

During Constantine's reign the Church Fathers went so far as to associate the "Unconquered Sun" with Jesus, referencing the "sun of righteousness" mentioned in Malachi 4:2 as evidence of Jesus, the true sun. Through this crafty legerdemain early Christians more easily shifted December 25th from the birth of Sol Invictus to the birth of Christ. Eventually several other important religious dates would pivot on Christmas, including the Annunciation, celebrated on March 25th, nine months before Christ's ceremonial birth, the Epiphany, and the Adoration of the Magi. Once Christianity seized December 25th, all the other historic moments and their accompanying mythologies fell into place. After emerging out of the husk of Saturnalia, Christmas gathered more and more momentum until it became a vital date inextricably bound to all the other sacred events and consecrated lore of the Christian tradition.

Roughly 1,600 years later, though, things are different. Christmas, at least as it's celebrated in America, is no longer treated as an exclusively religious holiday. While millions of Americans still attend Christmas services, there are millions more who get swept up in an entirely different set of gratuitous lore: Santa Claus, Christmas trees, Dickensian tableaus, and the lustrous charms of Disneyfication. But look beneath all of the modern flourishes and you'll see something that looks a lot like Saturnalia: the ceremonial feasts, the singing in the streets (what we now call caroling), the holiday parties. Heck, Saturnalia even had a special day on December 23rd reserved for the exchanging of gifts among friends and family—Sigillaria, so named after the wax figurines often given as presents.

The truth is that Christmas has not so much evolved into a secular celebration as it has come full circle, returning to its original incarnation as a sprawling festival more focused on levity and merrymaking than the worship of Jesus Christ. As The Battle for Christmas admits, "There were always people for whom Christmas was a time of pious devotion rather than carnival, but such people were always in the minority."

It's no blasphemy to declare that the December holiday season has once again become a pagan celebration; it's an atavistic return to the ritual's roots. The problem now, as the more devout Christians rightly point out, are those people caught in the middle of this identity crisis—identifying as members of Christianity and claiming belief in its savior, but investing little devotion, solemnity, or faith in the embattled date. These halfhearted believers are mucking up the faith, nominally celebrating Christ’s birth but eating, drinking, and carousing like its 150 B.C.E.

Historically, clergymen and their faithful congregants rejected the idea that Christianity is a product of syncretism, believing that subscribing to such a process adulterates the religion and alloys its absolute truth. How right they were.