It’s drawing to the end of the day out here on the west coast, December 25, 2010, and as I have a bunch of good links on Christmas news and stories, I thought a post might not be out of order. Christmas this year has been a low-key affair, a restful day spent with my immediate family, far from the mental and emotional turmoil of Rochester. I’m relishing my short time away from the university. I do miss going to midnight mass with my friend Peter, as I did last year; and the year before that, I went with someone very special to me, but now in the past. And the year before that, I was home. So, my personal celebration varies from year to year. And this year it has been quiet, with no frills, or thrills, and little drama, Deo gratia.
Meanwhile, the wide world has been celebrating this Christian holiday in style, as this slide show from The Huffington Post shows. The town hall in Bavaria is an especially nice shot, while the tree in Trafalgar Square seems pretty tame. Speaking of Bavaria, economically it’s doing pretty well these days, although this article from The New York Times suggests that there are lots of problems lurking under the surface. I think there’s something for most folks in the holiday season, and these funny cards from someecards.com are pretty funny; I especially like the one that says “Let’s celebrate Christ’s birthday this year by ignoring the fact that he would have celebrated Hanukkah.” Heh heh. Certainly true, I think–reminds me of the debate (which is still going on, I believe) over whether the Last Supper was or was not a Seder. On a more somber note, Pope Benedict XVI made reference to the continued tribulations of the Iraqi Christians in the annual “Urbi et orbi” message. On the historical end of things, Medievalists.net has been posting a lot of interesting articles on the late antique origins and medieval development of Christmas, and I would definitely recommend their page “Christmas in the Middle Ages” as a good overview of the subject.
Now, those who have bothered to read my ramblings will probably have noticed that I generally refrain from major personal or political discussions on line, with cultural/historical debates being the main exceptions (such as the crusades or the Civil War). Blogging for me isn’t usually a forum for pushing a personal or social agenda, though I have my lapses. But allow me to break that habit for a moment. Some will probably object to an interpretation of Christmas that proposes its origins, timing, and habits in the Roman Saturnalia feast; others will snicker to themselves at “those foolish folk” who don’t realize that they’re actually observing a “pagan” holiday. You’re both wrong, in my opinion. The “pagan” origins of Christmas are an indisputable historical fact; there is ample evidence on this process, and I believe any attempt to “write out” this part of the story is doomed to failure. Instead of retreating into some kind of historical fairy-land, it would be much better to face the facts squarely and adjust one’s spiritual schemata to acknowledge that early Christianity was far more pragmatic, less top-down, and less divinely ordained in all its parts than earlier generations would have believed. Yet that does not invalidate the Christian idea or value behind the holiday, and to regard it as crypto-paganism is equally mistaken. As André Vauchez has written (where exactly escapes me at the moment, but I believe it was in his study of the laity in the Middle Ages), the assumption of “pagan” ritual elements into Christianity was a far more complicated process than most people realize, and did not constitute the “secret triumph” of paganism. It signified a local religion’s defeat and surrender to a more powerful religion, which destroyed the old religion’s sacred places, or else relegated them to side-show affairs. New religious structures were built over old, and the symbols and trappings of the old were selectively incorporated into and, most importantly, reinterpreted by, the new religion. None of these circumstances would have been lost on the people at the time, and the modern re-discovery of these symbols, practices, and observances simply points to the complex origins of Christian religious festivals, and the complex ways in which individuals and institutions fashioned their own spiritual identity. To interpret these features as a subversively “secret” identity is to seriously misconstrue the historical process behind their adoption or retention.
That’s my viewpoint, anyway. Open to debate, of course, but I think the first objection misinterprets historical fact; the second, historical process. I could be accused of trying to have my cake and eat it too–to have the historical process and still retain the essential parts of the religion. But, as that’s a sort-of “middle way”, it’s probably a fairly good one; as it is written, “do not turn to the right hand or to the left.” And on that note, I bid everyone a good night. Worship and celebrate, or not, as your conscience allows you. But do so with love, good will, and peace toward all, irrespective of who they are or what their particular beliefs are. After all, doing so does not invalidate your own beliefs.
The world would be a much better place if we remembered to behave this way.