Holiday or Holy Day?

Whether Christmas should be a Christian holy day or a secular holiday is a moot point. Popular culture has so … Continued

Whether Christmas should be a Christian holy day or a secular holiday is a moot point. Popular culture has so wounded the original sacred celebration that no amount of tinkering can restore its Christian meaning in the public square. Moreover, I’m not sure such restoration would be a good thing.

I would argue that the Christian meaning of gift-giving, presents, family reunions, sentimental cards and nostalgic songs has been fused with an earth religion arrival of winter. The syncretism has been so complete that separating the sacred from the profane or the commercial from the spiritual would lessen the appeal of the season. I am contented that Christianity has made its presence felt, and – unlike some militant atheists – I derive no pleasure in denying other people the chance to be happy within their own frame of familiarity.

While my eyes grow misty gazing upon the image of the child Jesus after la misa del gallo, I would find no glee in melting down Frosty the Snowman, dimming the brilliance of Reindeer Rudolf’s nose, or denying Santa his cookies and milk. I am so much in love with the diversity of seasonal mirth-making that I preserve the traditions of two cultures. In addition to Christmas in the North American mode, my family also celebrates Three Kings Day with Latino sabor.

Much of the public celebration of Christ’s birth has been boiling in controversy, almost from the beginning two thousand years ago. The Roman pagan feast of Saturnalia with its holly sprigs has elbowed its way onto the stage as has the tree worship of the Germanic peoples. In a curious sort of turn-about, the early Christians co-opted the social symbols of another (pagan) religion to absorb it into their own belief system. Now, the process is happening in reverse. There should be no complaints.

Another example of this syncretism is with Santa Claus. The bishops named St. Nicholas (there was more than one) have been transformed by a high Episcopal New York bishop’s poem into a short and fat pipe-smoking Dutchman. As remarked by Dr. John McGuckin of Union Theological Seminary who should know, there was more than a bit of class hauteur in making a saint into an ethnic caricature in the shadow of the pagan god Odin. In the 1980s, Santa lost his pipe to political correctness and now it seems is about to go on a diet as well. Get used to image shifting in a free society.

Much the same process has been changing the image of Jesus as well. As pointed out by Professor Colleen McDannell, the picture of an effeminate Jesus hung in many Catholic convents in the 19th century, while mainline Protestants envisioned a sedate middle-class Christ. Mormons liked an athletic Lord and some evangelicals today admire Christ the Warrior with laser-beam eyes. And so it goes. I don’t think these accretions from popular culture are escapable. Once a religious belief enters into the public forum, it is fair game to be recast at the lowest common denominator.

What annoys the devil out of me is polemicizing the moment. We are burdened with a 1989 court decision (County of Allegheny v. American Civil Liberties Union) that public display of commercial figures or the Jewish menorah is permissible, but a Christmas crib with Jesus, Mary and Joseph is a violation of church and state separation. The argument was that the Jewish menorah was an historical symbol, celebrating the miraculous finding of lamp oil in the temple. The birth of Jesus Christ, however, was not historical, but merely religious. After all, the day is named after a ritual “mass” marking the birth of Jesus Christ because he is believed to be the Messiah.

To escape the clutches of such hair-splitting, I would propose allowing public proclamation that December 25 honors the birthday of Jesus Christ – period. There is no room for Santa, Frosty or Rudolph in that day, nor even for the need to proclaim belief in a Messiah. It is the celebration of an historical event. Pace the atheists who believe Jesus never existed or the mentally challenged who believe they are Jesus or Napoleon or whatever, common sense indicates that world history has been changed by Christ. It might even be argued that the changes he brought were more far-reaching than those of Washington, Lincoln or Martin Luther King. If we can celebrate the birthday of those three, why not also of Jesus Christ? You don’t have to profess faith in his divinity or his miracles to only acknowledge that he had a birthday. And we could always leave it to Buddhists seeking nirvana to blow out the candles.

  • unsinn

    December 25th is definitely Jesus’s birthday?

  • lepidopteryx

    “What annoys the devil out of me is polemicizing the moment. We are burdened with a 1989 court decision (County of Allegheny v. American Civil Liberties Union) that public display of commercial figures or the Jewish menorah is permissible, but a Christmas crib with Jesus, Mary and Joseph is a violation of church and state separation. The argument was that the Jewish menorah was an historical symbol, celebrating the miraculous finding of lamp oil in the temple. The birth of Jesus Christ, however, was not historical, but merely religious. After all, the day is named after a ritual “mass” marking the birth of Jesus Christ because he is believed to be the Messiah.”For the record, I object to the placing of menorahs on the courthouse lawn as well as creches. The miracle of the oil is no more verifiable than the miracle of the virgin birth. I’m Pagan and I don’t want a pentacle there either – it’s inappropriate. Creches on the lawns of churches and private residences are fine – not on public property.”o escape the clutches of such hair-splitting, I would propose allowing public proclamation that December 25 honors the birthday of Jesus Christ – period. There is no room for Santa, Frosty or Rudolph in that day, nor even for the need to proclaim belief in a Messiah. It is the celebration of an historical event. Pace the atheists who believe Jesus never existed or the mentally challenged who believe they are Jesus or Napoleon or whatever, common sense indicates that world history has been changed by Christ. What arrogance. You think you own the date? If Jesus was actually born per the Biblical description, it wouldn’t have been in December – it would have been closer to midsummer. It’s one thing to move the commemoration of an historical event back or forward a few days from its actual date in order to facilitate three-day weekends, but why do you want a government mandate to celebrate an “historic” event that can’t be documented to have ever happened on a date that you know would be 5 months off from the date that your own source contextually indicates? “It might even be argued that the changes he brought were more far-reaching than those of Washington, Lincoln or Martin Luther King. If we can celebrate the birthday of those three, why not also of Jesus Christ? You don’t have to profess faith in his divinity or his miracles to only acknowledge that he had a birthday. And we could always leave it to Buddhists seeking nirvana to blow out the candles.”That Washington, Lincoln, and King actually existed can be objectively proven. Not so with Jesus.

  • Norrie Hoyt

    Professor Stevens-Arroyo,I enjoyed your essay and agreed with much of it: those parts that are eminently sensible and good humored.But I take issue with some of your other statements:[1] On Santa, Frosty & Rudolph: Unlike Jesus, none of these good fellows inspired millenia of torture and genocide.Perhaps we should limit our public solstice holiday celebration to these figures, and relegate the memory of Jesus’s putative birthday to those who really believe in it.To avoid confusion, how about combining the Western Christmas Day with the Eastern C.D. in January?[2] I understand that many of the clergy of my Puritan ancestors frowned on the celebration of “Christmas” and tried to prohibit it. I’m with them. The Pagan solstice-holiday is fine with me, though.[3} Like many other commentators, you fail to make crucial distinctions and mix up “public space” and “government-controlled space.”. Also “public proclamations” and “Governmental Proclamations”.To clarify:A private owner of property is free to make any religious uses it wishes of its property, so long as it does not infringe upon laws and ordinances of general, non-discriminatory applicability, such as zoning, health and safety regulations.”Public Space” or “the Public Square” or “the Public Arena” is an imaginary virtual space or location where anyone can do or say anything they want about religion or any other topic.”Governmental Space” is an area, real or virtual, owned or controlled by a governmental entity in the United States. Religious objects and speech promoting or opposing particular varieties of religion are not allowed there.You wrote:”And we could always leave it to the Buddhists seeking nirvana to blow out the candles.”This is a total distortion of Buddhist thought which is surprising coming from a learned professor of religion.”Enlightenment”, “Realization”, and “Nirvana” describe similar states of being. I don’t like “Nirvana” because it implies either a place or an unchanging state of being.Neither Nirvana, Enlightenment nor Realization involve the extinction, cessation, blowing out, or freezing into stasis, of anything.At the moment the Buddha attained Enlightenment, he retained all of his usual senses, though perhaps they had become enhanced. He and the universe continued as they had been, except that the Buddha had become aware of everything as it actually is.Before enlightenment he saw only the relative truths of everyday life.Upon attaining Enlightenment, he then also perceived the absolute truth of everything as it actually is.I wish you a very happy Christmas.

  • Michael Bindner

    A nice piece. The only fly in the ointment is that Jesus was actually born on April 19th.

  • Jihadist

    Prof. Stevens-Arroyo :)You use that word again, “militant atheists”. Some of them don’t like it. Would assertive be more acceptable to be politically correct?Yes, all this fuss on celebrating Jesus’ birthday as a public holiday and on the day he was actually born. Malaysia has a five year term rotating paramount ruler who’s the head of state. His official birthday is always 6 June regardless of the actual day he was born to be declared as public holiday. More for public convenience than his. No fuss from the sultans who take rotational turns as paramount ruler. No fuss from the public too.Too much sweating of the small stuff methinks, on Christmas and Christmas greetings and the day Jesus was actually born. Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays. Thank you and best regards”J”

  • Paganplace

    I dunno, J. Show me an atheist who beats someone up on the point in this day and age, and then we can say it’s ‘Un-PC’ to call them ‘militant.”Militant’ means ‘Pursuing an armed agenda with arms.’ Guess who wants the *guns* in America?

  • I think we need an offical religion….

    …….like we need a hole in the head.You say that the Birth of Jesus Christ is historical so we should just set Dec 25 as his birthday and exclude everything else. Three problems:1) You argue your point, not by offering historical proof, but by highlighting the influence he has had. Finally, why should any religious figure or religion be afforded the exclusive right to claim any day in the public arena. You have every Sunday to worship. In fact there is no law restricting any day or time in the year that you can worship, nor how often. So why then do you need to have a day exclusive to what you believe? Unless it is for your satisfaction that Christianity is being held up as # 1 in this country – because you believe that your belief should have special preference because what you believe is true and the only truth. Come on! Let’s be honest here about our true motives! It’s not historical but egotistical!I have my own religious beliefs, but I am confident enough in myself and my beliefs that I do not feel the compulsion to actively profess and promote my religion. I have no desire to have it recognized or have special attention. I have no urge to tell others that what they believe is wrong. Religious egotism is prominent among the 3 Western major religions – maybe this is why there is a solid history of conflict and bloodshed between them. The idea that one has the only spiritual truth can cloud a person’s mind, which enables them to do evil things to their fellow humans in the name of spiritual truth (or any ideology for that matter – Stalinism, Nazism, fascism, nationalism, etc.) Or maybe it be best described as spiritual pride – this is a tricky thing –Jesus proclaimed spiritual pride is the worst sin, i.e. the Pharisees. Anyway, people today have the internet to learn about other religions; including Christianity in all its multitudes and manifestations, that there should be really no reason to have to evangelize and brow beat people of how they need to be saved. This is the United States of America, the greatest and freest country, not only the world, but in history – we have religious and philosophical liberty – let the people save themselves.

  • Elohist

    Seems to me that we don’t celebrate either Washington’s or Lincoln’s Birthday on the day they were actually born, so all this huss and fuss about when Jesus was born is off the point.Militant atheists still beat up people: they maybe outnumbered in the Judeo-Christian US where freedom of religion exists, but in countries where atheists hold the power of state, they abuse that backing to beat up and kill sometimes anyone who professes faith. To say otherwise is to be irrelevant to the truth. Celebrating the birth of Christ need not be an act of worship and as Arroyo says, would avoid the religious issues. Some people may decide that Lincoln is a God, but that doesn’t mean that he shouldn’t be honored for his historical achievements. Why not consider Jesus Christ the man as a real person in history they way non-believers like Karl Marx and Ghandi did? Honoring a historical personage is not worship and does not promote religion.

  • Mad Love

    Onward Christian soldiers…

  • awasis

    TO ELOHISTLincoln and Washington were historical people that were directly involved in the history of the US. As far as I can tell Jesus died 2000 years ago, when he was living in the Roman Empire. So why would we have an American national holiday for a Roman citizen? This is the type of rationality that some religious folk use just to get their religion certified by the state. But as shown above, the argument used here is devoid of any logic. I can’t wait until I get a response of how Jesus some how was involved with the history of the US so he deserves a day of observance on the national level. There is far more evidence for the existence of Buddha and he came 400 years before Christ. If you have a Jesus holiday I want a Buddha holiday – this is fair, based on your criteria – i.e. a historical figure. In the meantime read through your arguments after you get done typing them to make sure they are rational and make sense. It will save me the trouble of pointing out great big hole that is in them.

  • Bobster

    Sir, Excellent written article. And humourous as well. I must say that I do like your idea about changing xmas to a National Holiday for the Birthday of Jesus Christ Super Star. And no. I mean no disrespect to the man, or son of God. Whichever one he was. But no doubt in my mind at least no-one will ever be as famous, and or infamous depending on ones beleif.Millions of lives have been changed for the better due to other people who were influenced in a positive manner by his teachings. And then millions have suffered due to those people who twisted his words to justify their own horrible actions.But either way Jesus was a Super Star on the world stage. And has been for over two thousand years, and will continue to influence people. Either for better or worse. No politician alive today or in recent history will ever come close to affecting so many lives for so many years.

  • Anonymous

    HAPPY EVERY DAY! Ya!

  • Cool Yule

    Go get your own holiday..Just for the record, MY Creator has begun increasing the length of daylight and there isn’t anything you can do about it.Pray as though there is no tomorrow – you are wasting your time. The Sun will rise tomorrow and it will stay in the sky just a bit longer than today.April 6th is your holiday, just ask any Mormon.Happy Yuletide

  • sheilab

    “Popular culture has so wounded the original sacred celebration that no amount of tinkering can restore its Christian meaning in the public square”.

  • dkm

    The good professor has his own ax to grind, but he could have been a little more accurate in his description of the origins of Christmas. Indeed it was and had been for centuries the Druid Saturnalia with gift giving, evergreen trees and lights that celebrated the winter solstice. Then Pope Gregory the something or other figured that the way to beat the opposition was to join them so, as they did with many other religions, especially in Latin America, the Catholic Church preempted the local religions and celebrations and gave them Catholic names. Now we have some of the trappings of the Saturnalia with a patched on name. It was because of the pagan roots that the Puritans refused to celebrate Christmas, and those same roots are still with us.For those of you who wish for the true meaning of Christmas, it was the celebration of the winter solstice and the return of the sun from the cold night of winter with the hope of spring not too far away. We should celebrate that, not a myth, because even if Jesus was a real person, which is most likely true, he wasn’t born on the 25th of December or with any of the other trappings that are traditionally assigned to the Biblical account of the birth. Indeed other parts of the Gospels suggest that Jesus wasn’t even born in Bethlehem.

  • Oh really?

    Wasn’t December 25 originally Die Natalis Invicti Solis, Birthday of the Unconquered Sun — the birthday of the god Mithras?And as I recall, this was part of Saturnalia, a very holy season indeed.Much of what everyone associates with Christmas comes from these two events — one Iranian, one Roman.Only later was the other Asiatic god (Jesus) associated with December 25, after his birthday was moved from January — and even earlier, moved from March.

  • Francesco Sinibaldi

    The inner part.The inner lightFrancesco Sinibaldi

  • Chris Everett

    It would seem the chicken has come home to roost.I don’t think I can improve on the points made by Paganpalce, Cool Yule and others, to the effect that it’s pretty hypocritical to usurp an ancient season of festivity (solstice, etc) and then cry foul because you were unable to completely wipe out the competition.”I would propose allowing public proclamation that December 25 honors the birthday of Jesus Christ – period. There is no room for Santa, Frosty or Rudolph in that day, nor even for the need to proclaim belief in a Messiah.”What does it mean “to allow public proclamation?” We HAVE free speech, so you can’t possibly be suggesting some private activity. That leaves only one possibility – you want the government to declare December 25 ‘Jesus Day’, with some sort of prohibition on Santa et al. I guess it would be a crime to make a snowman on that day. And then comes the kicker – the generous act of not requiring a declaration that Jesus is Messiah.

  • Chris Everett

    Oh, and I like the way you called paganism ‘profane’ and equated atheism with schizophrenia.I think this essay qualifies as yet another example of BAD FAITH from someone of faith. The facts are misrepresented. The logic is tortured. The conclusions are ambiguous. What remains is just an insinuation that we should all be Christian.Blecch!Merry Christmas!!!

  • Roy

    Before you point your self-rightous finger at athiests or secularists about destryoying the true meaning of Christmas, take the log out of your own “Christian” eye.It is both incredulous and disingenuous that most neochristians who would find using Christmas and the cross of Jesus vulgar and crass in marketing merchandise or cars have no problem with using the same Holy icons to package the neocon political campaign of Pastor Mike Huckabee. How is Huckabee’s “Christmas” campaign commercial complete with a glowing cross any different than using Christian symbols to sell carsThe neocon Perkins automotive family in Colorado Springs, for example, could rename their dealerships “Christian Chrysler” with a “Chrsitmas Sale” that offers “Family Values,” Celestial Savings,” glowing cross license plate frames, fiber-optic lit fish insignia on the grill and a promotion for a free AK-47 automatic rifle rack for use against illegal Mexicans, in the “war against secularists” and to “take back the Nation for Christ.”Romney could resurrect the family car business with Mormon Motors – “Check out the 2008 Kolob, complete with a golden horn of Morni.Offended? Before you hit the “Report Offensive Commnets” button, think about using the Lord and his Cross for marketing a political campaign. Is this anyway to celebrate Jesus’ birthday?

  • BGone

    Ignorance is a horrible thing. Here’s a stellar example. “Popular culture has so wounded the original sacred celebration that no amount of tinkering can restore its Christian meaning in the public square.”Constantine the great, founder of modern Christianity “hijacked” the highest of Pagan holy days, Dec 25th, by decreeing it to the birthday of Jesus. Popular culture called for the celebration of gods. So ignorance cause what is known in popular culture as ass backwards. The birth of Jesus was not the “original sacred celebration” that, according to Mr Arroyo still hasn’t fatally “wounded the original sacred celebration.”Speaking of ignorance, We can expect Constantine knew exactly what he was doing while Mr Arroyo has been negatively educated – was taught lies while still a child and believes them – worse off than if he had never gone to school – much worse off than forgetting something correctly known – below the zero education line – in the hole.SEASON’S GREETINGS as you honor the “tree” god along with several others. Let’s hope the ones you leave out don’t get too upset over it. Can’t help but notice the weather god seems to be a little cranky recently.

  • Mad Love

    I don’t believe that Professor Stevens-Arroyo or any other Christian panelist here is ignorant to the facts. One does begin to wonder why the dishonesty, why they wouldn’t level with their ‘flock’. Another Christian panelist here remarked that Christians had stolen the winter festival from the Pagans fair and square and had no intentions of giving it back. While I find this attitude vile, he is at least being honest. I don’t think there is much virtue in keeping people ignorant.

  • OldUncleTom

    Our annual tempest in a teapot has a very simple solution.

  • Soja John Thaikattil, Sydney, Australia

    Dear Professor Stevens-ArroyoMerry Christmas and a Happy New Year 2008!Soja John Thaikattil

  • BGone

    I think we need an offical religion….: Come now. Think of the hype that would surround a burning at the stake – scalping tickets – concessions – you name it. Without an “official” religion all these things are lost.Housing’s collapsed. Retail sales are up but put on bad credit cards – bankruptcy boom. Baby boomers wanting to retire but their nest egg, the home place can’t be given away. There’s bound to be a rush to volunteer as the main event at the first burning at the stake. If it pays enough I might try myself.BTW, we do have OFFICIAL religion that runs the country already. Only religions are allowed by the government to own real estate. All others only rent from the government – RE taxes – OFFICIAL religions only, not all religions are exempt – if you don’t pay your real estate taxes the government will evict you and find someone who will pay – no real estate taxes for OFFICIAL religions including Muslims – where Jihads plan terror attacks. Billy Graham is America’s pastor. You don’t hear him crying the “sub prime” blues. Does he pay RE taxes on hi mansion or is it a tax exempt RECTORY?Have you noticed that just thinking about

  • Christie

    Christmas a holiday or holy day?Not all beliefs and customs are bad. But God does not approve of them if they come from false religion or are against Bible teachings.(Matthew 15:6).Jesus was not born on December 25. He was born about October 1, a time of year when shepherds kept their flocks out-of-doors at night. (Luke 2:8-12) Jesus never commanded Christians to celebrate his birth. Rather, he told his disciples to memorialize, or remember, his death. (Luke 22:19, 20) Christmas and its customs come from ancient false religions.