Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Putting The X Back In Xmas


Fundamentalists and traditionalists are always whining about how Christmas has lost its "true meaning" in our culture. Even more galling, from their perspective, is the trend of secularization that allows for public display of colored lights and the general Santa theme, but not nativity scenes. The popular use of the abbreviation "Xmas", beginning in the '60s, prompted their cry to "put Christ back in Christmas".

Of course, anyone who has studied the roots of Christmas tradition realizes that the Christ never had anything to do with it. Decorating evergreen boughs and burning Yule logs hearken back to ancient traditions that preceded the purported Advent of Christ. Because the early Catholic church, as part of their fabrication of the religion known as Christianity, co-opted certain pagan rituals, it is claimed that this holiday and its trappings is primarily about the birth of Christ.

So sorry if this offends you, but the charming story about the baby born in the manger is pure myth. The swaddling clothes, the wise men bearing gifts, guided by a strange star - sorry, never happened! If your sense of faith is offended by this revelation, then perhaps you will at least allow me to explain the concept of "metaphorical liturgy".

An objective overview of the Gospel accounts of Jesus suggests that they are meant to be read as liturgy, not history. That much is obvious when one considers the context - authored decades after the purported events, by those who no longer lived in Palestine or even spoke the common language of Palestine. Another clue is found in the tendency to mirror Old Testament prophecy foretelling the coming of a Messiah who was to reclaim the title of King. The Gospel authors make it clear that the details of their story are drawn from the Old Testament prophecies, not from historical record - thus the Christian Advent story is based on romanticized projection rather than fact.

There is certainly nothing wrong with enjoying liturgy, as long as we understand it for what it is. Most of us find ourselves resonating with some aspect of the Holidays. This is probably due to our latent ancestral memory  of the ancient customs that Christmas draws from. One can even find sacred meaning in these rituals without believing in the literal advent story.  These customs predated Christianity by centuries or millennia in any case, so they must celebrate something that transcends Christian dogma. For those who get a  warm feeling to going to church and lighting candles and watching the nativity scene reenacted, that's ok. Just keep in mind the ancient roots of the celebration, and remember that religion is purely a human creation.

Much of Christmas tradition is rooted in Sol Invictus and Saturnalia, with Mithras featured as the God-Man whose birthday was celebrated on December 25. This coincided with even more ancient celebrations of the "rebirth" of the sun following the solstice. From the Druids and Germanic tribes came the tradition of the Yule fire, decorating evergreen trees, and mistletoe.

The Roman observances of Saturnalia became debauched and violent during the declining years of the Empire, but the original premise of celebrating the solstice is rooted in an authentic appreciation of nature.

For me, the authentic aspect of this holiday season is to observe the solstice as a day when the darkness of winter halts its progression and begins to recede. The sun begins to climb higher and heralds the promise of spring eventually returning.

As for the custom of cutting down live trees, so that they may be dragged into homes, decorated and observed as they die, I have this story to tell:

While on business in Billings, Montana several years ago, I read an article in the local newspaper that featured an interview with an elderly Native American. He recalled life as a young boy, living on the reservation. Then came the time when his parents sent him and his siblings to the "white man's" boarding school so they could learn to function in American society. They had to deal with culture shock on many occasions, but most memorable was their first exposure to the rituals of Christmas. 

An evergreen tree had been cut down, brought into the school and decorated for the holidays. He and his siblings were quite mystified as to the purpose of this ritual. They had been raised to be very sensitive to the nature of all living things, and could see auras around plants and animals. They could see whether something was healthy or ailing based on the aura surrounding it. Here they saw a tree that had been vitally alive, but then cut down and placed in front of them so they could literally see the life force slipping away from it. This made them very sad, but they tried to make sense of the beautiful decorations that had been placed on it. They finally concluded that the decorations were intended to make the tree feel less sad about dying, so they tried using this rationalization to join in the festive mood of the white children.

For me, I'd rather enjoy trees in their natural and living state. I can see no reason to cut them down and watch them die. Like the Native Americans, this only makes me sad.

Fortunately, we have artificial trees to decorate without destroying any living thing. And something inside of me resonates with bright displays of colored lights. It provides an uplifting spark in an otherwise cold and dreary month.