by Tom Flynn, editor of Free Inquiry magazine
(Prometheus, 0-87975-848-1, 1993, 244 pages)
Summarized by Richard S. Russell
Where do our Christmas traditions come from?
- Pre-Christian sources: evergreens (tannenbaum, holly, ivy, mistletoe, Yule log, strenae); candles; giving gifts; feasting; wassailing
- Christian sources: midnight mass (Yup, that's all, folks!)
- Post-Christian sources: everything else, almost entirely derived from the 6 DWAMQs (dead white Anglophone males and a queen) — Washington Irving, Charles Dickens, Queen Victoria, Clement C. Moore, Thomas Nast, and Francis Church, from 1830 to 1910. Subsequent, tho lesser, customs include the poinsettia (timed to bloom red on Christmas Day), electric lights for the trees, a national tree (Eisenhower), and innumerable TV specials.
- Neither unique nor original: Pre-Christian god-men sharing 1 or more of these characteristics — angelic annunciation, peri-solsticial birth; virgin mother; divine father; birth attended by signs and royal visitors; youthful prodigy acts; wonder stories as adult; persecution; grisly, untimely death; return from land of dead; silvan symbolism; solar symbolism — Osiris (Egypt), Horus (also Egypt), Attis (Phrygia), Adonis (Syria), Dionysus (Greece), Perseus (also Greece), Mithra or Mithras (Persia), Krishna (Hindu)
- Unsupported by historial evidence: No historical record of Caesar Augustus’s great census, star in the east, or Herod’s massacre of the innocents. Also ahistorical is shepherds watching their flocks by night at any time of year other than lambing season, usually around April.
- Contradictions between gospels: Jesus’s genealogy, whether Joseph and Mary lived in Bethlehem or Nazareth, whether there was a manger, who attended the birth, and where the family went afterward.
- Contradiction within a gospel: Matthew’s “fulfilled prophecy” that the messiah should be named Emmanuel.
Actually, no; death is more Christian. Early Christians thot it blasphemous to celebrate birth (entry into the mundane world) and instead marked feast days of the saints on the much better recorded anniversary dates of their deaths (their entry into the divine world of the afterlife), including the biggest of them all, Easter.
Surely all Christians agree on the central importance of Christmas?
No, as usual, they leap at any excuse for a good fight. Puritans, Presbyterians, Quakers, and Baptists tried to squelch Christmas celebrations as unholy and unseemly in England and its colonies thruout the 17th and 18th Centuries. Anglicans, Catholics, and Lutherans, OTOH, reveled in the occasion, which is why George Washington chose Christmas Eve to cross the Delaware River, expecting to find the British and Hessians inebriated via celebration.
Who are those DWAMQs you mentioned?
- Washington Irving wrote the “Knickerbocker history” of New York, describing a supposed Dutch cult of Saint Nicholas, who would ride a magic horse thru the sky distributing presents on his feast day. Irving later described an “old-fashioned Christmas feast” set in a fictional English manor.
- Charles Dickens wrote A Christmas Carol, with its soppily sentimental conversion of the miser Scrooge. Even so, upon awakening from his dream, “In no time flat, [Scrooge] finds a little boy walking down the street who, on Christmas morning, has nothing better to do than run an errand for a stranger. Scrooge gives the child some money without the slightest worry that the butcher’s shop might be closed. His confidence is justified.”
- The young Queen Victoria was wildly popular in England and set many social standards. A descendant of the German House of Hanover, she and her family celebrated the holiday with an indoor tree. “In 1847 few English households had trees; by Christmas 1849 trees were everywhere.” The silvacide has continued unabated ever since.
- Clement Clarke Moore claimed to have written the poem A Visit from Saint Nicholas (AKA ’Twas the Night before Christmas), and Flynn is willing to concede authorship despite considerable doubt, but its influence on the legend of Saint Nicholas — essentially transforming it rapidly into a recognizably modern Santa Claus, complete with “8 tiny reindeer” — is unmistakable. But Claus was rotund, jolly, and secular, not the gaunt, severe Nicholas of the Christian tradition.
- Thomas Nast was the greatest editorial cartoonist of the 19th Century. If an ordinary picture is worth a thousand words, his depiction of Santa Claus was probably worth a million. It gave form to the somewhat vague word picture of Moore’s poem. His first Claus appeared in an 1862 issue of Harper’s, delivering presents to the “good” Union soldiers. But he kept it up almost every year thereafter for 3 decades. He’s the one responsible for siting Santa at the North Pole.
- Francis Church, an editorial writer for the New York Sun, was called upon by his publisher in 1897 to pen a response to 8-year-old Virginia O’Hanlon, who had inquired whether Santa was real. Under the heading “Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus”, Church opened with the observation that her friends “have been affected by the skepticism of a skeptical age. They do not believe except they see.” and thence proceeds to lay waste to the scientific method.
- A fair number of Christmas carols aren't as "traditional" as commonly believed. Jingle Bells (1857), We Three Kings of Orient Are (1859), I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day (1863), Joy to the World (1872), Away in a Manger (1887), Little Drummer Boy (1941), Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer (1949).
- The solstice is a holiday magnet. Christmas, Hanukkah, Saturnalia, Festivus, Yule, Dies Natalis Solis Invicti, Kwanzaa, Brumalia, Sankranti, boar's head feast, Dongzhi, Soyal, Yalda, Modraniht, Pancha Ganapati, HumanLight, Hogmanay, Boxing Day, New Year’s Day.
- Should we celebrate any holidays? Flynn himself does not and recommends against doing so for people in general and atheists in particular. He especially disparages the idea of celebrating the solstice (a pagan holiday) or made-up alternative holidays like Festivus, because he says we're fooling nobody; everyone knows we wouldn't be doing it if it weren't for the big fuss being made over Christmas.