The ancient Romans had a problem. A new cult arrived, bringing with it the most distasteful practices. The members all were atheists. They were also incestuous, and they had secret cannibalistic rituals.
The new guys? Some jerks called “Christians”. That’s right: they refused to believe in the Gods, they called each other “brother” and “sister” and greeted with a kiss, and rumor had it that they took part in some kind of ritual that involved eating the flesh and drinking the blood of others. Most folks thought they were killing babies.
New people are always bringing in new ideas and messing things up.
Take Christmas. As far as we know, some kind of holiday around this time has been celebrated forever. Go back ten thousand years, and you’ll find humans dancing around a fire around this day. They just didn’t call it Christmas. Nowadays the best scientific name for this day is the Winter Solstice. It marks the shortest day in the year, and it’s something that any culture that watches the sky would know and wonder about. Would the sun continue retreating? What could be done to bring Spring back? People built bonfires (along with large “yule” logs), used trees in ceremonies, had great gatherings, built huge edifices to properly revere the sun and help bring back much needed warmth to the land.
Then those new guys showed up with this fancy concept called “civilization” (a word which was only invented centuries later!). They wanted everybody to kind of standardize the holiday. Some of them settled on “Saturnalia” It was a pretty fun holiday. Slaves got to play the role of masters, and masters got to be slaves. There was drinking, families visited together, and everybody was thankful to spend time together. Geesh! Did we really need human sacrifices and all of that crazy superstitious stuff this time of year when we had the God Saturn and the proper celebration that should be given to him at this time?
But that didn’t last. And it was those atheist cannibal Christian types that ruined it.
At first, Christians refused to have anything to do with celebrating the birth of Jesus. Why should they? The entire religion was based on the death and resurrection of Jesus, not his birth. The first gospel written, Mark, makes no mention at all of Jesus’ birth. Later gospels went big on the story, though, with wise men, jealous kings, and all sorts of other great themes. But even then, early Christians had little interest in the beginning of the Jesus story. It was the last part that was the important part for them.
“It is only sinners like Pharaoh and Herod who make great rejoicings over the day on which they were born into this world,” said Origen, one of the most notable early church leaders.
People have a hard time believing this today, but early on it was the story of Christianity that was far more important than the historical detail or places. It wasn’t until the Middle Ages that visiting holy sites became much of a big deal. What would be the point of visiting a bunch of old places? Those things were trivial compared to the meaning of the story.
The Gospel of John helped to change that, but it took a long time. John was unlike any of the other three gospels (stories of Jesus’ life) in that it tried to join philosophy and religion together. Many scholars view John as being the product of an early Christian church with a heavy Greek influence. As science and the scientific method has progressed, people took this theme of philosophy and reasoning and started focusing on sourcing and facts. Christians are especially interesting in becoming more interested in “proving” that all these things have historical meaning and validation. Compare this to many other religions which to this day are not concerned with these matters. But I digress.
Because of this joining of philosophy and religion, or in spite of it, Christianity took off in a big way, eventually becoming the state religion of Rome, even though many still kept to the old ways too. Eventually this was a problem: fervent adherents wanted to know: why should we allow folks to keep celebrating this Saturnalia thing? People loved it, but it had nothing to do with Christianity. In fact, it was bad for the brand. It sowed confusion, it diluted the message, it hurt adoption.
So somebody came up with a great idea. “I know,” they said, “let’s keep Saturnalia and all that other stuff, but we’ll also have a celebration at this time for the birth of Jesus! We don’t do anything for that, and that way everybody can have a big party and at the same time be doing it the right way.” (Some scholars consider this the first great ancient marketing ploy)
So the organized, official Christian church used Microsoft’s embrace, extend, and extinguish strategy, but it still didn’t sit well with many of the troops. Why do we need to create some new holiday and do a bunch of pagan stuff? What kind of belief system is that? Indeed, most Christians refused to have anything to do with it. But it was great for converting the unwashed masses. For a long, long time, most Christians would have nothing to do with a mid-winter celebration in honor of Jesus’s birthday. In fact, in the New World, it was outlawed.
But slowly, over the centuries, most all of the Western World adopted this time of year as being appropriate to celebrate the birth of Jesus — if only in a muted way. Even though, of course, Jesus was not born at this time of year. It seems that when he was actually born had little to do with when his birthday should be.
But even all of that compromise wasn’t good enough.
First, people stayed upset about keeping the old traditions around. Geesh! Did we really need yule logs, trees, partying, and all that crazy superstitious stuff this time of year when we had Jesus and the proper celebration of his birth?
Second, for out on the lawn, there arose quite a clatter. Somehow in all of this arguing over when Jesus was born, or if we should actually care about it or do anything about it, one of the obscure Catholic saints, some guy called Saint Nicholas, took on a big role. He had a red coat, a flying miniature sleigh, delivered presents, and…
Wait, what? Where the heck did he come from? And what does he have to do with anything?
And that wasn’t all. The “Santa” story kept growing. He lived at the North Pole. His sleigh was powered by flying reindeer, one of which had a glowing nose.
Those Saturnalia folks have to be spinning in their graves. Would this crazy revisionist nonsense ever stop?
Of course, with modern education people are beginning to realize this silliness. And, just like people do, instead of consolidating something to celebrate, they are digging up all the old Pagan rituals and starting to celebrate them too. Of course, none of them have any idea what they’re doing, and it really doesn’t make a lot of sense, but, frankly, it makes as much sense as singing “Frosty the Snowman” while heading to a yule log ceremony following Christmas Eve church services (which you attended after watching the Macy’s parade, of course)
Meanwhile modern folks are asking if Christmas is a religious holiday after all. Geesh! Do we really need nativities, Christmas Eve Masses, Cantatas, Madigrals, and all that other crazy superstitious stuff this time of year when we have a wonderful inclusive secular holiday with this Santa guy and all this other non-religious stuff in it?
In programming we have a saying: the two hardest things to do are naming things and cache invalidation. What to call things and how long to keep ideas around before discarding them. Seems like programmers aren’t the only ones with this problem!
Our species has gone from animal spirits, to a Sun God, to the God Saturn, to the birthday of Jesus, to this big guy in a red suit, to this mish-mash of magic snowmen, glowing-nosed reindeer, and other nonsense. None of these have a dang thing to do with the other, but historically they all are part of the same thread stretching across the millennia from prehistoric darkness to today.
Like it or not, mankind is determined to have some kind of holiday around the time of the Winter Solstice, although what to call it, why to have it, and how to celebrate it seems up for grabs. Makes you wonder in ten thousand years, if some vestige of mankind still remains in the universe, what kinds of things we’ll be doing this time of year?
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