Taking Back Christmas

The season's real history is even crazier than the made-up one

Nov 25, 2009 at 2:06 pm

Be forewarned, all ye who dare to enter: It’s time for me to play the role of that crotchety old bastard, Scrooge, in service of finding the truth and reclaiming a good time.

It’s a safe bet that anyone reading an issue of CityBeat already is old enough and cynical enough to know there’s no Santa Claus.

They might not be aware, however, that Jesus probably wasn’t born on Dec. 25 at all, that available evidence indicates early Christians didn’t celebrate his birth and Christmas itself was an attempt by the Roman Empire to pacify and convert the pagan nations they had conquered, which were brimming with populations that enjoyed holding raucous parties during the long, dark and depressing nights of winter.

In other words, forget everything that retailers and radio talk show hosts tell you during this time of the year.

At the risk of incurring Bill O’Reilly’s wrath, the whole controversy over the supposed “War on Christmas” manufactured by conservatives eager to shove their religion down our throats is a lot like the Iraq War. They’re targeting alleged enemies based upon a bogus belief.

Although many conservatives advise the rest of us to “remember the reason for the season,” history shows that the original basis for Christmas had nothing to do with celebrating the birth of a divine savior and, in fact, predates the birth of Jesus.

Most historians agree that what became known as Christmas is an amalgamation of several ancient festivals, most notably the Roman observance of Saturnalia. A weeklong revelry held to honor Saturn, the god of agriculture and harvests, it began around 217 B.C. and was commemorated Dec. 17-23. The traditions of gift-giving and having a school holiday are taken from Saturnalia, which also had bawdier aspects like drinking, increased sexual freedom, singing naked in the streets and humorous roleplaying that involved masters and slaves switching positions.

Even earlier than Saturnalia, another festival held around the same time was a holiday in which Zoroastrians honored Mithra, god of oaths.

The festivals centered around the winter solstice on Dec. 22. Many ancient cultures believed the sun god died on the day that had the shortest amount of daylight and was resurrected three days later, on Dec. 25.

As author Lawrence Keleman notes, the Holy Roman Empire decided to celebrate Christ’s birthday at the same time as Saturnalia around the fourth century A.D., in hopes of converting pagans to their creed and letting them party on.

One of Christmas’ darker aspects occurred in 1466 when the Catholic Church forced Jews to run naked through the streets of cities to amuse Roman citizens.

A historical document dating to that era states, “Before they were to run, the Jews were richly fed, so as to make the race more difficult for them and at the same time more amusing for spectators. They ran … amid Rome’s taunting shrieks and peals of laughter, while the Holy Father stood upon a richly ornamented balcony and laughed heartily,” according to researcher David I. Kertzer.

Here’s where the premise of Christmas really falls apart, though, and history gets a little crazy.

Various researchers have tried to identify Jesus’ actual birthday based on clues in the Bible and other data. Their findings range from Jan. 6 to March 25 to May 14 to — get ready — Sept. 11. (Yeah, you read that correctly.) It didn’t really matter to Christians in the first few centuries after Jesus’ death because his birth held no special significance for them.

By the 1990s, some public spaces — most notably Capitol Hill — began renaming Christmas trees as “holiday trees.”

Rather than a nefarious conspiracy against (bogus) Christianity, the effort was done as a legal maneuver to keep other groups like Nazis from petitioning to have their symbols included.

Always in search of a lame cause to rile up the masses, conservatives like O’Reilly and then-House Speaker Dennis Hastert in the mid-2000s began efforts to protect Christmas, woefully ignorant of its true origins.

I say it’s time to truly take back Christmas — forget all that spending on gifts for people you don’t like and the trek to midnight Masses. Let’s honor the holiday by just trying to have a good time with our friends, and screw the rest.