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The Winter Holiday War: It’s Older Than You Think


Grocery store shelves stripped bare the day after Halloween to make room for rows of red- and green-wrapped candy. Gift shopping as a competitive sport. Battle lines uneasily drawn over our right to hear “Merry Christmas” rather than “Happy Holidays,” or vice versa. These are, for better or worse, signs of the season we can’t escape, splayed across an ever-increasing span during the latter part of each year. Alongside the jingle bells, the debate rises again: is there a “war on Christmas”?

As defined by Bill O’Reilly and his colleagues at Fox News , the war on Christmas is being waged by Secular Progressives, with their “Happy Holidays” and “Holiday trees,” who refuse to admit that this season is and should be all about Christmas—the Christian celebration of the birth of Jesus.

Besides its obvious affront to religious and cultural pluralism, the problem with this notion is that winter holidays have been celebrated for thousands of years and in many different cultural contexts, and Christmas as it is currently celebrated is a relatively recent development. It is no coincidence that so many of these celebrations have clustered around the time of the winter solstice (December 21 in the Northern hemisphere), the shortest day and longest night of the year that heralds the gradual lengthening and lightening of days to come. The return of the light is an archetypal theme that resonates deeply, whether we are prehistoric people following the agricultural seasons or modern people looking for hope in a frenetic world.

Christmas is not a national holiday in China, but the Chinese have marked the winter solstice with a festival since the Han dynasty (206 BCE-220 CE) . Judaism has a rich tradition of winter solstice wisdom stories with scriptural roots. If solstice celebrations are older than Christianity and more common than Christmas, how did this one holiday become so dominant?

Let’s go back to the thirteenth century, to the time when the Icelandic historian Snorri Sturluson was writing about the holiday of Jól , or Yule, an ancient Germanic winter holiday that took place in mid-January. Yule, with its sacrificial logs, wassailing, and mistletoe, was in many ways the direct precursor to today’s Christmas. Snorri’s account contains eerie parallels to today’s “war on Christmas” narrative when he gets to the part where King Hakon the Good of Norway, in the tenth century, tries to impose Christian practices on this pagan holiday. He failed, but 200 years later, another monarch, King Svein of Denmark, succeeded, and it was thereafter celebrated on December 25, in accordance with the Roman calendar.

This wasn’t even the first time something like this had happened. The origins of Rome’s celebration of Christmas on December 25 are indistinct, but it’s clear that at least two widely observed holidays took place on or around that date . Saturnalia was an agricultural festival at the end of the autumn planting season; its celebration involved banquets and gift exchanges. Overlapping Saturnalia was a Roman civil holiday (celebrated on December 25) known as dies natalis solis invicti, the “birthday of the unconquered sun.” Introduced in 274 CE, it was a mix of emperor worship and honoring the god Jupiter, who represented the pure, brilliant light of the sun. Christmas was added into the mix less than 100 years later, as Christianity grew, on its way to becoming the official religion of the Roman Empire.

The exact origin of the observance of the birth of Jesus is lost to history, but no references to its occurrence on December 25 appear until 354 CE. Early Christians focused on Jesus’ death and resurrection, and it didn’t seem to matter that none of the Gospel writers who recorded his life were in any way clear about when he was born. (In fact, some think he may have been born in the spring , as the shepherds tending their flocks at night would have been more likely to do so during spring lambing season.) It’s likely that Christmas was meant to replace one or both of Rome’s pagan holidays. If so, it was the first of many winter holiday conquests, the beginning of a lineage that reached through to tenth-century Norway and in many ways continues to this day.

Saturnalia, Yule (at least the old Germanic version), and the other conquered holidays have long lost the importance they once had. They have been assimilated into Christmas, and most don’t miss them. But what about the holidays that are alive and well today, the Kwanzaas and Diwalis and Hanukkahs, and solstice itself, the ones that struggle to breathe in an atmosphere of all Christmas all the time? The “theys” that Bill O’Reilly derides as being the reason Christmas in all its dominant glory can’t be enjoyed peacefully?

The answer might be simply this: Let’s recognize that there isn’t a monolithic winter holiday, and that peace and goodwill aren’t the sole province of Christmas or of any holiday. If there’s nothing to defend, if Christmas no longer has to be a subsuming monolith, then a war on Christmas becomes irrelevant. Christians, Buddhists, Jews, pagans, atheists, and everyone else get to choose how they will mark this time of year, and get to reflect on why so many holidays throughout history have clustered here. Many holidays carry the warmth of the returning light; many always have. When we say “Happy Holidays,” perhaps, rather than engaging in one more war, we are giving voice to peace.

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