A STATE OF THE SEASON ADDRESS
Do you have the Christmas spirit? Do you know for certain what it is? What it was? Where it came from and where it's going? It's hard to nail these things down.
The whole business has pagan roots. Pagans, before the time of Christ, had a quirky way of seeing spiritual manifestations in the world around them. That's probably not too hard to do when the world around you consists of stars, moon, sun, forests, rivers and crops. The Latin root from which "pagan" derives means "country dweller," not to be confused with landed gentry. For the most part, pagans were the raw fodder from which early Christians were molded.
Christmas, as we know it today, is the product of a merger, and from the beginning it had secular undertones--Mary and Joseph were on their way to see the Tax Man when Mary went into labor, and it wasn't too many years after that that Christ, still a boy, tanned hide on the money changers in the temple.
It's no accident that Christmas Day rolls around within a few days of the winter solstice, that annual point in time when the spinning earth tilts on its axis and the days begin getting longer. This occurrence--with its promise of spring, summer and bountiful harvests--triggered big-time celebrations in the pagan world. They romped, danced, drank a little too much mead wine and made sacrifices to the gods. In their system, the sun was chairman of the board.
Then along comes Christianity, consolidating this smorgasbord of gods into a tight-knit Trinity, de-emphasizing the here-and-now in favor of the hereafter, and preaching love and forgiveness. This was a radical and unsettling way of looking at things for the status quo of the times, and early Christians were often enthusiastically and prematurely prodded along into their cherished hereafter by alarmed pagans, Romans and Jews.
December 25 didn't officially become Christmas until Pope Julius declared it so in the fourth century A.D., simultaneously converting much of the pagan sun ritual into ritual directed toward Jesus, the spiritual sun and the son of God.
As Christianity grew in secular power over the centuries, tactics for reaping converts grew crafty and expedient. When, in 597 A.D., Gregory the Great sent Augustine to convert the British heathens (as pagans were now being called), he advised him: "Do not destroy the temples of the English Gods; change them into Christian churches. Do not forbid the harmless customs which have been associated with the old religion; consecrate them."
And so Augustine called the Christmas season "Yule-tide" after the pagan god of winter, and pagan rituals involving mistletoe and the Yule log were carried over into the Christian world.
The sun has tilted in and out of many a solstice since the birth of Christ. Columbus discovered two fresh continents of savages (as heathens were now being called) ripe for conversion, the Industrial Revolution has left its mark, and the world is now skimming the surface of ritual and everything else in a rapid-transit Information Age. Pagan influences on Christmas have been totally assimilated and defanged, and likewise the Christian spiritual essence of the season has been all but gobbled up by something called commercialism, which, as far as I can tell, means the mindless production and proliferation of spiritually devastating, aesthetically offensive, shoddily-manufactured junk.
And there we have it. What's Christmas? You've got me. Try standing on a quiet hilltop and staring into the still mysterious night sky for a clue. And while you're at it, keep an eye peeled for the star of Bethlehem.