Christmas is a funny time of the year.1 First I am struck by the prevalence of some rather silly political correctness that I encounter in all sorts of funny places. I welcome any arguments to the contrary, but I see no problem in calling the holiday “Christmas”. This is another example of how political correctness, a principle I generally agree with, has forgotten its own point. That point, I believe, is to minimize social and institutional offence. In doing so, the “truth” if you can call it that, is somehow diluted, which I find even more offensive. Ironically, the same thing seems to have happened to Christmas, which often loses its meaning in amongst the noise of reckless consumerism and gratuitous consumption that always seems to accompany this time of year.
The perceived offence of course has to do with the seeming preference given to christianity and to the christian tradition in the western world. Now don’t get me wrong, I’m one of the first guys to raise an objection to anyone who feels the need to preference the Christian tradition at the expense of any other, or to knock down anyone who believes it to be in any way superior. I do however believe that calling this particular festival and the holiday that surrounds it “Christmas” does none of these things.
I believe that the word “holiday” is some kind of evolved contraction of the words “holy” and “day”
Perhaps it is urban legend, or perhaps this is a case of one of those things that is so obvious that it isn’t actually true, but I believe that the word “holiday” is some kind of evolved contraction of the words “holy” and “day”. Many of the festivals and observances we practice were originally holy days, and in many countries they still retain their original meaning. Halloween for example, or All Hallows Eve, or the “eve of the spirits”, or… the eve of All Saints Day is still observed under those names in many countries, while in others it has turned into an excuse for young girls to dress up as prostitutes on their way to a theme party, and for it to be socially acceptable. (not that I’m complaining, it’s just an observation)
Of course many holidays are not, and never were, based on any kind of religiously significant day. What they are though is “sacred”. National days of independence, birthdays of significant historical figures, or of current monarchs are some of the most common modern “holy days” because in our secular society, those are the things we now consider sacred. And there’s nothing wrong with that. I believe it is a healthy sign of the times when the set of things we consider sacred moves from a bunch of holy relics and religious occurrences with dubious historical backing to days that commemorate historic events of real significance like when a fleet lands in a newly-discovered country, or a country’s declaration of independence (or when Australia wins the America’s Cup).
So we come back to Christmas. Ostensibly the celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ, who according to christians is the son of God. First of all, just to put some historical perspective to all of this, it is entirely unlikely that Jesus (which was a common name back then, btw) was born on the 25th of December. The reason Christ-mass occurs on the 25th is because in Roman times, in the early days of Christianity (when rich, old, white men arbitrarily decided most of the rules, as well as the content of the bible) they sought to replace a pagan festival which itself was a slightly belated celebration of the winter solstice.2
So if this Christ fellow hadn’t come along, we would probably still be celebrating at this time of year. Just as an example, in China we actually do celebrate a winter solstice festival on the 22nd of December where the custom is to gather with family members and eat a lot of food. I think the trouble is that people look for these cultural “fixed points” to base their whole cosmology around (be it secular or otherwise) because it’s a lot easier to do something because that’s how it’s always been done than to actually think about it. Of course, history isn’t like that. Societies evolve, change, and adapt, and school history textbooks seem to miss this point often. Christmas celebration practices, even in conservative rural Eastern Europe have changed significantly even in the last 100 years.
Christmas by any other name would probably have to endure similar debates about its name for as long as we celebrate it.
So what’s in a name? A rose by any other name would smell as sweet, and a Christmas by any other name would probably have to endure similar debates about its name for as long as we celebrate it. My hope is that we’ll continue calling it Christmas, and that many years in the future, we have funny little conversations at trivia nights about how the holiday used to be about some significant guy of some major world religion and that’s where the name comes from (rather like how I talked about halloween before). The name is important, because it preserves some historical context and also gives us something to call the holiday that isn’t ambiguous or confusing.3
The question of course, about connecting a major world holiday with a festival which has its origins in a major religion is a good one though. I don’t really mind relgion per se, but some (like Richard Dawkins, for example) do. I refer back to my previous point about the importance of understanding historical context, and also (curiously enough) to the point about the meaning of the “sacred” in an increasingly secular world.
We live in an increasingly secular world, and I would consider myself a secular person. We are learning (some more quickly than others) that you don’t have to be spiritual to be moral, and the two aren’t even necessarily positively correlated. In my secular world, things that are sacred to me are things like the structure of mathematics, and the scientific method (and cricket). I don’t believe that religion is entirely unimportant. It may have been an essential, biologically evolutionarily hard-wired behaviour to get us through the early stages of the development of our civilization. It gives a large group of people, who are mostly strangers to each other, a common point of reference and this helps complex societies to function. Religious behaviour encourages us to see patterns in things (even when the patterns aren’t there) and this would have been essential in the early stages of a society’s development.4
What science sometimes doesn’t admit, is that there is an awful lot that it doesn’t know.
That kind of behaviour also has its setbacks. It gives us a lot of false positives, and has this tendency to encourage large groups of people to live in fear. A primitive society which constantly has to fear attacks from other tribes (or bears, some of whom can climb faster than they can run) benefits from having this constant state of mortal fear (because they are often in mortal danger), but in our modern society these behaviours can be very inconvenient. There is also an emphasis on arbitrary authority that just rubs me the wrong way. That’s why we’ve slowly been replacing the way we carry out our lives with things determined by the scientific method. What science sometimes doesn’t admit, is that there is an awful lot that it doesn’t know, but that doesn’t mean we should leave dogma and superstition to make us doubt the very little that we do know.
Anyway, I’m getting off the point… which is that denying facts goes against principles that I hold sacred in my secular world view. The fact is that Christmas is a festival whose dominant customs originated with the Christian tradition and as such it shouldn’t lose the name, lest we lose important information by denying its origins and divorcing it from its historical context. Christmas is only an important holiday because the powerful countries in the Western World were quite Christian at a time when they were at their most powerful. Already though, since these powerful countries have become increasingly secular (and supposedly live by the principle of separation of church and state) the festival has also become increasingly secular. In Hong Kong for example, it has simply become a festival of gift-giving, big parties, nice meals, and lots of lights (so not very different from normal everyday life really). Maybe in the future, it will become a minor holiday, buried in amongst holidays with more historical significance to whichever society ends up being the next world cultural superpower.
Does religion still have a place in society though? For now, I think so. Again, we should learn from history (seriously, kids don’t learn enough history these days, or aren’t taught it properly). While it is true that the major world religions are responsible for some of the worst bloodshed and atrocities that civilization has ever witnessed, as well as some of the worst abuses of power, and the punishment of countless innocent victims, it is also responsible for a great deal of good. A huge portion of humanitarian projects are organised and funded by religiously-based organisations. Throughout history (until the very recent advent of state public education systems) in all faiths, organised religion has been responsible for setting up schools and educating people. The world’s first universities were based around monasteries, and indeed this is why academic robes are the way they are.
For a long time, the church/temple/mosque/synagogue/shrine was also the primary gathering place for local communities. It is hard to imagine now, in our interconnected world, but not so long ago the “local community” was the only community anyone was really exposed to on a regular basis. Perhaps the superstition is now absent from the festivals, but we should not forget them for what they really are, and that is a chance for people to come together and connect with each other.
we should not forget them [festivals] for what they really are, and that is a chance for people to come together and connect with each other.
Perhaps something to think about this Christmas, while you’re munching on your roast turkey in a snowy village in somewhere Denmark, or gnawing away on some barbequed shrimps down under – think about what’s really important. Is it whether we call it “Christmas” or “X-mas” or “the holiday season”, or is it about what it has come to represent – companionship, family, and community. Is it about decorations, lights, and who got the most expensive gift, or is it about reconnecting with people you may only see once a year despite how easy it is to travel and communicate in this modern age? Maybe you’ll even think about all the frantic shopping, flying to and fro, and all the work behind the scenes that makes it possible for all this to take place, and contrast it with the world of the impoverished, living on a dollar a day (if that), who probably don’t even know it’s christmas because they can’t afford any food, let alone a radio to connect them to a world whose easy connections we take for granted.
The world is what we make of it, and the meaning of Christmas is not fixed by the particular sequence of letters of the alphabet it happens to have in its name. It should be a time to come together, not just as a family, but as a community, and not just as a community of your local neighbourhood, profession, or clique, but as a world community – a community where we take responsibility for our actions and the impacts they may have on others, and a community where we are kinder, more generous, and more forgiving of each other. Because that’s not how it’s always been done, but it’s about time we started, because for goodness sake, it’s Christmas. Now go and be merry!
- Am I a bad person because one of the things I look forward to the MOST is the Doctor Who Christmas Special? ↩
- Don’t forget that they were still using the Julian calendar back then, and most recorded dates were off by a few days anyway, so the winter solstice probably did occur on the 25th quite often. ↩
- Perhaps someday we might adopt the M.I.T. approach to things and just number everything, and Christmas will become holiday #1729, or day type-7, number 1729. ↩
- or alternatively maybe there really is a God… ↩