Well, some of it anyway.
I’m looking out on Christmas here in the UK. Most people celebrate it in some way or other, most people don’t work on the 25th, though some folk do – hospital staff, the emergency services, people serving Happy Meals at McDonalds in motorway service areas. A good friend of mine, when he was young enough, used to refuse to celebrate it on principle, but instead he walked an hour and a half to the far side of the neighbouring town (there being no buses running on Christmas Day), to the drop-in centre for the homeless, where he would wait table and wash dishes before walking home. Despite his not wishing to make a day special for himself that was not special for others, he always found that his father had patiently kept a plate of turkey-with-the-trimmings and a bowl of pudding warm for him, which he ate ungrudgingly, aware of the simple generosity of a charity that began at home.
Increasingly, and every year during advent, social media is bombarded with memes pagansplaining* how Christmas was stolen from paganism in a shocking attempt at cultural cleansing and appropriation. This, I’m afraid, is one of those factoids which is repeated and repeated in the expectation that people will eventually accept it as fact. But as I see it, it’s a view that does not survive close examination. Allow me to advance some reasons why I don’t buy this particular memeaganda**.
For many generations the Christian Church didn’t celebrate Jesus’s birthday. Why should they? What was really important to them was the final acts of his mortal ministry and the beginning of his spiritual ministry – his death on the cross, his resurrection, and the sealing of the New Covenant by the visitation of the Holy Spirit upon the Church. To early Christians, and to those in the 21c who have Christianity as a living experience rather than a doctrine, that was something that didn’t and doesn’t need a day set aside to celebrate, but is celebrated every day. Gradually, however, an ecclesiastical calendar was devised within institutional Christianity, including a principle celebration of the crucifixion and resurrection. Its main aim was as a teaching aid, so that there was a systematic way of delivering the story, bite-sized, to a largely illiterate congregation. That’s not all there was to it, of course; to be sure, as Christianity developed, its cultural fabric became more complex and less easy to apply simple analysis to. Into that ecclesiastical calendar the nativity story had to be fitted, had to be given a day or a season to itself. When should that be?
This is the point at which the pagansplanation*** would have you believe that the wicked Christians got together and, rubbing their hands gleefully in their evil synod, said, “Ah, let’s steal the winter solstice from the pagans! That’ll settle their hash!” That, it has to be said, is highly unlikely. More likely is that, in considering the narrative of Christ – which was of course their focus and concern – with some sort of chronology in mind, it was decided that the logical date to celebrate the birth of Jesus would be nine months after the Annunciation, the visitation of the Holy Spirit to Mary and the conception of Jesus, a date which had been fixed in the ecclesiastical calendar at the 25th of March. In fact this is a theory that has some acceptance amongst historians of Christianity; to me it has a touch of Occam’s razor about it, and I’m prepared to give it a place, or at the very least to advance it as being as likely a scenario as the ‘straight theft’ theory.
So, ‘Christmas’ – a day for a special mass in celebration of Christ’s birth – was fixed at some eighteen days after the winter solstice.
“Whoa, hold on!” I hear you cry. “Eighteen days after? Eighteen days after? Eighteen days after? What’s that all about?”
Well, the Julian Calendar was in use, and that is some fifteen days off-set from the Gregorian Calendar, which had a staggered adoption in the world from the late 16c onwards. December 25th in the Julian Calendar was the equivalent of January 7th in the Gregorian. In fact the more traditional Eastern Orthodox observation still celebrates Christmas in early January. The Western Church (Roman Catholic and post-Reformation bodies) celebrate it three days after the winter solstice. Add to that the Christian bodies who do not celebrate Christmas at all, and the accusation of wholesale cultural theft of the solstice by ‘Christianity’ begins to leak.
It is far more plausible to credit the strength of pagan customs, whether from the classical world or elsewhere, with having survived, with having attached themselves to the Christian calendar, with still being there in the culture of folk today, most of whom follow them – kissing under the mistletoe, decorating a tree, making wreaths of the undefeated holly, getting happily blootered – without even bothering with the Christian celebration. One can only wonder what is the agenda of all this paganplaining**** when they should be dancing in the streets!
You may wonder why I preach up Christianity. These days there have been so many harmful accretions to Christian culture. Yet, to my mind, at its heart there is something that can only contribute greatly to the psychic health of humankind. The evangelist John says this (and here I use the ringing poetry of the King James Bible, one of the cornerstones of English literacy):
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. The same was in the beginning with God. All things were made by him; and without him was not any thing made that was made. In him was life; and the life was the light of men. And the light shineth in darkness; and the darkness comprehended it not. There was a man sent from God, whose name was John [‘The Baptist’]. The same came for a witness, to bear witness of the Light, that all men through him might believe. He was not that Light, but was sent to bear witness of that Light. That was the true Light, which lighteth every man that cometh into the world.
This is the kernel of faith as expressed by an early Christian. It is that in all of us there is something inextinguishable. Though in us it is not of us, but is of the founding force and principle of existence – and you don’t have to call that force ‘God’ if you don’t want to, or equate it with the earthly Jesus as John does and as Christians do, you might easily pass it off as ‘reason’, or give it no name at all and consider it something inexplicable and random – and if it is heeded, looked towards, and nurtured, then it can’t fail to enlighten us. It may be buried deep and difficult to see in a misogynistic and racist politician or a religious terrorist, but it is there anyway, and it gives us hope.
Many of you will ask why we ‘need’ this transcendent principle, why we can’t be content simply to rely on our human self. Maybe we don’t need it. Maybe what John is talking about is just so much hooey. I can’t help feeling, however, that this is something of value, and that it can’t but come to the aid of our appalling ignorance, our folly, and our imperfection. A very simple phrase from another early Christian stays with me:
For now we see through a glass, darkly; (1 Corinthians 13:12)
The apostle Paul says that we see things as though they were a puzzle viewed in a mirror. I wonder if that makes Paul the world’s first phenomenologist. What we see is not reality, it is phenomena. It may have some relation to reality, but it is nonetheless only a fleeting image, filtered through human perception. Even the rules of science are not rules because that’s how things are, but because we are who we are and that’s how we happen to see things. Reality is something out there. And yet there is something undeniably real in us. In the world of 2016, so full of foul strokes and fuckups and fool-yous, it is hard to believe in meliorism of any kind. Yet the principle that John knew and celebrated in his gospel drives what is pure and true in Christianity, in the very teeth of what is fucked-up. It drives my revolutionary anarcho-communist zeal, in the very teeth of the world’s slide into numb-brained right-wingery. It drives someone to give up Christmas dinner to go and wash the feet of someone less fortunate. And it seems to defy common sense, to go on, to smile in the face of all this who-stole-what-from-whom bickering, which, when you stop and think about it, ain’t worth a hill of beans.
From our teepee in the Sidlaws, Consuela (my Tejana maid) and I wish you all – and I mean all – the best and truest of celebrations. Find something to celebrate. You know you want to!
*This is yet another word I thought I had invented, but apparently it was coined by someone called Rose Corcoran. Nice one, Rose!
**Damn – there’s another one somebody got to before me!
***I’ll have that one, thank you very much!
****And that one!