Wednesday, March 7, 2012

I know it might seem a bit late, or a bit early, depending on your point of view, to talk about Christmas but an article in the news caught my interest. All right go on, say it, he’s on his hobby horse yet again, we’re back to religion. The article is headed “Is Christmas Under Attack?” Well, it wouldn’t be for the first time. In the seventeenth century the Puritans decided Christmas had become too much of a raucous boozy festival and banned it as idolatrous and this was continued by the Puritans in New England. Christmas was celebrated by most people in England as an occasion of revelry, of overeating, of drinking. Christmas was a rowdy holiday.

In America up until 1894, December 25th was just another twelve hour working day but then, in that year, it was made a legal holiday.

So what is Christmas and how did it start? Basically it is a festival celebrating the winter solstice. The Romans called it Saturnalia, the date December 22nd, and they lit lamps and candles to hold off the winter dark, hence our Christmas lights. When Christianity became the accepted religion in the fourth century the church did not ban all the pagan customs related to the solstice but absorbed them and no one knows the actual date of Jesus’ birth but December 25th is as good a guess as any. The solstice was observed in the Germanic countries by Yule and the Christmas tree appeared in the 15th or 16th century. I doubt anyone today has the facility to burn a Yule log but other pagan symbols like holly and mistletoe are still with us.

Perhaps the article’s headline is slightly misleading: it’s not Christmas that is under attack but all the phenomena that surround it and that really have little to do with celebrating Jesus’ birth. Cards came in officially in 1843 and we now have electronic greetings and it’s big business but just how many Christmas greetings actually mention among the happies and the merries the name of Christ? Oh we get pictures of the stable and the three wise men but offhand I can’t think of much else in the way of Christian symbolism. There is no doubt though that Christmas is a booming industry and booms ever larger and longer with each passing year. There is a huge ‘Christmas Shop’ in North Carolina, open all year, that is a treasure trove of tacky tinsel and trinkets, all glittering red and gold, a child’s wonderland, and when I visited it in mid-summer, it was heaving and doing a roaring trade. But to the article - Dozens of US congressmen have pledged to protect Christmas from attempts to undermine it. So is the West's foremost public holiday really under attack? One of the most famous family scenes in history, the nativity, appears to be facing threats from all sides. A tug of war is going on over a nativity setting on a courthouse lawn in Texas, with the Freedom from Religion Foundation urging it be removed or an atheistic solstice banner put up nearby. In South Carolina, a state hospital has banned a nativity scene from its premises. It's part of a wider assault on the Christmas tradition, say some Christian groups, who also point to a rule barring congressmen from sending Christmas cards through the official congressional post. Theirs is a very modern crusade over the place of religion in public life that has been taken up on both sides of the Atlantic. In the UK, rumours the very name "Christmas" had been replaced in some places by "Winterval" provoked outrage. I should think so too – bloody ridiculous. Political correctness in England has led to a downgrading of Christmas, for example nativity plays in schools, in case those of another persuasion have their noses put out of joint, this despite the fact that, when questioned, those of other persuasions say their noses aren’t put out of joint. Then there are town councils that have toned down their Christmas themes for fear of causing offence.

In the US Congress 67 Republicans have sponsored a non-binding resolution "the sense of the House of Representatives is that the symbols and traditions of Christmas should be protected for use by those who celebrate Christmas". The resolution "strongly disapproves of attempts to ban references to Christmas" and "expresses support for the use of these symbols and traditions by those who celebrate Christmas".

Republican presidential contender Rick Perry used a recent advert to complain that children could no longer celebrate Christmas openly, and that President Obama had launched a "war on religion". “There's something wrong in this country when gays can serve openly in the military but our kids can't openly celebrate Christmas.”

But if anyone is fighting against Christmas, they seem to be losing the battle. Indeed, the vast majority of Americans celebrate Christmas with most incorporating religious elements into the observance. "We're inundated with Christmas," says Max Brantley, a journalist and political analyst in Arkansas. "Christmas is not in danger, and the notion that the US congress needs to waste time with a resolution that asserts it's in danger is just silly." But many believe there is a battle to fight, to preserve the Christian traditions, and it's a conflict in which they are in ascendancy, with the vast majority of people on their side. No doubt, even if battle lines are somewhat obscure, in the words of the old hymn, ‘Onward Christian soldiers, marching as to war…’

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