Sunday, December 04, 2005

Have a Merry Pagan Festival Season!

Everywhere you look, fundamentalist (apparently another word for “fake”) Christians are hammering away at the need to recognize this as the “Christmas” season. These joyless individuals have apparently gotten their lives entirely squared away, so that now, the most pressing thing they can think about is how offended they are when they hear people call this the “Holiday Season”. But my favorite Christmas reveler (well, not really reveler, I guess: I’ve never seen a fundamentalist Christian revel, or even be all that happy. Probably because lynching has been outlawed.) is the smug little person who tells me to “remember the reason for the season.” And since I must restrain from physically bitch-smacking these people, I am writing to deliver my best rhetorical bitch-smack.

Not only is Jesus NOT the reason for the season, heathen pagans ARE the reason for the season. Let’s be totally blunt: Jesus was NOT born on Christmas Day, and was not even born in December. And in the process of unraveling this particular piece of Christian propaganda, we’ll learn a lot about how the Catholic Church works. And we’ll have fun. And people like me, who are entirely Christian but don’t see the need to rub people’s faces in it like you rub your dog’s face in poo, will walk away better-equipped to defend yourself against the joyless fundies one encounters seemingly everywhere nowadays. In order to save myself from constant citations, my two primary sources are this and this. But anyone can do what I do, and run a Google search for “+Christmas +pagan” and read the results.

As anyone who has ever watched the Charlie Brown Christmas Special knows, on the night Jesus was born, “there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night.” Luke 2:8. December in Israel/Judea is not pleasant. Bitter cold, snow, ice, and freezing rain are the order of the day. Sheep are kept in warm, protected folds and shepherds return every night to their huts to sleep in (relative) warmth. More importantly, shepherds don’t have their sheep feed at night in December, which is what the sheep were doing on the night Jesus was born (hence the need for the shepherds to be watching over them). Additionally, we know that Jesus’ birth coincided with the taking of a census for tax purposes (Luke 2:1). In ancient times, as today, taxes were collected in the late spring, and for a simple reason: taxes were commonly paid in grain or livestock. Not even the greediest king (except maybe Bush II) would collect taxes, in the form of foodstuffs, before winter for fear of starving his subjects. Nor does it make sense to collect these taxes until grain has been used for sowing the next year’s crop. Finally, for those who pay their taxes in livestock, it makes sense to let the next year’s birth take place before collecting the animal. In this way, the king was collect tax only on surplussage: a portion of grain or animals that were not needed by the family to survive.

Because ancient Christians were smarter than modern fundies, for the first 353 years after Jesus died, his birth was celebrated by Christians in April. In April in Israel/Judea, sheep are indeed kept outside at night, and shepherds may well watch over the flocks at night because lambs are being born. April would also be an appropriate month to take a tax census, with an eye towards collecting taxes in May or June. Then, in 354 A.D., Pope Gregory declared that Jesus was born on December 25, and that the church would henceforward celebrate his birth on that day. Many Christians refused to do so, and continued to celebrate Jesus’ birth in April. The church called them “April’s fools” (really!). Now, the Catholic Church (although it didn’t have that name at that time) is like any other large organization: it is resistant to change. So, one would legitimately wonder, why would the church take such an important step as changing the date of the birth of their savior? The answer lies in another characteristic of large organizations: the desire to expand.

In 354 A.D., just like today, Christianity was not the only game in town. A significant number of Roman citizens celebrated one (or more) of a diverse number of religious faiths. The official Roman religion celebrated a panopoly of gods (which was blatently stolen from the Greek religious system, but the winners right the history books). The grandfather of their gods was a god named Saturn. On the winter solstice (December 23), worshippers of Saturn would gather to celebrate the festival of Saturn. Other Romans worshipped Mithra, a god who was also born on the winter solstice. Indeed, ancient religious are positively chock-a-block full of gods born on the winter solstice, including Osiris, Horus, Jupiter, Tammuz, and Baccus. Pre-354 A.D., one can only imagine how newly-minted Christians would look longingly out their windows on December 23, watching all their pagan friends partying and having a good time. Christians needed a recruiting tool.

But Christians, then as now, were more devious still. They didn’t just move their festival to coincide with all the other winter solstice festivals. No, they ingrained the new festival in their recruiting: “See, look: your god was born right around this time, and so was ours. They’re really the same god. Except, if you don’t worship god the way we say, you’ll burn in a lake of molten fire forever. So, can we count you in?” Not surprisingly, pagans found this to be a fairly convincing recruiting speech. And the rest, as they say, is history.

But, before we go, one more fun fact from the world of ancient religion. The Babylonian god Nimrod would leave gifts under evergreen trees for people on winter solstice, to celebrate the birth of Tammuz, another Babylonian god. In ancient Egypt, people would celebrate the winter solstice by leaving gifts for each other under palm trees. Oh, those silly pagans and their tree-based gift giving. What will they think of next? No, really, please tell the fundies, because they’re running out of ideas.

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