Let's face the facts. Christmas is a thinly disguised pagan holiday which was so strong and so popular that it has defied every effort to modify or suppress it for 2000 years. You can change the name and tack on all the baby Jesuses you like, but it's still the feast of the Winter Solstice, and most of the popular observations can be traced back to pagan origins. We've got the sacrificial tree of Wotan, the feasting of the Roman Saturnalia, the sacred libations of Dionysius, the Yule log that represents the burning corpse of the god of the dying sun, sacred rowan wreaths and mistletoe to ward off evil spirits, a Santa who's a rehashed pagan sky god, and plenty of monetary sacrifices to Mammon.
December 25th certainly isn't the day Jesus was born. That was likely much earlier in the year. The date was originally selected and made a holiday by the Romans as a consolidation of several pagan winter feasts, and then the early Church just just appropriated it, over some fairly strong objections, and those objections have continued ever since. It seems like the joyous spirit of Christmas is inherently incompatible with the dour righteousness of fundamentalism.
We hear a lot about the "War on Christmas" that secularists are waging, but the truth is that there are two wars on Christmas, with the religious right attacking it just as fiercely as the atheistic left. At the very least the Christians are at war to take the holiday away from the people who just want to celebrate their old paganistic traditions without having to worry about the larger implications. Most concerned Christians just want to "put the Christ back in Christmas" – never mind that there was precious little of him there in the first place. However, some of them want to go even farther and get rid of Christmas entirely.
In the late Middle Ages the Catholic scholar Polydore Virgil wrote against Christmas in de Rerum Inventoribus:
Dancing, masques, mummeries, stageplays, and other such Christmas disorders now in use with Christians, were derived from these Roman Saturnalian and Bacchanalian festivals; which should cause all pious Christians eternally to abominate them.
And opposition to the pagan traditions was high on the list of things the puritans wanted to purge from the Church. In the 1640s the puritan parliament tried to ban Christmas celebrations in England. Later that same century there was a similar ban in Massachusetts and Increase Mather expressed what were largely objections to the joyous nature of the holiday as being unchristian in his broadside A Testimony Against Several Profane and Superstitious Customs:
The generality of Christmas-keepers observe that Festival after such a manner as is highly dishonourable to the name of Christ. How few are there comparatively that spend those Holidays (as they are called) after an Holy manner. But they are consumed in Compotations, in Interludes, in playing at Cards, in Revellings, in excess of Wine, in mad Mirth; Will Christ the holy Son of God be pleased with such Services? Just after this manner were the Saturnalia of the Heathen celebrated. Saturn was the Gaming God. And the Feast of Christ’s Nativity is attended with such Profaneness, as that it deserves the name of Saturn’s Mass, or of Bacchus his Mass, or if you will, the Devil’s Mass, rather than to have the Holy name of Christ put upon it.
Mather clearly reaffirms the popular perception that Puritans really objected to people having any fun at all.
That tradition has hardly died out. While we hear a lot from the religious right about how the "Anti-Christian Lawyers Union" and "secular humanists" are trying to take the Christ out of Christmas and turn it into a purely secular holiday – and there's no question that they are – the real hardline fundamentalists hate Christmas even more than the ACLU does. They would like to ban it alltogether. One of those leading the charge is televangelist Garner Ted Armstrong, who preaches an annual sermon against "Satan Claus". His website features an article on the evil pagan origins of Christmas by Reb Yeshayahu Heiliczer (you can always tell when Christian extremists go really crazy because they start taking Jewish names) who writes:
Santa Claus stands identified as none other than that original arch apostate Nimrod! His attributes hark back to ancient pagan worship. When children are asked, "What did Santa Claus bring you this year?" it is merely a modern twist to an old Satanic counterfeit pagan religion! All the merry Christmas songs hearken back to pagan times, relics of a pagan past.
Clearly Christians have plenty of reasons to hate Christmas just as strongly as humanists like Tom Flynn of the Council for Secular Humanism, who describes saying 'Merry Christmas' as a form of hate speech. Taking the yearning for a secularized holiday to that kind of extreme seems just as insane as the anti-Christmas rantings of Armstrong and other extreme fundamentalist Christians. What brings extremists from opposite ends of the spectrum like Flynn and Armstrong together is that they both actively hate Christmas. They don't just look down on it or choose not to observe it, they're on active crusades to exterminate it because they think it's evil and being used to do evil.
Yet when I think about Christmas and what makes it special, it seems to me that despite the myriad different versions of Christmas and excuses and justifications and explanations for it, the one thing that every version of the winter holiday has in common is a spirit of celebration, good will and generosity towards others. Those on the right or on the left who hate Christmas may have different professed reasons for it, but at base what they seem to hate is people being kind and generous to each other and coming together in friendship. The power of extremism is built on divisiveness and appealing to a group that sees other groups as enemies, and for most of us Christmas is a time we put our enmities aside. That has to be enormously threatening to them. What if Christmas took over the whole year and we stopped hating the unbelievers and listening to the messages of demagogues and bigots and just got along with each other? That would be a disaster!
Examples of the real meaning of Christmas are all around us. Today, all on her own, our four-year-old went and found the paper her mother had been using to wrap presents for the family and wrapped a present for our new puppy. She didn't do it because of advertising or because of Jesus, but just because she loves the puppy and wanted to give him something to make him happy. That's what Christmas is all about. It's about giving because it makes you feel good to make someone else happy. That's selflessness, and when that's part of what you're striking out against in your personal war on Christmas then there's something very wrong with you.
Islam isn't exactly known for loving Christmas and Christians, and their idea of a holiday is to spend a lot of time praying and giving alms to the poor, or in the more extreme cases fasting and ritual self-mutilation. Yet in Iran, the most fundamentalist enclave of crazy, turbaned Islamic extremists, there's more room for Christmas than there is in the hearts of those Americans who campaign against it. Despite the power of the Mullahs and some persecution of Christians soon after the Islamists took power, Christian minorities in that country are allowed to celebrate Christmas and observations of the secular version of the holiday in the general popular culture are not uncommon, even for faithful Muslims. You don't get stoned there for putting up a tree or giving someone a present, which points out how truly fanatical Christmas-haters in the US really are.
I'm hardly a devout Christian, but I don't take offense when someone says "Merry Christmas" to me. I certainly don't see it as hate speech. They don't know what I believe, but they aren't saying "have a merry Christmas and fall on your knees and worship Jesus you atheistic scum", they're just hoping I have a good day on their holiday. They're not trying to convert me with those magical words, they're just selflessly sharing goodwill with me, whether I agree with them or not. How can that be a bad thing?Dave Nalle has worked as a magazine editor, a freelance writer, a capitol hill staffer, a game designer and taught college history for many years. He now designs fonts for a living and lives with his family in a small town just outside Austin where he is ex-president of the local Lions Club. He is on the board of the Republican Liberty Caucus and Politics Editor of Blogcritics Magazine. You can find his writings about fonts, art and graphic design at The Scriptorium. He also runs a conspiracy debunking site at IdiotWars.com.