There are no strangers on Christmas Eve. – Michael O’Brien (Charles Winninger) in Beyond Tomorrow
Christmas is the oldest continuously-celebrated holiday in the world, dating back at least 5000 years to the ancient festival of Lenaea, celebrated by the ancestors of the Mycenaean Greeks; it may be much older still, but since even our oral traditions don’t go back before the early Bronze Age we have no real way of knowing. Personally, I suspect it dates back to 3900 BCE, when the climate abruptly cooled and dried, creating the Sahara and spurring the settlement of river valleys, the first large, centralized governments and the development of agricultural calendars. One can imagine the dread with which those early people would have reacted to the failure of the rains and the shortening of the growing season; over time the stories of how pleasant things used to be would have become exaggerated until they grew into the belief that man had once existed in a paradise from which he had been expelled due to some dreadful offense against the gods. They might have seen each winter as a threat of worsening conditions, and developed religious rituals to placate the gods and bring back the sun. Nearly every temperate-zone agricultural society had some sort of “return of the sun” ritual at this time of year, and even today Christmas is celebrated by a larger fraction of human beings than any other holiday.
To anyone who knows anything at all about the origin and development of Christmas, the insistence by American Christians that the holiday belongs to them and them alone is bizarre indeed; it’s rather like someone buying a used car, giving it a new paint job and then declaring that he was the inventor of the internal combustion engine. What makes this even stranger is that Christmas has been a largely-secular festival rather than a high-religious one for about 2500 years, since the formal Lenaea gave way to the popular Kronia. The early Church fathers were not at all pleased when recent converts associated Jesus with the sun-god and assigned the latter’s birthday to the former; Pope Benedict recently pointed out, “We don’t even know which season he was born in. The whole idea of celebrating his birth during the darkest part of the year is probably linked to pagan traditions and the winter solstice.” But as I wrote in my first Boxing Day column,
…they were [eventually] forced to admit that, like prostitution, Christmas was not going to go away, so by the Middle Ages the Church embraced the celebration and worked to insert as much Christian symbolism into it as possible. Nativity scenes first appeared in 10th-century Rome, and were popularized by Saint Francis of Assisi beginning in 1223 (St. Francis also popularized religious Christmas carols sung in the vernacular). Christian explanations were developed for pagan traditions like the Christmas tree…By the Renaissance Christmas was fully established as an important Church festival…and then the Reformation came, bringing preachers who thundered against Christmas as “popery” or even the dreaded “heathenism”. The Church responded by trying to make the festival more religious, and many German Protestants continued the celebration quietly but replaced Saint Nicholas or other traditional gift-giving figures with the Christkindl (Christ child), a term corrupted in English to “Kris Kringle”…in the English-speaking world the Protestants continued to hammer away at Christmas, which was actually banned in England under the Commonwealth government from 1647-1660…Puritan influence made it unpopular [in America, and]…it was [only] due to German, Dutch, French and Spanish influence that Christmas finally “caught on” in the United States in the first quarter of the 19th century…
In other words, the whole “Keep Christ in Christmas” nonsense is based on a premise as spurious as the fallacy that “Xmas” is a modern abbreviation intended to “X” Jesus out of the holiday (in reality, the “X” is a Greek Chi, short for “Christ”, and the use of “Xmas” dates back to the 11th century). Christmas belongs to the entire world, not just to the most selfish members of one religion, and we cannot allow this Cult of Grinches to steal it and all of its symbols, the majority of which predate their sect by centuries.