Sunday, December 18, 2005

Ben Stein's Baloney

I was watching TV early this morning, always a mistake. There was none other than Ben Stein presenting an editorial about how atheists were trying to steal Christmas and Hanukkah. The time has clearly come for a few facts. I know nothing about Hanukkah but this is what I know about Christmas.

December 25th is not Jesus's birthday, no one knows when that was.

What December 25th used to be was the winter solstice, until the calendar was changed.

About 380 years after Christ's birth, the Pope decided that December 25th/the winter solstice would be a good time to celebrate a special mass in honor of the nativity (i.e. Christ's Mass). This raised the day liturgically a little above those days assigned to just a saint, but only to the level of other special mass days (such as Candlemas). Theologically, the biggies were Easter and Pentecost.

The winter solstice was probably picked to please the Roman Emperor Constantine, who was a Mithraism, a pagan sect for whom both birthdays and the equinox were very important. [It was Constantine who made Christianity the state religion of the empire, although he did not actually convert until his death bed. His mother had been a longtime Christian, however, and she is responsible for the identification of the Christian Holy Places in the Holy Land.]

So, what you had for centuries was a day with a special mass and a tradition of celebration and partying.

Then can the Puritans in England. They were called "puritans" not because of their lifestyle but because they sought to rid the English Church of all vestiges of Romanism. They busted out the stain glass windows, ripped out the alters, smashed the statutes, and got rid of all religious vestments. The English Church has already gotten rid of the Mass, saints' days, most holy days, Eurchistitc Presence, and other "papish superstitions." The Puritans abhored Christmas, and they and their fellow Calvinists (Presbyterians and Baptists) brought that hatred with them to the New World. [Puritan churches are called Congregational Churches -- there is one in the middle of every New England town. Congregationalism was the largest religious denomination in America until the 1850's.]

To show it's disrespect for the very idea of Christmas, the United States Congress purposely met on Christmas Day into the 19th Century. [It is interesting to note that many those who most claim to be the direct heirs of the religious beliefs of the founders of the nation, and who otherwise use the beliefs of those founders to support their side in all sorts of church/state issues, were among the first to criticize the President for sending out a non-religious holiday card. George Washing would have been offended by the "Christmas Card." He would probably have liked George Bush's. The same folks have chastised the many evangelical Christian Churches that are not holding Christmas services this year so their employees can spend time with their families, presumably ignorant of the fact that that is closer to the traditions upon which the nation was originally built than anything that they themselves might be doing.]

Do you see where the idea of Christmas as a secular holiday, rather than a holy day, came from? Those whose religious beliefs dominated the United States before the waves of Catholic and Lutheran immigrants in the mid-1800's, could not tolerate the idea of Christmas as a holy day, but they could rationalize it as a holiday when families wanted to be together. What the courts quickly agreed is that cities can put up holiday decorations, but not holy day decorations, since the latter would have been decidedly "Catholic" and, hence, favor one religion over all others. The very idea of a nativity scene to a good Calvinist, of course, would be pure idolatry -- putting one in front of city hall would be a surrender of part of what the English and Scottish Reformations had been all about.

Call it a Christmas Tree, call it a Holiday Tree, call it Bob, just stop quiblings about inconsequentials. The 25th might not be Jesus's actual birthday, but the fact that he had a birthday is reason for many of us to celebrate. Be solemn if you like, but judge not least ye be judged -- Ben Stein is a game show host, not a prophet. And, to Irving Berlin, who gave us White Christmas, Happy Hannachah wherever you might be!

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