A Godless Socialist’s Christmas
A Brief Preface
Somewhere between the years 6 BC and 6 AD (to use the Christian nomenclature) in Bethlehem (one of the only details of the story that avoids dispute) a child was born to a virgin (or a ‘young woman’ as another translation would have it, but let’s not quibble over details) with the assistance of her (apparently rather timid) husband and placed in a feeding trough where he was visited (with the aid of a special star, reserved for announcing the birth of the king of the Jews) by a few foreign astrologers who brought for the occasion gold and (less climactically) a couple different types of ‘dried oleo gum resin’. Such was the birth of Jesus of Nazareth, who later went on to tell folks that his conspicuously absent father was in fact God rather than a Roman soldier, a more practical but less romantic candidate, and that if they didn’t believe everything he said his big ol’ dad was going to punish them in an eternity of unquenchable fire, so they’d best take him at his word. To celebrate the birth of this troublingly deluded fellow, children receive floods of gifts from a fat old man who looks quite a bit like Saint Nicholas though quite a bit more like some drawings by Thomas Nast. This bizarre festival of questionable religious myth and rampant capitalist indulgence has become so popular with those in charge that we’ve disregarded our First Amendment to make the circus a federal holiday. So, what does a passionate atheist with more than a few socialist tendencies and an opposition to ridding the world of its pine trees do on December 25th? I go to my grandmother’s house to celebrate Christmas.
“How could this happen?” you might well ask, and you’ll find out in due time. However, let’s investigate further just what transpires each December 25th when we partake of this patchwork amalgamation of religious worship, pagan ritual and secular saturnalia.
An Abridged History of Christmas
The icons of Christmas are undeniably pagan and no doubt plagiarized from various solstice celebrations. Christians have even borrowed the word ‘Yule’ from the namesake Scandinavian festival that bears a more-than-coincidental resemblance to its American adaptation. ‘Christmastide’ is a clumsy variant of ‘Yuletide’, a season typically falling between December and January intended to celebrate the solstice and the hope for fertility and peace (part of which we vaguely reiterate in song). While the yule-boar has transformed into the dear ‘Christmas ham’ and the yule-log into the unfortunately-named ‘ashen faggot’ in Britain or the brown, turd-shaped cake we find in our own country, the sacrifice of the yule-goat has auspiciously been lost in time. The gift-giving is taken, ironically, from the Romans; the tree genocide spawned accidentally from a German myth; and the food comes largely from Germanic Paganism. And all of this, it cannot escape mention, hasn’t the smallest thing to do with the birth of Jesus, which took place nowhere near December anyhow.
That event most likely happened in the spring and not, in fact, in 0 AD as one might expect. Surely, Mary and Joseph didn’t have the Christian calendar to consult and could have had no knowledge that their humble little mishap would have led to the re-imagining of all chronological time. Somehow we got it wrong, then. One might hope that if we were to reorient the world’s calendars to coincide with one event, we might well know when the event happened. As it is, the calendar was made well before we had proper historical capabilities, which still, at their best, can only provide us with a twelve-year range for the alleged birth. Some place it as early as 6 BC to fall under Herod’s reign (as Luke’s Gospel has it) and others at 6 AD to occur during the Quirinius census (as Luke’s Gospel also has it), so perhaps we did just as well by taking the average.
All of this hubbub revolves around the fact of Mary’s virginity at the time her pregnancy. While becoming pregnant is difficult to do if you’re a virgin, it certainly isn’t impossible. Anyway, she most likely wasn’t a virgin after all, as her pregnancy would suggest to any normal person. There are plenty of theories about how she may have been knocked up and each is as plausible as the next.  Perhaps Joseph wasn’t such a bore after all.  If Mary was worthy of god’s sexual attention she was surely worthy of another man’s. If the story has it right, apparently her husband wasn’t doing much about it and it shouldn’t surprise anyone to learn that Mary may have grown a bit tired of waiting around.  It is also feasible that Mary was raped by a Roman soldier, as rape was quite fashionable in those circles at that time.  Conception out of wedlock was discouraged (by murder), and if the above misfortune befell the girl it would surely have been advisable for her to lie (perhaps saying it was her husband’s child would have been simpler, but The Son of Man has an undeniable punch to it).  People were expecting a messiah after all and I can’t blame her for giving it a shot. Any of these explanations (which are a few among many) is certainly more reasonable than the popular one, which is such a common plagiarism as to be almost entirely uninteresting. David Hume put it best, to my taste: “Which is more likely: That the whole natural order is suspended or that a Jewish minx should tell a lie?”
The importance of the birth, virginal or traditional, is predicated upon the importance of the person, which in this case is also questionable. While an undeniable influence, Jesus had a great many regrettable qualities, the most irredeemably wicked of which was his belief in hell. It seems to me that no compassionate person could beget such an ugly lie upon the earth, the perpetuation of which has caused untold suffering to immeasurable numbers of undeserving people.
Perhaps the greatest Christmas miracle is the tremendous leap from the birth of the messiah to a sack-toting, omniscient fat-man with a league of gravity-defying reindeer at his disposal, who takes it upon himself to bestow gifts to children he deems by his own vague standards to be worthy. How this transition happened evades detailed history and is usually explained by the resemblance of Santa Claus to Saint Nicholas and Father Christmas; the former a Greek Bishop who occupied his time dropping coins into people’s shoes and once miraculously multiplied some parcels of wheat; and the latter a drunken old Bacchus of towering height clad dependably in a green robe with white fur trimming. Whether or not St. Nicholas, Father Christmas and Santa Claus are, in fact, the same person, is a problem solved differently in each Christian home and still tells nothing of how the old man found his way into the celebration of Jesus’ birth. St. Nicholas’s birthday is said (with similar certainty) to be December 6th, which places his own Feast Day close to Christmas Day, and when it’s all so imprecise anyhow, I suppose it made sense to have a joint birthday party.
That the old souse is long dead has led almost every Christian family to lie systematically to their children by telling them that through some Yuletide magic the nocturnal creeper manages in a single evening to make his way to the house of each believing child to sprinkle their mantel with gifts. His obesity might seem to contradict his nimbleness in the chimney, but not so, and if you haven’t got a fireplace we’ll assume he knows where you keep your spare key. All of this is allegedly achieved with the help of his reindeer – led by one with a unique navigational proficiency and a bizarre rhinal condition – who achieve the phenomenon of wingless flight at speeds otherwise attained only by particles of light.
Of course, if the gelatinous geezer is, after all, a complete fabrication, that leaves it to the parents themselves to deliver on their deception. This, naturally, means a trip to the nearest superstore. Thus begins the Christmas season, announced at the will of corporations in order to close out the year with a rush, and supported all the while by ravenous parents clawing murderously for the latest what-have-you to appease their groveling, expectant children. The great accident of Christian world-dominance paired with a paradoxically irreligious indifference has led to the secularization of this traditionally religious holiday and consequently to its redefinition as the yearly climax of orgiastic capitalism.
As far as I’m concerned, Christ can stay out of Christmas. I’m not an advocate of his and I’m perfectly happy to see the over-hyped mystic forgotten. However, the capitalistic reverie that intoxicates the Western Hemisphere is as physically sickening as any earth-sweeping sage-worship. The institutionalization of the holiday seems to me to be a direct breach of our own First Amendment, but this is let slide for some reason or other. While the holiday is not mandatory to all United States citizens, the accommodation thereof certainly is. That most businesses provide their employees with the day off is perhaps defensible, but that federal operations like the post are suspended is absolutely incompatible with the guarantees of the Constitution.
All of this conspires to create an ostensible travesty for an atheistic socialist like myself and, in many ways, it is. So, after all of this pseudo-sacred free-market revelry, how is it that I end up swapping trinkets and singing ‘What Child Is This?’ on the non-anniversary of the birth of our favorite narcissistic bastard? It’s a bit of a mystery to me, as well, but I’ll give it a shot.
Why I Love Christmas, That Stupid, Stupid Holiday
Let me begin by saying that I was raised in a vaguely Christian household where, although we never spent a minute discussing Jesus, taking his name ‘in vain’ warranted a scolding and ‘Oh, my gosh’ was encouraged with a severe look over the mysteriously profane ‘Oh, my god’. My father is a recovering Catholic and my mother just recently realized she likes Christianity except for all the Jesus nonsense. Though, every year, while we’re still digesting Thanksgiving dinner, my mother begins bringing up boxes of nutcrackers and fake snow to adorn the house for the season and incessantly demands I keep up my advent calendar. When we leave the house my father turns on the radio because he thinks our dog is stupid enough to believe she’s in human company and by December 1st our admittedly stupid dog consequently finds herself amidst Burl Ives, Bing Crosby and an inexplicable, ceaseless ringing of bells.
Our Christmas Day is likely similar to any other. We make our way to my grandmother’s house where the family exchanges either embarrassingly irrelevant or suspiciously spot-on gifts while imbibing a rainbow fruit and frozen yogurt concoction, the contents of which are known to no one except my grandmother, who, come to think of it, may not even drink the stuff herself. On the dining room table is a spread of meat, cheese and tree-shaped cookies sprinkled, of course, with red and green sugar. My young cousins scramble for gifts marked with the only word they’re capable of reading and are alternately ecstatic and horribly bored. It is chaotic, bizarre, often uncomfortable and damn lovely.
It so happens that I am a hopelessly nostalgic person and this, I suspect, accounts for a majority of my warm feeling for Christmas. All of the wretched songs I loathed to hear as a child have come to be quite wonderful and I find myself seething to hear new versions of old classics and lamenting with grave seriousness the declining integrity of the Christmas Song Industry. “There’s no one like Nat King Cole,” I’ll grumble, turning off the latest country-pop atrocity.
The month leading up to the arbitrary anniversary of that regrettably fateful day is occupied with the difficult but noble task of recapturing former enchantment. In my house it means watching the untouchable classic film versions of Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer and Frosty the Snowman, which, my mother inevitably reminds me, I used to watch as a child on an unending loop disrupted only, it seems, by meals and sleep. I find the words coming back to me as I watch, my mouth forming them perfectly from habit. The characters take on the distinct quality of dear friends and have indeed been known to me far longer than most of my present acquaintances. The songs therein are perhaps my most beloved and speak so clearly of an age I missed by chance of birth, but know still from a close distance.
There can be no doubt that it is this nostalgic tendency that ties me so tightly to winter itself. Growing up as I did in the northeast, the scenes from my window always looked just like the romantic scenes dreamed up on cookie tins and wrapping paper. My backyard is speckled with birch and pine trees and truly looks best with a coat of white. All of the familiar woodland creatures make their way idyllically across the yard and leave telling prints in weaving patterns in the snow. Directly behind the far pine tree line that marks the end of our property is the finest local sledding hill I’ve seen, the sounds from which can be heard well into each evening. The back wall of the house is almost entirely glass, lending a perfect view of any snowfall. Accompanied as it often is by a mug of hot chocolate and a knit sweater, the whole scene feels not unlike Currier and Ives might have had it.
Though I grew up an hour out of Philadelphia, New York was always our town. We often spent a day or two of our Christmas season on Fifth Avenue, making our way through standstills of holiday shoppers toward the legendary FAO Schwarz (a child’s veritable Oz) to buy some new sensation or other. The myth of the New York City Christmas was never lost on me and I find myself still drawn to the spectacle at Rockefeller Center, the otherwise troubling horse-drawn carriages in Central Park and the brilliant vision of Radio City Music Hall. Miraculously, the ‘peace and love’ bilge actually takes hold in New York. A kindness and generosity overtakes the city and one does notice a higher number of relinquished cabs and an undeniable sense of general goodwill. This feeling extends beyond the city, of course, and seems to spread thoroughly over the country itself. This transformation is, I must admit, quite magical.
Despite all of this, Christmas, of course, has much less to do with Jesus and shopping than with the enduring comfort of pleasant company. And even while I’d prefer that the silly Bethlehem bit and the compulsory generosity were forgotten, I must confess the holiday possesses in spite of itself a unique kind of charm that would be surely lost in its absence. I have no doubt that I will break with the holiday when the first winter comes to my own family, but whatever form my solstice celebration takes, my influences will undoubtedly be the same: the Roman Saturnalian spirit, the pagan reverence for the rareness of the winter season and the secular values of benevolence, kindness and radiant warmth. Santa Claus will surely go the way of the yule-goat, but this should be no great loss. The cookies and chocolate can stay, however, and — who knows? — I might even put on a Christmas movie.
from → Religion