Which Christmas will you celebrate this year?
In contemporary Australia there are actually three kinds of ‘Christmas’ celebration, and only one is genuinely Christian, argues Garry Worete Deverell.
By Garry Deverell
December 6 2018Yuletide
The first kind of Christmas is arguably the oldest, because it takes its inspiration from the pre-Christian midwinter festivals of the Germanic and Nordic peoples. This festival, known in its Anglicised form as ‘Yuletide’, apparently culminated in a three-day celebration encompassing the winter solstice at which much ale was consumed, animal sacrifices were made and the blood of sacrifice sprinkled over representations of the gods as well as over their worshippers.
The meat of the sacrificed animals became food for the feast. Toasts were dedicated to Odin, the king of the gods, to Njörðr and Freyr for good harvest, to dead ancestors, and to the chieftain who presided at the feast. Scholars have connected these events to the Wild Hunt led by Odin through the night sky to kill a sacred boar or stag, which signified the taking of life at midwinter which had the power to inaugurate the return of life with the oncoming spring.
Contemporary neo-pagans are both reviving and creating Yuletide traditions which emphasise the cyclic nature of fertility in the natural world. They point out that many elements of contemporary ‘Christmas’ celebrations probably have their roots in paganism, including Santa Claus and his reindeer (Odin or Freyr on the Wild Hunt), Elves or other magic folk who give or seek gifts (symbols of the presence of magic or the ‘other world’ on midwinter’s eve), Christmas trees (evergreen to signify the eternal power of life returning from death), mistletoe (the key ingredient in a druidic fertility drink), the roasting of a pig (a vestige of the tradition of fertility sacrifices), and the prolific use of the colours red (signifying sacrificial blood) and white (representing midwinter).
At least as old, perhaps, is the Christian festival of Christmastide, which celebrates the birth of Jesus Christ to Mary in Bethlehem as the Son of God and saviour of all the world. Although never as important as Eastertide in the Christian imagination, there is clear evidence that a festival surrounding Christ’s birth was beginning to take shape in the ancient Near East as early as the 3rd century CE.
Contrary to much public opinion, there is no evidence that the early candidates for Christ’s birthday (25 December and 6 January) were chosen to coincide with pagan midwinter festivals in either the south or the north of Europe. More likely is Andrew McGowan’s proposal that since ancient Christians believed that Christ was conceived on the same day as his death (roughly 25 March) he must therefore have been born on 25 December.
Between the 4th and 12th centuries, celebrations of the Nativity of Christ alternated between 25 December and 6 January. The latter date was celebrated in the Eastern Church as the Epiphany (or ‘manifestation’) of Christ as Son and Messiah of God at his baptism. Eventually, in the Western rite, Christmastide became a season that spanned the days between the eve of 25 January (when Luke’s birth narrative about Angels and shepherds is featured) and the feast of the Epiphany (which, in the Western Church, became the day when Matthew’s birth narrative about Herod and the Magi from the East was ritualised as the first manifestation of Christ to all non-Jewish people).
Christians have long celebrated the season with joyful liturgies of word, carol and sacrament occurring on Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, the Sundays of Christmas and the Feast of the Epiphany (whenever it variously occurs). The one note of sobriety within the season is usually reserved for the Feast of the Holy Innocents (27 or 28 Dec) which commemorates the infanticide visited by Herod on the children of Bethlehem at hearing that a Messiah had been born. Contemporary churches in the ecumenical tradition often connect this event with the flight of the Holy Family to Egypt, and therefore with the plight of refugees fleeing oppression and persecution in the modern world.
The period now known as ‘Advent’, beginning from the 4th Sunday before the Feast of the Nativity, probably began with a desire to prepare for Christmas in a way that paralleled the long-established practice of preparing for Easter baptisms, with forty days of prayer, fasting, exorcism and theological reflection. In this spirit, the primary theme of Advent eventually became not the ‘first’ coming of Christ at Bethlehem, but Christian hopes for a ‘second’ coming of Christ at the end of the ages, when all that is evil and unjust in the world will finally be put to rights.
Advent therefore encourages Christians to consider their experience of hope – the ‘not yet’ of faithful expectation – and asks them what God would call them to do by way of prayerful self-transformation and common human service as they wait for the grace and justice of God to be revealed in all its surprising fulness.
The origin of gift-giving at Christmastide is unclear. Some surmise that the practice was taken over from pagan mid-winter festivals when offerings of food were given to the gods or else to vengeful ancestors in order to guarantee their blessing for the year to come. A more likely origin is strictly theological: gifts are given to the poor and marginalised in imitation of God’s gift of Christ to all who are poor, broken or despised by the world. This theology is certainly at play in the story of St Nicholas of Myrna, whose feast day is celebration on 6 December. St Nicholas is said to have distributed alms to the poor and desperate of his diocese anonymously, under the cover of night. The migration of this tradition to the English-speaking world also seems to have effected a migration of St Nicholas’ gift-giving to the Eve of the Nativity, perhaps under the influence of some of the pagan traditions we note above about Odin or Freyr. Certainly, the modern Santa Claus myth created by American advertisers owes more to pagan than Christian sources.
Christmas as it is celebrated in contemporary Australia certainly owes more to the re-weaving of traditional devotional practices by capitalism than it does to anything that is more genuinely pagan or Christian. Capitalism is like a magpie that seeks to feather its own nest by stealing the treasures of others. And ‘Christmas’ has become the most prominent example of this. A consumer festival that begins in early November and continues through to the early weeks of January, this ‘Christmas’ evokes traditional religious practices and desires, but transforms and channels them for its own overriding purpose: to produce profits.
The new ‘Christmas’ temples are neither pagan nor Christian but vast shopping centres like that at Chadstone in Victoria. If you visit these temples you are strongly encouraged to participate in the worship of Capital. The sound-systems spew forth sentimental ‘carols’ that evoke traditional religious feeling, but redirect that feeling toward buying. Carefully prepared ‘Christmas’ pantomimes are filled with elves, fairies and Father Christmases who have the power to grant one’s every wish.
Instead of encouraging worshippers to surrender themselves or their livelihoods to Christ or to those most beloved of Christ (the poor and marginalised), these rituals encourage consumers to buy gifts solely because either they or their loved-ones desire them. For Christmas is now almost exclusively about ‘family’ – the pilgrimage to far-flung family, spending time with family, spending money on family, feeding one’s family – and all to the most hideous levels of excess. Obscenely, to my mind, the multi-billion-dollar industry that provides Christmas wrappings, tree ornaments and decorations, is run almost entirely off the back of cheap- child- or slave-labour in vast manufacturing compounds found in China, India, Mexico and Bangladesh.
The consumertide which is the modern Australian ‘Christmas’ allows no room for those spiritual disciplines associated with Advent, disciplines like prayer, waiting, and fasting – all of which are about NOT getting or having what you most desire. Indeed, what these disciplines traditionally inspired and encouraged was the transformation of human desire into the more holy desire of God, thereby bringing light, love and hope to those in most need of such things. Consequently, Advent as Advent has been completely obliterated.
Advent has become simply another part of the consumertide that is ‘Christmas’, a season of feasting, buying, gift-giving, and sentimental storytelling about the importance of enriching one’s own family. It is no longer about a disciplined waiting for the grace of God made known in Jesus. And this is increasingly the case not only in many ‘evangelical’ protestant churches, but also in churches that are supposedly committed to the disciplines preserved in the observance of the liturgical year. Even in these churches, Christmas very often arrives in the first or second weeks of Advent, with parties and carol-singing and nativity festivals as far as the eye can see.
It seems to me that Christians are faced with a choice at Christmastide. Either to be carried along by the tide of pagan and consumerist desire or else to choose the disciplines preserved in the genuinely Christian liturgical year. For these disciplines, if we listen and participate in them fully, teach us who the God of love is, what we are worth in God’s estimation, and what the world could be if we would only give ourselves over to God’s desire, rather than our own. And that, I submit, would make all the difference in the world.
The Revd Dr Garry Worete Deverell is Vicar of St Agnes, Black Rock, a Turner Fellow, Trinity College Theological School, and a member of the National Congress of Australia’s First Peoples.
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