2005 Skelly Family Christmas

Let’s stop all the fight:
Musings on the true meaning of Christmas

Bill O’Reilly is a two-fisted, hard-drinking, skirt-chasing son of the Old Sod, and we’re proud of him. But Billy darlin,’ for the love of God, get down off this Christmas rant, which (a) is doing no one and no thing, except maybe your ratings, any good at this time of year, and (b) is scaring the horses. Besides, it makes your complexion all splotchy.

This is the time of year when most of us are on our best behavior. We’re courteous, we greet each other warmly and respond with good cheer. The life expectancy of old ladies in shopping-mall crossing zones goes up markedly. Does our vocabulary matter all that much?

The roots of the Christmas season in our culture—whether everyone wants to admit it or not—are old, deep, complex and twisted. They go back hundreds of years before the birth of Christ. The Church didn’t even embrace celebrating Christmas until late in the fourth century.

And good Catholic boys and girls learned that Advent, the time before Christmas, is a season not so much of joy as hopeful expectation about what is to come. The very phrase “Merry Christmas” in this period is at best premature from a strictly liturgical point of view.

Everybody knows that the Church set the time of Christmas to coincide with pagan celebrations, like Saturnalia and the Winter Solstice, to keep the parishioners from getting distracted. (Just like Easter. It took me years to figure out what chicks and bunnies had to do with the Resurrection.)

One gets the feeling that Jesus might be ambivalent about seeing His birthday commemorated at all, much less the way it is. While He might approve of the general feeling of good will, He might well wonder why so many people need half a load on to get there. But I think overall He’d be dismayed by all the Christmas parties and toys and shopping stress and commercial greed. I don’t believe He was a capitalist.

But Christmas in America is, at root, just another example of the fact of evolution. Christmas is a highly personal celebration of the human spirit. Going back to the time when our early ancestors first figured out, sitting around in their cold, dark caves with the days getting shorter and the temperature dropping steadily, that life was a cycle and the sun would be coming back. You’d want to party the first time you figured that out, too.

People have been complaining about the secularization of Christmas since I was a boy. I remember the “Put Christ Back in Christmas” campaign in the early 50s and my Catholic school nuns bemoaning the growing currency of the shorthand Xmas. Devout, those nuns, but not Greek scholars, or they would have known that Xmas didn’t spring from the evil minds of Godless atheists.

(T)he name Christ has for a thousand years been abbreviated as X, which is not the Roman letter "eks," but the Greek letter "chi," standing for the first letter of Christ when written in Greek as "Christos" (as transcribed into Roman letters). Some of the words using this abbreviation are X, Xp (Greek chi-rho, or "Chr"), and Xt for "Christ," Xren for "christen," and Xtian for "Christian."

The use of Xmas for "Christmas" is first found in the sixteenth century, in the slightly expanded spelling X'temmas; the Xmas form was in use by the eighteenth century. The X has always been used in religious contexts, and was often lavishly decorated in manuscripts, for example the glorious Chi-Rho page of the Book of Kells, the ninth-century illuminated gospels. The assumption that the abbreviation is somehow "weak" or "irreligious" since it "removes" the Christ from "Christmas" is a thoroughly modern idea.

It should come as no surprise that throughout its history, Xmas has been found more often in letters or other informal works where space is valued. It should be noted note that Xmas and other X abbreviations were usually found in the writings of educated people who knew their Greek.

The current popular, and mostly secular, vision of Christmas in America derives from notable New York literati (obviously before everything good starting coming from the west coast) in the early 1800s: Washington Irving, Clement Moore and Thomas Nast, whose combined efforts, borrowing heavily on Dutch traditions, created the contemporary image of Santa Claus. (Nast also gave us the Republican Elephant and the Democratic Donkey. The man would have made a fortune in the era of ad agencies.)

Later in the same era, Charles Dickens, made an eloquent pitch for the notion that Christmas was a good time to be nice to each other, particularly the less fortunate. He was also a big fan of sumptuous family Christmas meals. His book “A Christmas Carol” was published in England in 1843. It was not immensely profitable for Dickens, who financed the printing and distribution himself because he was feuding with his publishers, but it was exceedingly popular. In the first few days of its release, it sold six thousand copies. The book Dickens produced was lavishly crafted but sold for only five shillings a copy so that everyone could afford it. A rarity then as now: a man who practiced what he preached.

You could also give a special service award to William Sidney Porter (O’Henry) for his short story “Gift of the Magi,” which was published in 1906 and concludes thusly:

(H)ere I have lamely related to you the uneventful chronicle of two foolish children in a flat who most unwisely sacrificed for each other the greatest treasures of their house. But in a last word to the wise of these days let it be said that of all who give gifts these two were the wisest. O all who give and receive gifts, such as they are wisest. Everywhere they are wisest. They are the magi.

At least O’Henry tosses in a religious reference.

Me, I plan to be in church Christmas Eve for Midnight Mass and marvel at the birth of the baby Jesus and what it has meant for mankind. And sing holy carols that have enthralled me since childhood, quite apart from any prospect of presents or fig pudding. Then I’ll get up early the next morning to see what Santa brought me and to exchange gifts with the family. We’ll eat to excess the whole day long (although I will try to fit in a run), and I should be bombed before the end of the last football game on Christmas nite. It’s all part of my Christmas tradition.

Our Puritan forefathers didn’t care for Christmas at all. In 1659, Massachusetts Puritans declared celebrating Christmas to be a criminal offense and imposed a five-shilling fine on anyone found “…observing, by abstinence from labor, feasting, or any other way, any such days as Christmas day.” A second five-shilling fine could be imposed on anyone found gambling with cards or dice. The laws were repealed in 1681. (In England, Cromwell’s Parliament had banned Christmas in 1644 and threw offenders in jail on the charge of heresy.)

New-world Baptists and Presbyterians, likewise, voiced opposition to the day because of the pagan origins of most of the Christmas festivities. Probably all loyal fans of the prophet Jeremiah, who in the sixth century BC condemned as pagan the Middle Eastern practice of cutting down trees, bringing them into the home and decorating them.

In the South, with greater numbers of Lutherans, and Anglican churches, and access to better whiskey, people were more tolerant of holiday season festivities. Dutch Reformed and Catholic communities also helped establish Christmas traditions in the United States. More new-testament kind of guys, one might say.

Most of the popular carols of today were not written before the late 1700's. The most enduring Christmas hymn in colonial America was Joy to the World, written by Isaac Watts of Virginia during the 1760s.

Religious denominations in the middle-Atlantic colonies were of much the same mind as the Puritans, if not quite so vindictive. In 1749, a visitor among the Quakers in Philadelphia noted: "The Quakers did not regard this day any more remarkable than other days. Stores were open...There was no more baking of bread for the Christmas festival than for other days; and no Christmas porridge on Christmas Eve!"

Philip Fithian, a Presbyterian missionary working among the Virginia Scotch-Irish in 1775, remarked that: "Christmas Morning—Not a Gun is heard—Not a Shout—No company or Cabal assembled—To Day is like other Days every Way calme & temperate." Sounds like secular humanism to me.

Alabama was the first state to make Christmas an official holiday, in 1836. By 1890 all other states had followed suit. The first Christmas card did not appear until 1846 in England. President Grant, who coincidently liked to take a drink now and again, declared Christmas a legal holiday in 1870, probably because no one was showing up for work anyway.

Given such a heritage, it’s interesting that more of today’s religiously aroused aren’t more concerned with taking Christ out of Christmas than keeping Him in. And in fact, this sentiment has by no means vanished from our midst.

L. R. Shelton, Sr., a pioneering radio evangelist who founded the worldwide ministry of Radio Missions and the "The Old Puritan Press," delivered a sermon a little while back that started out like this:

I want to bring you a message today on the subject, "Christmas—A Demon Holiday." I want to show you what Christmas is and where it originated. Now in a few days the world, and the churches as a whole, will be celebrating what they call "the birthday of Jesus Christ." They call it "Christmas," or "Christ-mass." It is a time when the world is turned over to drunkenness, revelry, debauchery, shame, and misrule. It is a time of exchanging gifts, singing religious songs called "Christmas carols," and the whole world, religious and otherwise, is one madhouse at this time.

The non-religious world will cover up their ungodliness and wickedness with Christmas carols which will be played and sung in every saloon, every gambling hell (sic), every sporting house and brothel over the world. The religious world will give vent to the wickedness of their hearts in these days of debauchery under the guise that they are celebrating the birthday of Christ. Thousands of church members will get drunk at Christmas when they would not get drunk at any other time. Churches will turn their buildings over to Christmas pageants, Christmas programs, Christmas trees, and the exchanging of gifts, with hilarity, and frivolity, in the spirit of a festival. All of these, in their different spheres, will believe they are doing God's will. Christmas Day will be a day of feasting and drinking, dancing and frivolity and drunkenness, as very seldom witnessed at other times of the year. Is this the way to celebrate the birthday of Christ? I certainly wouldn't want you to celebrate my birthday like that. Then how sacrilegious it is to celebrate the birthday of the Lord Jesus Christ in such a manner.

Like-minded advocates, if not always so fiery, are easy enough to find today in certain churches, over the airwaves and on the Internet. But the Rev. Shelton isn’t with us anymore. God called him home some years ago. He was scaring the horses, too. A word to the wise, Billy darlin.’

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