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Extremists Continue to Miss the Point of Christmas

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Let's face the facts. Christmas is a pagan holiday. It's a pagan celebration so strong and so popular that it defies every effort to modify or suppress it. You can change the name and tack on all the baby Jesuses you like, but it's still the feast of the Winter Solstice, and most of the popular observations can be traced back to pagan origins. We've got the sacrificial tree of Wotan, the feasting of the Roman Saturnalia, the sacred libations of Dionysius, the Yule log that represents the burning corpse of the god of the dying sun, sacred rowan wreaths and mistletoe to ward off evil spirits, a Santa who's a rehashed pagan sky god, and plenty of monetary sacrifices to Mammon.

December 25th certainly isn't the day Jesus was born. That was likely much earlier in the year. The date was originally selected and made a holiday by the Romans as a consolidation of several pagan winter feasts, and then the early Church just just appropriated it, over some fairly strong objections, and those objections have continued ever since. It seems like the joyous spirit of Christmas is inherently incompatible with the dour righteousness of fundamentalism.

We hear a lot about the "War on Christmas" that secularists are waging, but the truth is that there are two wars on Christmas, with the religious right attacking it just as fiercely as the atheistic left. At the very least the Christians are at war to take the holiday away from the people who just want to celebrate their old paganistic traditions without having to worry about the larger implications. Most concerned Christians just want to "put the Christ back in Christmas" – never mind that there was precious little of him there in the first place. However, some of them want to go even farther and get rid of Christmas entirely.

In the late Middle Ages the Catholic scholar Polydore Virgil wrote against Christmas in de Rerum Inventoribus:

Dancing, masques, mummeries, stageplays, and other such Christmas disorders now in use with Christians, were derived from these Roman Saturnalian and Bacchanalian festivals; which should cause all pious Christians eternally to abominate them.

And opposition to the pagan traditions was high on the list of things the puritans wanted to purge from the Church. In the 1640s the puritan parliament tried to ban Christmas celebrations in England. Later that same century there was a similar ban in Massachusetts and Increase Mather expressed what were largely objections to the joyous nature of the holiday as being unchristian in his broadside A Testimony Against Several Profane and Superstitious Customs:

The generality of Christmas-keepers observe that Festival after such a manner as is highly dishonourable to the name of Christ. How few are there comparatively that spend those Holidays (as they are called) after an Holy manner. But they are consumed in Compotations, in Interludes, in playing at Cards, in Revellings, in excess of Wine, in mad Mirth; Will Christ the holy Son of God be pleased with such Services? Just after this manner were the Saturnalia of the Heathen celebrated. Saturn was the Gaming God. And the Feast of Christ’s Nativity is attended with such Profaneness, as that it deserves the name of Saturn’s Mass, or of Bacchus his Mass, or if you will, the Devil’s Mass, rather than to have the Holy name of Christ put upon it.

Mather clearly reaffirms the popular perception that Puritans really objected to people having any fun at all.

That tradition has hardly died out. While we hear a lot from the religious right about how the "Anti-Christian Lawyers Union" and "secular humanists" are trying to take the Christ out of Christmas and turn it into a purely secular holiday – and there's no question that they are – the real hardline fundamentalists hate Christmas even more than the ACLU does. They would like to ban it alltogether. One of those leading the charge is televangelist Garner Ted Armstrong, who preaches an annual sermon against "Satan Claus". His website features an article on the evil pagan origins of Christmas by Reb Yeshayahu Heiliczer (you can always tell when Christian extremists go really crazy because they start taking Jewish names) who writes:

Santa Claus stands identified as none other than that original arch apostate Nimrod! His attributes hark back to ancient pagan worship. When children are asked, "What did Santa Claus bring you this year?" it is merely a modern twist to an old Satanic counterfeit pagan religion! All the merry Christmas songs hearken back to pagan times, relics of a pagan past.

Clearly Christians have plenty of reasons to hate Christmas just as strongly as humanists like Tom Flynn of the Council for Secular Humanism, who describes saying 'Merry Christmas' as a form of hate speech. Taking the yearning for a secularized holiday to that kind of extreme seems just as insane as the anti-Christmas rantings of Armstrong and other extreme fundamentalist Christians. What brings extremists from opposite ends of the spectrum like Flynn and Armstrong together is that they both actively hate Christmas. They don't just look down on it or choose not to observe it, they're on active crusades to exterminate it because they think it's evil and being used to do evil.

Yet when I think about Christmas and what makes it special, it seems to me that despite the myriad different versions of Christmas and excuses and justifications and explanations for it, the one thing that every version of the winter holiday has in common is a spirit of celebration, good will and generosity towards others. Those on the right or on the left who hate Christmas may have different professed reasons for it, but at base what they seem to hate is people being kind and generous to each other and coming together in friendship. The power of extremism is built on divisiveness and appealing to a group that sees other groups as enemies, and for most of us Christmas is a time we put our enmities aside. That has to be enormously threatening to them. What if Christmas took over the whole year and we stopped hating the unbelievers and listening to the messages of demagogues and bigots and just got along with each other? That would be a disaster!

Examples of the real meaning of Christmas are all around us. Today, all on her own, our four-year-old went and found the paper her mother had been using to wrap presents for the family and wrapped a present for our new puppy. She didn't do it because of advertising or because of Jesus, but just because she loves the puppy and wanted to give him something to make him happy. That's what Christmas is all about. It's about giving because it makes you feel good to make someone else happy. That's selflessness, and when that's part of what you're striking out against in your personal war on Christmas then there's something very wrong with you.

Islam isn't exactly known for loving Christmas and Christians, and their idea of a holiday is to spend a lot of time praying and giving alms to the poor, or in the more extreme cases fasting and ritual self-mutilation. Yet in Iran, the most fundamentalist enclave of crazy, turbaned Islamic extremists, there's more room for Christmas than there is in the hearts of those Americans who campaign against it. Despite the power of the Mullahs and some persecution of Christians soon after the Islamists took power, Christian minorities in that country are allowed to celebrate Christmas and observations of the secular version of the holiday in the general popular culture are not uncommon, even for faithful Muslims. You don't get stoned there for putting up a tree or giving someone a present, which points out how truly fanatical Christmas-haters in the US really are.

I'm about as atheistic, paganistic and unChristian as you can get, but I don't take offense when someone says "Merry Christmas" to me. I certainly don't see it as hate speech. They don't know what I believe, but they aren't saying "have a merry Christmas and fall on your knees and worship Jesus you atheistic scum", they're just hoping I have a good day on their holiday. They're not trying to convert me with those magical words, they're just selflessly sharing goodwill with me, whether I agree with them or not. How can that be a bad thing?

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About Dave Nalle

Dave Nalle is Executive Director of the Texas Liberty Foundation, Chairman of the Center for Foreign and Defense Policy, South Central Regional Director for the Republican Liberty Caucus and an advisory board member at the Coalition to Reduce Spending. He was Texas State Director for the Gary Johnson Presidential campaign, an adviser to the Ted Cruz senatorial campaign, Communications Director for the Travis County Republican Party and National Chairman of the Republican Liberty Caucus. He has also consulted on many political campaigns, specializing in messaging. Before focusing on political activism, he owned or was a partner in several businesses in the publishing industry and taught college-level history for 20 years.
  • Sameer

    Some interesting points well made, good read!

  • STM

    I agree … the Us is predominatly a Christian country, whether you actually believe and/or practice it.

    I find it absurd that in many places in the US, you can offend people by saying “Merry Christmas”.

    My view: if they’re offended, and I don’t believe most are, tough titties. On the question of other faiths, I have asked Jewish, Muslim and Buddhist friends in Australia (all of different national descent, but all Australians) whether they are offended by it: none are, and all actively participate in the giving of gifts etc with friends of a Christian background.

    The most recent example of this nonsense came when the Lord Mayor of Sydney a few years back decided to cancel Christmas decorations throughout the city in case they offended non-Christians. She, of course, is of an anglo/Christian background – and as you’d guess, quite to the left. When Sydney’s The Daily Telegraph newspaper did a digital picture on the front page of her as The Grinch and mounted a bring-back-Christmas campaign, she backed down.

    Others here have included the cancellation of Kindergarten and pre-school Christmas plays and performances. I notice, however, that when the gay mardi gras is on in Sydney, no-one complains about being told: “Happy Mardi-Gras.” I’m not gay, but it’s a big event for people who are and why not be happy for everyone? Surely we’re all big enough to recognise that people celebrate what they celebrate as part of their cultural backgrounds/lifestyles.

    In the US, in case you offend anyone, the replacement greeting has become totally bizarre: “Happy Holidays.”

    What the does that mean? It’s Christmas we are celebrating, for heaven’s sake.

    Another example of the majority falling victim to the looney and vocal minority, usually from the left.

  • Bliffle

    Maybe so, but thanksgiving is a better holiday, less fraught with despair and misery. And fewer lies to tell children, for the occasional parent who worries about developing a bad record of untruthfulness with his own children.

  • STM

    Yes Bliff … but the beauty of it is, we’ve all been lied to.

    Passing on the lie is a rite parenthood, and discovering the Santa Claus lie a rite of childhood.

    It’s all good.

  • Dave Nalle

    What ‘Santa Claus lie’ would that be? See my earlier writing on Santa.


  • D’oh

    You know, I have yet to ever meet anyone, or witness anyone, who has ever objected to a “Merry Christmas” or “Happy Hannukah” or “have a super Saturnalia”.

    Could just be me, but every time I hear someone say there’s some kind of war on the holiday, I check my wallet.

    Just for Dave, a small Gift.

  • Mohjho

    Sounds reasonable.

  • Dave Nalle

    Very cool. Thanks, D’Oh. Didn’t know there was a video for it, but it’s been on my Christmas playlist for years.


  • Ruvy in Jerusalem

    Nice job, Dave. It nails the concept home, not to put too fine a point on it… ;))

  • Bliffle

    “… but the beauty of it is, we’ve all been lied to.”

    That’s your idea of beauty?

    “Passing on the lie is a rite parenthood, and discovering the Santa Claus lie a rite of childhood.

    It’s all good.”

    You’re mad.

  • Dave Nalle

    Bliff, the ongoing denial of the reality of Santa Claus is a kind of cultural curse which is passed on from generation to generation. The time will come when there is a reckoning and the deniers will stand in all their shame for the world to see.


  • Elvira Black


    Great piece. I have to tell you that you really took me back when you mentioned Garner Ted Armstrong. My dad used to listen to his dad, Herbert W’s, radio show “The World Tomorrow” and subscribe to their free mag, “The Plain Truth.” I’m guessing that the advent of the internet was a real boon to the Armstrongs’ long-standing attempt to get the word out.

    Subsequently, though my dad did give me presents and didn’t disabuse me of the notion that Santa did exist, I do remember him telling me at some point that Christmas was a pagan holiday. But I agree with you wholeheartedly about the true spirit of Christmas. Too bad those on both extremes can’t learn to lighten up a little.

  • troll

    question of the day – who’s mad…STM for pointing out the social value of the irrational or Bliffle for denying it

    (or this troll for spending time wondering about it)

  • Bliffle

    Lighten up a bit? When is it a good idea to train your children to believe in lies, so that they may discover that you purposely and deliberately lied to them? How do you make the decision when to lie and when to tell the truth? Why would they EVER believe you? Don’t you think they will resent being manipulated by your lies?

  • Belizaire

    You must live in a grim and horrible world where kids are denied the fantasy that builds imagination and creativity, bliffle.

  • Bliffle

    This rather stupid statement explains why so many believed Bush/Cheney:

    “You must live in a grim and horrible world where kids are denied the fantasy that builds imagination and creativity, bliffle.”

    Do you think we have a better time now because so many believed their lies? Do you think it creative of those jerks to tell lies to citizens? In what way did that make our lives better?

    What is romantic about being lied to? Someone lied to me several times over the last year and i finally fired her – with a detailed recital of her lies. Those lies cost me a lot of money. Why would I find that charming?

    Nobody needs fantasy and lies to deal with reality and life except a psychotic.

  • RedTard

    “What is romantic about being lied to?”

    What is romantic about the truth? If you practice what you preach online you must be an insufferably rude asshole in person, or you temper the truth with a little tact, lying to others and yourself in the process.

    Interpersonal relationships are just one area where a few little white lies, or more commonly ommisions, are necessary in modern society. The confidence and powers of positive thinking gained from ‘good’ lies also have real world measurable effects.

  • STM

    My kids absolutely loved the idea that a fat, bearded, white haired bloke (No, darling, I’m not Santa) in a red suit came down our chimney (never mind the gas heater at the bottom, there’s magical ways around that) and dropped a sh.tload of presents under the tree.

    When my youngest daughter and all her friends worked out this year (11-year-olds) that it was, ahem, a slight twisting of the truth, she cried for a moment – and then asked if she’d still get the same number of presents and would it still be dependent on whether she was good. Answering yes to the first one and possubly to the second, she brightened up considerably.

    My son just told me he’d suspected for a long time that it might be a story but since the boys at school had been debunking it for three years, peer-group pressure meant it wasn’t an issue.

    It’s a magic thing: I still remember the joy of staying up late hoping to catch a glimpse of the fat fella.

    Bliff, this all begs the question: do you have kids???

  • Clavos

    Bliff, this all begs the question: do you have kids???

    It also begs the question: is your real name Scrooge?

  • Iloz Zoc

    Great piece. With all the political BS going on between religions, and the power-playing and hate-mongering, as a believer in jolly pagan Santa and Jesus’ teachings, I want the holiday to be about peace on earth, good will toward everybody. Whatever meaning you attach to the season, the only one that really matters is that.

  • Clavos

    I want the holiday to be about peace on earth, good will toward everybody. Whatever meaning you attach to the season, the only one that really matters is that.

    Repeated for emphasis.

    Thank you, Iloz. Well said.

    Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.

  • Martin J. Ryan

    Excellent writing, Dave. Right on. Paganism predates the entire Judaic/Christian concept which borrowed liberally from the former, and one can identify parallel ideas of gods and sacrifice, pouring libations of wine ( a sublimation)in lieu of the blood from human to animal sacrifice, practices which themselves hark back to the near pre-history of man with attributions of scary natural phenomena to gods of mountains, sun and moon, etc. Hasn’t really changed that much. I’m non-religious but my family and I thoroughly enjoy the national holiday festivities of Xmas. I must admit, when I learned Santa was a little white fib at 5 or 6 years of age I was really pissed. But that was more than 70 years ago and I got over it; was fun while it lasted.

  • Victor Plenty

    No “war on Christmas” is nearly so energetic as the war on “happy holidays” being waged across our culture. From what I’ve observed, the first strikes in this battle of the culture wars were unjustifiably vicious calumnies against the intentions of anyone using the phrase “happy holidays” to wish their fellow citizens a little seasonal cheer.

    Last year I actually overheard the following conversation in a public place, between a cashier and a customer who was leaving the store.

    Cashier: Happy holidays!

    Customer: NO! MERRY CHRISTMAS.

    What kind of insanity have we let take over our culture when things like this can happen? The phrase “happy holidays” did not originate in some think tank of evil secular humanists conspiring to open the gates of hell in the heartland of Western civilization. It’s just an innocently easy way to wish someone any or all of the following:

    Happy Thanksgiving
    Merry Christmas
    Happy Hanukkah
    Happy New Year
    Happy Solstice
    etc., etc., etc.

    Contrary to the delusions of the right or the left, none of that qualifies as hate speech.

  • Dave Nalle

    You forgot my preferred ‘joyous yule’.

    I’m still trying to deal with the trauma of the carhop at Sonic telling me to ‘have a blessed day’.


  • Clavos

    Damn I miss Sonic! We don’t have them in South Florida.

  • Victor Plenty

    I’ve started hearing “have a blessed day” lately as well. Wonder where it started from…

  • Dave Nalle

    ‘Have a blessed day’ is an evangelical christian thing from what I can tell. I don’t find it totally offensive, but I know there’s been at least one case where a woman who was saying it to customers got told to stop and sued her employer and lost.


  • sr

    Now Im in doubt whether Peter is buried under the Vatican let alone being the so-called first Pope. Asked my loyal catholic brother if a skunk was buried under the Vatican would that be the first skunk. Think the catholic church is a cult. Why not melt all that gold and give it to the poor. Jesus wore almost rags. Think the money changers moved from Israel to the Vatican. What a bunch of pompis piss-ant arrogant deceiving whores. Church of the Petifiles. Bunch of pricks. If things arn’t bad enough Dave now tells me their is no Santa. Who the hell as been eating my cookies and drinking my milk all these years. Maybe the pope ya thunk.