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Atheist-Kids-Get-Presents Day is Near

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Atheist-Kids-Get-Presents Day is Near

by Daniel Schwartz

When I walked into the Annapolis Mall recently, I noticed them-eating at every table, waiting in line at every register, crawling out of crevices, and flowing down from above. There were people everywhere, because Christmas time is here. And in America, the first step in celebrating Christmas is to buy presents for one's friends, one's family, and oneself. Christmas today is a jolly display of materialism and good will.

It was not always like this. Indeed, Christmas today resembles the ancient pagan celebrations of the winter solstice more than it resembles the Christmas of the Christians. As early as 217 B.C., for instance, the Romans celebrated Saturnalia with a public banquet which offered food and sometimes chaotic revelry. Businesses and schools closed down, and good cheer overcame all. Slaves, given a reprieve from work, played games in the streets-gambling, contrary to the usual laws, was allowed in public-and, while gambling, these slaves could even wear their masters' clothes. People exchanged gifts-candles, dolls, and pastries were among the most common. Many decorated their homes with evergreen boughs to celebrate the fruitful crops to come.

Then in the fourth century, Christian leaders declared, despite all of the evidence to the contrary, that Jesus was born on December 25. Their goal? To usurp the pagan holidays, so that, just maybe, they could try to make them a little more Christian. They succeeded to some extent, but they could never wipe out the pagan influence.

Many Christians, as a consequence, were ambivalent about Christmas; and some flatly opposed it. In 1645, for instance, Oliver Cromwell's administration cancelled the Christmas celebrations. Puritans in America went still further. From 1659 to 1681, the celebration of Christmas was banned in Boston and a five shilling fine for merriment imposed-even Christmas decorations were against the law. Reverend Increase Mather summed up the problem this way: "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..." Even after the Boston ban came to an end, few Bostonians celebrated the holiday.

Christmas was not seriously celebrated in America until the 19th century. America was the most capitalistic country in the history of the world. There was a growing middle class and droves of entrepreneurs who wanted their spending money. For the first time, Americans, on a large scale, celebrated Christmas with gift-giving. The marketplace fueled the changing Christmas customs; newly created department stores crafted a commercial image of the Christmas holiday in order to fuel their seasonal sales. Right away, some Christians lamented that Christmas was becoming too commercial. For the most part, however, Americans gloried in their commercialism.

The story of Santa Claus underwent a dramatic revision during this period. Originally, the legend of St. Nicholas was of a Turkish monk who gave away all of his wealth and traveled the countryside helping the poor and sick. In Germany, St. Nicholas was later said to be accompanied by Black Peter, an elf who punished disobedient children. American writers-most notably Clement Clarke Moore, who is generally credited with writing "The Night Before Christmas"-transformed these religious figures into Santa Claus, a fat and "right jolly old elf" from the North Pole. Santa, unlike the Christian St. Nicholas, gives gifts to rich and poor alike. Santa's gifts are not alms given out of Christian compassion-he is a jolly elf with an endless supply of goods for all of those greedy, materialistic Americans.

Many Christians today believe that Christmas is under attack. Jesus' birthday, they point out, ought not to be celebrated with pure commercialism and selfishness. They lament the popularity of the Christmas carol over the Mass, of "I want it" over "love thy neighbor," of shopping over praying, of Santa over St. Nicholas.

Christmas IS under attack-but not in the way most serious Christians think. Christmas has been under attack by Christians since the fourth century. Since their usurpation of the winter solstice celebrations from pagans, they have sought to eliminate all that which makes Christmas worth celebrating. They have sought to replace good will with self-sacrifice, merriment with guilt, and celebration of this life with concern for the next life.

Obviously, there is no universal law stating that everyone who calls himself Christian will wish to stamp out every selfish element of Christmas. Many Christians are selfish, too-they refuse to let their philosophy get in the way of their love of this life and their pursuit of that which promotes their lives on earth. They enjoy giving and receiving gifts and listening to jolly Christmas carols. Still, though some Christians celebrate Christmas like pagans, the fact remains that Jesus would not approve. Trees, decorations, gifts, Santa, and carols-every life-celebrating Christmas tradition can be traced back to pagan culture. (Christmas carols, though technically Christian in origin, are more essentially a secular phenomenon. To fight pagan customs, the singing of Christmas carols was actually banned from services-first by the Council of Chalonsur-Saone in the seventh century, again in the thirteenth century by the Council of Avignon, and again in the fifteenth century by the Council of Basle. Pope John XXII, following St. Augustine's lead, chastised composers who prevent devotion by attempting to please the ear. As late as January of this year, a Diocese in Ireland banned from services all secular music. In other words, some serious Christians have supported caroling-but only when it opens up a way towards God. Upbeat and high-spirited carols and songs-such as those about Rudolph and Frosty-are essentially secular.)

What, then, is Christmas? Is it a Christian observance of the birth of Christ? If so, then the holiday must be one of hatred for this world. "If anyone comes to me and does not hate his father and mother, his wife and children, his brothers and sisters-yes, even his own life-he cannot be my disciple," Jesus is reported to have said (Luke 14:25). Hatred, in this context, requires that one subordinate one's love for oneself and one's family to one's duty to God. If, on the other hand, you value your own life on earth, then do something about it: have a merry Christmas!

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Here's a posting from Dr. Michael Hurd's web site.

Yes, I read that on CapMag. After Mr. Faulkner, Dr. Hurd was the second person I saw using the term "materialism" in connection with Christmas, which makes Daniel the third one. But that still doesn't make it right! :P

Materialism is one side of a false dichotomy. Sure, the other side is wrong too, but .... that ........ still ............. doesn't ......................... I think you can finish the sentence! :D

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Materialism is one side of a false dichotomy. Sure, the other side is wrong too, but .... that ........ still ............. doesn't ......................... I think you can finish the sentence! :D

If you manage to get people to use differant words on that one, do me a favor and make things more clear re: Romanticism (the movement in art opposed to Naturalism) vs. Romanticism (the philosophic movement opposing reason) :P

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I would think from context he means "A love of this earth and the material goods on it."

Yes, that is what I mean--and I don't think that is any side of a false dichotomy. I never said that one should love material goods at the expense of the spiritual. Indeed, I included good will as one of the aspects of Christmas.

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I think the essay is a bit confusing: if Christians thought that celebrations were so bad (the early Christians didn't, which is why they merely Christianized existing pagan festivals and incorporated some rituals), why is there a tradition of Christmas celebrations? I think you need to spell out the difference that the Reformation made in this regard: the Puritans and other Protestants were against Christmas celebrations because they saw them as too "Catholic". The reason Christmas wasn't "seriously celebrated in America until the 19th century" was not because America was capitalist, but because America was largely Protestant. You're missing some important history.

So it seems as if you are giving contradicting criticisms: that Christians celebrate Christmas, and that they dislike celebrating Christmas.

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I think the essay is a bit confusing: if Christians thought that celebrations were so bad (the early Christians didn't, which is why they merely Christianized existing pagan festivals and incorporated some rituals), why is there a tradition of Christmas celebrations? I think you need to spell out the difference that the Reformation made in this regard: the Puritans and other Protestants were against Christmas celebrations because they saw them as too "Catholic". The reason Christmas wasn't "seriously celebrated in America until the 19th century" was not because America was capitalist, but because America was largely Protestant. You're  missing some important history.

So it seems as if you are giving contradicting criticisms: that Christians celebrate Christmas, and that they dislike celebrating Christmas.

I covered the history as briefly as I could, and everything I said is accurate. Early Christians DID want to stop Christmas celebrations; that is the reason they usurped the holiday. As I say in the article, Christmas carols were banned as early as the 600s AD. Also as I say in the article, all of the worthwhile Christmas celebrations are pagan in origin. I do not think the Reformation is essential--both serious Catholics and serious Protestants have, historically, campaigned for "putting the Christ back into Christmas." The essential is not that 19th century America was largely Protestant, but that 19th century America was less serious about religion and took joy in material goods.

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Danielshrugged,

"19th century America was less serious about religion"??? That's quite a surprising statement, and I don't think that most (if indeed any) historians would agree with you. What facts are you basing this on?

You wrote: " Early Christians DID want to stop Christmas celebrations; that is the reason they usurped the holiday."

What is your source for this? Why would Christians want to stop Christmas, which is a Christian celebration ("Christ's Mass"--get it?)? It seems to me that if they wanted to "stop Christmas", they wouldn't have bothered to Christianize pagan celebrations. They would have simply tried to stop the pagan celebrations. Also, since Christianity was persecuted until 312 (when it then became legal to practice it), the early Christians were hardly in a position to tell the Roman Empire what celebrations would and would not take place.

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A love of this earth and the material goods on it.
But we have a word for that: secularism. By equating secularism with materialism, you are playing right into the religionists' hands!

I do very much love material goods--but I don't love them because they are material; I love them because they are good. The jar of marmelade I am eating right now is a material good, but the fact that it is material neither increases nor decreases my love for it. The forum I am posting on right now is an immaterial good, but that fact has no bearing on its place in my hierarchy of values. It doesn't matter whether or not it's made of matter.

Here is how Merriam-Webster defines "materialism" :

1 a : a theory that physical matter is the only or fundamental [...]

2 : a preoccupation with or stress upon material rather than intellectual or spiritual things

A preoccupation with material things would be a vice--as would a scorn for them. A preoccupation with good things, on the other hand, is a virtue very much worth celebrating!

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A preoccupation with material things would be a vice--as would a scorn for them. A preoccupation with good things, on the other hand, is a virtue very much worth celebrating!

I can just as easily point to this definition from dictionary.com: "A great or excessive regard for worldly concerns." A great regard for worldy concerns is a great thing. Since my article as a whole makes it clear that I'm not trying to do away with spiritual values, I'm not sure what you're trying to accomplish with this discussion.

Secularism does not mean "a love of this earth and the material goods on it." Indeed, Soviet Russia was secular, but certainly had no love of this earth and the material goods on it. Secular just means something like, "exclusive of religion."

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Why would Christians want to stop Christmas, which is a Christian celebration ("Christ's Mass"--get it?)? It seems to me that if they wanted to "stop Christmas", they wouldn't have bothered to Christianize pagan celebrations. They would have simply tried to stop the pagan celebrations. Also, since Christianity was persecuted until 312 (when it then became legal to practice it), the early Christians were hardly in a position to tell the Roman Empire what celebrations would and would not take place.

Re-read my article, because otherwise I'm just going to repeat myself.

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Danielshrugged,

Your response doesn't even attempt to address the points I brought up, which were not extensive. And no, re-reading your article does not address my points either.

Look, there's no need to be defensive: I am merely trying to point out that you have some serious errors in the history you present. I wasn't going to go in depth about them, but since a hint didn't do it, here's a more extensive list:

You wrote: "Then in the fourth century, Christian leaders declared, despite all of the evidence to the contrary, that Jesus was born on December 25."

Actually, this is a very simplistic presentation of the process. The earliest Christians did not celebrate the feast separately because it was the habit of the Roman rulers to celebrate their birthdays, and some thought it dishonorable to do anything that smacked of that. Sometimes the Nativity was merely combined with the celebration of Epiphany, which was January 6 (I think some Eastern churches might still celebrate it then, but I'd have to check). The first evidence of the feast being put on the liturgical calendar was in Egypt, in about 200 AD, and the date was not settled---some thought May 20, others some dates in March. The arguments for deciding on a date on the liturgical calendar were varied, and included: speculations regarding the likely times of Zachary's temple service; analogy to Old Testament festivals; and yes, the date of the well-known solar feast of Natalis Invicti which was adapted to Christian purposes (the feast of Saturnalia, which you mentioned, is not considered a likely source of the date). There was not, as you suggest, much "evidence to the contrary" that those concerned with setting the liturgical calendar ignored, though conflicting opinions were in good supply. Your statement, "Early Christians DID want to stop Christmas celebrations" simply ignores the fact that the very ones you charge with stopping Christmas were the same ones that were busily setting a date for it. That simply doesn't make sense.

You wrote: "Christmas carols were banned as early as the 600s AD"

Another over-simplification: the earliest Christmas hymns that were used in liturgical services go back to the 4th century. Some forms of carols were banned from formal liturgical services, but that doesn't mean that they were generally banned---in fact, they thrived. St. Francis of Assisi is generally credited with bringing carols back into the formal worship in 1223.

When you write, "Christmas was not seriously celebrated in America until the 19th century", and attribute that to capitalism instead of to the tremendous influx of Catholic immigrants to a previously very Protestant culture, you are going off track. I'm not sure you understand the difference between the two cultures---I would suggest a bit more research here. And your statement, "19th century America was less serious about religion" is quite remarkable, as it flies in the face of the assessment of most historians. It is not unreasonable of me to ask you to support this unusual assertion with some evidence or sources that can be examined.

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You wrote: "Then in the fourth century, Christian leaders declared, despite all of the evidence to the contrary, that Jesus was born on December 25."

Actually, this is a very simplistic presentation of the process.

I never claimed that I did not leave out details. I tried to present an essentialized version of the history as I understood it based on prior knowledge and on a few hours of research. My source for the fact that there is evidence to contradict the Chruch's date of Jesus' birth is The Christian Book of Why, by John C McCollister:

"The Gospel of Luke states that the shepherds to whom the announcement of the birth was made were watching their sheep by night (Luke 2:8) which would suggest the lambing time (the spring). Only then did shepherds bother to guard their flocks around the clock. In winter, for example, the sheep would have been kept in the corral."

Certainly the Bible contains no positive evidence of a December birthday.

Your statement, "Early Christians DID want to stop Christmas celebrations" simply ignores the fact that the very ones you charge with stopping Christmas were the same ones that were busily setting a date for it. That simply doesn't make sense.
This was the point of yours which I just cannot comprehend. They were setting a date for a Christian holiday in order to get rid of a pagan one.

You wrote: "Christmas carols were banned as early as the 600s AD"

Another over-simplification: the earliest Christmas hymns that were used in liturgical services go back to the 4th century. Some forms of carols were banned from formal liturgical services, but that doesn't mean that they were generally banned---in fact, they thrived. St. Francis of Assisi is generally credited with bringing carols back into the formal worship in 1223.

I would argue that you're over-complicating the matter. The Church banned carols(from services) several times INSOFAR as they considered them secular. St. Francis is one of the people I had in mind when I wrote in my original article, "some serious Christians have supported caroling—but only when it opens up a way towards God."

As for my claims about 19th century America and religion, I do not have a single source. However, I might caution you against assuming that attention to religion is the same thing as seriousness about religion. Seriousness about religion, as I mean it, means strict adherence to an otherworldly philosophy. In that sense, it is possible that a culture can have more Christians than another culture while being less Christian.

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Danielshrugged,

Again, there's no need to be defensive: I am an amateur history buff, and so I tend to be strict about such things.

You wrote: "I never claimed that I did not leave out details." And I am not saying that you ever claimed to have them all. What I am reacting to is this part: "Christian leaders declared, despite all of the evidence to the contrary, that Jesus was born on December 25". ALL of the evidence to the contrary? Yes, they were aware of the information that you cite, but there were disagreements on that point and other arguments were also considered. Your statement is simply too strong for the historical facts. It is misleading as a result.

You wrote: "Certainly the Bible contains no positive evidence of a December birthday."

You're correct. It offers a few possible clues that early Christians could debate about--which they did.

You wrote: "They were setting a date for a Christian holiday in order to get rid of a pagan one."

Now we're finally getting somewhere! Yes, I agree that Christians christianized pagan festivals. We can agree on that. However, please note the way that you wrote your sentence: "Early Christians DID want to stop Christmas celebrations". It's the way that you phrased it that made no sense. If you had written : "Early Christians wanted to stop pagan celebrations", that would have made sense. I can agree with that. They wanted the celebrations, mind you---but they wanted them to be Christian.

You wrote: "I would argue that you're over-complicating the matter. The Church banned carols(from services) several times INSOFAR as they considered them secular."

And I would posit that your original statement, "Christmas carols were banned as early as the 600s AD", is misleading because it gives the impression that carols were banned, period, and not just in one particular formal setting. Your essay, after all, was about the general celebrations of Christmas, not formal liturgical services. Butchering a cow and roasting it while IN church would probably not have been looked upon favorably, but if I were to say that the "Early Christians banned the butchering and roasting of livestock", that would be misleading, don't you think?

You wrote: " In that sense, it is possible that a culture can have more Christians than another culture while being less Christian."

I agree, however the key word is "possible". If you are going to state "19th century America was less serious about religion", you are going to have to present more than just "possibles" to back that statement up---"possible" is very subjective, as is "less" Christian. You are presenting your statement as if it were fact, and it is not. If you are presenting it as your opinion, you should make it clear that it is opinion and present research that indicates why you hold that opinion. In this case, because this statement flies against historical conventional wisdom (I am a Civil War buff in particular, and so am very familiar with historians of that era), you will need to present solid research that shows just how it is that scholars and historians missed the boat and got it wrong.

Best of luck to you, though. I just think you need to have a more solid historical footing.

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I can just as easily point to this definition from dictionary.com: "A great or excessive regard for worldly concerns."

I think that definition is a symptom of the confusion caused by the mind-body dichotomy. "Material" is the Latin word for "matterly" ; "secular" is Latin for "worldly." Apparently the authors of this dictionary treat them as interchangeable--but they are not, unless you think that ideas are somehow not part of this world but reside separately in another one.

Soviet Russia was secular, but certainly had no love of this earth and the material goods on it.

One of the advantages of having grown up in a Communist country is that I know just how false that statement is. Our leaders lived like kings during Communism. The country as a whole was poor, but that didn't prevent the top-ranking party officers from appropriating a relatively large share of the nation's material wealth.

Not to mention that they wanted to make Hungary the "country of iron and steel." Communism was pretty much production-oriented, and I mean material production. The propaganda idealized workers who "outdid the norm" ; they gave medals to "heroes of Socialist labor." They were NOT like the pious Christians who look down upon material goods. (Only they held that those goods rightly belonged the state--i.e. to them--rather than the individuals who produced them. They were basically just like thieves; a thief does love material goods, only he doesn't feel like producing them.)

Secular just means something like, "exclusive of religion."

I prefer to think of secularism as being for something rather than against. As I already mentioned, "secular" is Latin for "worldly." That meaning includes "non-religious," but it also includes more: It doesn't just say "I don't like religion" ; it says "I like this world."

Since my article as a whole makes it clear that I'm not trying to do away with spiritual values, I'm not sure what you're trying to accomplish with this discussion.

When the religionists criticize people as being too "materialistic," THEY very much do mean it as "having no spiritual values." They use the fallacy of the mind-body dichotomy to paint people as trapped in one side of that dichotomy in an attempt to lure them to their side of the dichotomy. The proper response of this is not to defend the side they attack, but to point out the falsehood of the entire dichotomy.

In this case, that means that we should not become proud materialists but rather explain how our "commercialized" Christmas is about more than just material values.

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