Sunday, December 21, 2008

A new holiday tradition

I'm not certain about this, but I am ready to bet that the phrase "the War on Christmas" was coined by Fox News' enfant terrible Bill O'Reilly, who, along with his simpering, platinum-haired cohort John Gibson, have made a new Christmas tradition (as well as, in Gibson's case, a fair amount of money) out of complaining that Christmas is "under attack."

By who? Well, liberals, of course. Liberals, one is led to believe, are taking over the country in what is ostensibly a renewed effort to force homosexuality, Leninism (that's code for universal health care), and godlessness into the impressionable and as-yet-pudding-like brains of your children. Yes, they're out there, those damn Reds... and they're battling as we speak to take the Christ out of Christmas.

This, of course, is utter nonsense -- and I am of course not the first one to point this out. But let's examine the American tradition of Christmas, now as in decades past, and find out exactly how much of the Baby Jesus is apparent in the way we, as a society, have celebrated the Savior's birth.

First, there are the old traditions. There's the timing, of course -- December 25, eerily close to the druidic celebration of the Winter Solstice (December 21), which is the shortest day of the year. According to Christianity Today, December 25 was settled on around A.D. 273 after a long controversy over whether to even celebrate the Nativity at all, and was eventually chosen to coincide with two pagan holidays: the natalis solis invicti (birth of the unconqered sun) and the identified birthday of Mithras, an Iranian god considered the "Sun of Righteousness." Both gods were popularly worshipped by Roman soldiers. Church fathers, apparently eager to make the transition to Christianity (which had recently been elevated to the status of "official religion of the Roman empire") as smooth as possible, decided to pick a feast day that already was being used as one by the people.

So, in terms of timing, we've already departed from the scriptural account (which lacks any mention of a specific date anyway). How about the Christmas tree?

Well, according to the hivemind responsible for Wikipedia, the Christmas tree is most likely a derivative of a Germanic pagan tradition linked with the Festival of Lights, celebrated on the Winter Solstice. The Wikipedia entry claims further that the practice of decorating evergreen trees as part of the Christian festival was initially decried as a pagan practice when it arrived in the United States in the 19th century... but apparently, the novelty caught on and its origins in the pagan wilds of medieval Germany were forgotten, replaced with new metaphors -- the evergreen tree, rather than representing the cycle of seasons, now represents Christ's triumph over death. Fair enough -- symbols are only as good as the notions they evoke in their viewers.

On to more recent additions. In a memorable Saturday Night Live skit, Dana Carvey's "Church Lady" decries Santa Claus, pointing out (to great comic effect) that there's only a transposition of letters separating the names "Santa" and "Satan." That aside, it's with the adoption of Santa Claus that the less-benign elements of the American tradition of Christmas begin to creep into the picture.

Saint Nicholas was traditionally honored on the anniversary of his death, which is recorded as having occured December 6, A.D. 346. He was a bishop who lived in Lycia, which is now Turkey, and had a "reputation for secret gift-giving," as well as having been a miracle-worker. Older traditions of Saint Nicholas Day involved placing small gifts in the shoes that children left out overnight on December 6. Other than being a Christian saint, Nicholas (in his own Greek, Agios Nikolaos), had nothing to do with the birth of Jesus.

Christmas gift-giving ostensibly has something to do with the visit of the Magi, who are said to have brought gold, frankincense and myrrh to the Holy Family shortly after Christ's birth (their visit is traditionally celebrated January 6, on the feast of the epiphany). But Nikolaos of Lycia somehow got dragged into the mix, and this eventually was mutated into the decidedly non-Christian notion of a "kindly elf" who lives at the North Pole flying around the world distributing gifts to children who have been good all year.

Other cultures have interpreted the myth in different ways. But America's version of Saint Nick -- the plump, jolly, bearded grandfatherly-figure in red and white who works all year in his magical toy shop -- dates back only to the late 19th century (much like the Christmas tree), and was given his place in popular culture not by any church or faith, but by Coca-Cola (the company has since switched its holiday advertising mascot, and now uses polar bears).

It would no doubt be possible to make an exhaustive list of "Christmas Traditions" that have no roots whatsoever in the birth of Christ -- but hopefully, these few examples have made my point. There's very little of Christ to "take out" of Christmas in the first place, and to the extent that Jesus is remembered during the holiday, he is certainly not under any kind of real attack. The only place the story is actually celebrated is in churches, pageant plays, and in homes -- and there's nothing even resembling a credible threat to any of that (perhaps with the exception of school pageant plays, but really, how horrible would it be if those were to go away?).

What is under threat, however, is the assumption that everyone in the country celebrates Christmas in the way that Christians do. Jews, for example, who constitute a sizable minority among Americans, understandably want little to do with Christmas, and instead celebrate Hanukkah, their own festival of lights (which also has been corrupted over the centuries and now has its own cultural over-emphasis on gifts).

Simply saying, "Merry Christmas" to some stranger during the holiday shopping season -- and shopping really is what the season is about -- does little or nothing to recall the birth of Jesus, and the rest of the Christmas traditions have nothing to do with Christ anyway. Substantively, what changes if Wal-Mart or Target clerks politely call out, "Happy Holidays" instead of "Merry Christmas"?

Lots, if you're troglodyte like John Gibson or Bill O'Reilly. Apparently, it's phrases uttered by store clerks that inspire the bright-eyed, rosy-cheeked, Norman-Rockwell-esque youths populating our country to ask their parents questions like, "Mommy, who was this Baby Jesus guy?" Clearly, Toys-'R'-Us employees have a crucial role to play in the catechesis of the young. In all seriousness, though, why should anyone rely on the rest of society to instill religious curiosity in children? If faith is important enough that store employees remind kids of the importance of a particular holiday, shouldn't the subject have been brought up in the home by the time a child is old enough to start asking theological questions? Or are we to believe that parents, by and large, are mute on the subject of Christ until their offspring broach the subject?

On reflection, it might even be possible to understand if this indeed were the case. Christmas, as celebrated in the U.S., runs from the "Black Friday" (which, this year, resulted in at least three shopping-related deaths) to December 24, and has much more to do with bargain-hunting than Savior-celebrating. The cherished traditions have decidedly un-Christian heritages, and Jesus has indeed been relegated to an afterthought -- but not by any nefarious liberal scheme. Indignation over the new, alleged "War on Christmas" is sheer lunacy, because it is based on a notion as fundamentally fictional as Santa's eight tiny reindeer.


Monday, December 15, 2008

What did we learn?

Well, it appears (so far) that I've survived my first semester of graduate school. Now, I suppose, would be as good a time as any to look back and figure out exactly what it is that I've learned.

The first thing I learned was what political science isn't -- it is not comparative history, it isn't advanced civics, and it isn't about rhetoric. This may come as a surprise to no one other than me, but apparently, political science is actually science -- sort of.

Even practitioners of the "social sciences" (sociology and political science, for example) are careful to note the distinction between their field and the so-called "hard sciences," such as physics and chemistry. While the "hard sciences" study the interactions of physical bodies and particles and predict their behavior, doing the same thing to human societies is a little fuzzier... humans, as it turns out, are somewhat less predictable than hydrogen atoms.

Enter statistics, which I got a great introduction to this semester. Skipping over the boring, number-y parts, the value to using things like "normal distributions" and large sample sizes is so that you can get a reasonably good predictor of behavior to a certain level of probability. There are also handy ideas like "rational choice theory," which makes it possible to do a little hand-waving ("Okay, let's just say everyone's going to act in his own perceived best interest when making choices") and aggregate behavior over a whole system. To the extent that it works, it's a useful idea.

Deeper than that, however, is the issue of a philosophy of science. What exactly is "scientific method," and what is it meant to accomplish? Are we adding to the growing pile of human knowledge, or are we merely filling out the latest paradigm by which we understand the world? That still seems to be an open question, so I don't have an answer. But it's an interesting line of thought to follow down the old rabbit hole.

I've had at least one friend suggest that these courses aren't doing me any good -- that this field of study is encouraging my left-leaning tendencies. I don't really blame her for coming to that conclusion, but it isn't the case. My professors haven't made their personal political beliefs particularly secret, but the course material is almost completely sterile of normative political rhetoric or propaganda. Instead, our readings and discussions have focused entirely on theories of political phenomena -- given X circumstances, why does Y happen? That kind of thing. The suggested answers normally involve complicated algebraic formulas, and they tend to treat the workings of political entities like parts of a car... avoiding pronouncements about what is right and wrong.

So I haven't drawn my political views from the coursework -- although I do feel as though I have a better understanding of how things work, and that understanding has helped to reinforce notions I already had.

I'm looking forward to next semester. Now that the initial shock has passed, I think it'll be easier to keep my head above water.