Merry whatever

December 12, 2005|By CYNTHIA TUCKER

ATLANTA -- Every year around this time, the harried public - already worn down by the frenzy of the ah, ahem, holidays - is subjected to an extended harangue over the name of the season. Shall we say "Merry Christmas" or "Happy Holidays"? Will we plan a Christmas break or a winter vacation? Happy Winter Solstice, anyone?

The American Family Association has announced a boycott of the Target department store chain because, according to the association's chairman, Donald Wildmon, the stores don't use the word "Christmas" in promotions. Similarly, the Catholic League is troubled by Wal-Mart's seeming aversion to the word "Christmas."

I do hope we're not nearing a national meltdown over this. With all the bad news bearing down upon us - the Iraq quagmire, a huge budget deficit, rising interest rates, Nick and Jessica's split - are we prepared for an all-out culture war over the decorating of "holiday trees"? This is the most overblown cultural dispute since a national advice columnist dedicated reams of newsprint to an argument over which way toilet tissue should be hung on the holder.

After all, many of the Christmas traditions that Western Christians have adopted do not hark back to the birth of Christ; indeed, some of them trace their origins to pagan rituals.

Take the "Christmas" tree. Anthropologists and historians have followed a trail of dried-out fir needles all the way back to ancient cultures, which used evergreens as reminders of the spring that would return after long and barren winters. Ancient Egyptians decorated their homes with green date palm leaves for the winter solstice. In what is now Great Britain, Druids also used evergreens in solstice rites.

But modern-day Christmas festivities probably draw much from Roman pagans, who celebrated the winter solstice with a festival they called Saturnalia, decorating their houses with evergreens and lights and exchanging gifts.

Explaining the calendar of the Christian church, the Encyclopedia Britannica notes that the early church established the celebration of Christ's birth at the same time as the pagan festival in order to usurp it: "A new focus of celebration, to commemorate the birthday of Christ, was instituted at ancient winter solstices (Dec. 25 and Jan. 6) to rival the pagan feasts."

Similarly, Santa Claus is a conflation of myths and legends from many countries and cultures over many centuries. While some Santa fans insist that the figure familiar to American children is a direct descendant of St. Nicholas, a Catholic bishop of the fourth century, there is no historical record indicating that the bishop went around distributing gifts on Christmas Eve. While many miracles are attributed to St. Nick, separating well-behaved children from young delinquents is not among them.

But the American Santa does share certain traits with the Norse god Thor, who was believed to have a long white beard, to travel through the air in a chariot and to slide down chimneys. Happy Thor's Fest, anyone? (Of course, we celebrate Thor's day once a week already.)

Perhaps the oddest thing about this cultural imbroglio is the insistence by some Christian purists that stores - palaces of consumerism - should observe the season with declarations of "Merry Christmas!" The weeks-long orgy of buying that begins around Thanksgiving and ends, mercifully, with the New Year celebrates consumption, selfishness and excess - a time when Christians turn the other check. This is probably not what Jesus would do.

There is nothing in the Gospels about battling other parents for the last Xbox 360 or knocking down other shoppers to get to discounted personal computers. There are no Christmas sales in the New Testament, nor is there instruction on returning the items you didn't like.

So what difference does it make if retailers refer to Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa or holidays? Merchants are not in the business of spiritual uplift. Those who are looking for that would do well to spend a little less time at the mall.

Cynthia Tucker is editorial page editor for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Her column appears Mondays in The Sun. Her e-mail is

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