Keep the Christ in Christmas

Someone asked today whether either Yule or Solstice get commercialized? I would really hate to imply that Pagans are more spiritual in their holiday practices than Christians, because the lack of merchandising to them makes it seem that they aren’t as commercialized.
I know that Solstice, or at least the Saturnalia, was “commercialized” in Rome. Parties, presents, social silliness. But remember that in the city of Rome proper, the labor was done by slaves, captured for that purpose through incessant warfare. Thinking ahead to New Years Day, during the time of the Republic Roman New year was in March, and they’d have their elections of the new consuls, who’d go out and run the wars. But as they expanded their territory, they had to to farther and farther from the city to reach non-Roman lands to conquer. That made it hard for the newly elected consuls to get to the front at the start of campaign season. Rather than move the elections back (no, they HAD to be on New Years!), they moved New Year’s Day back to the end of December, thus allowing the new consuls time to get out to the legions (and keep sending back conquered slaves and loot). It does show an odd relationship with their holidays that they could change when the year started, but not when elections were held.

Neither Yule nor Christmas could be commercialized as they are now until there was Capitalism, not just the accumulation of wealth, that’s pretty much a constant with human societies, but when gaining and exchanging capital became the way of ‘keeping track’ of power, competitive spending was attached to the holiday. We were no longer simply sharing food with friends, decorating, and giving gifts, but “keeping up with the Joneses”.  When prestige was gained by generosity from your own stores (however they may have been filled), Yule was a time of celebrating what you had, and sharing with those who had less. Massive consumption and distribution of excess proved to everyone how powerful you were. This led to the customs of the poor visiting the rich, caroling, mumming, wassailing, souling, hunting the wren, many excuses to go get a handout. The taxes may have been as stiff, but giving to the poor was how being rich was justified. In the earliest times, they provided the military protection, but later also provided financial protection. And these customs strengthened community ties. It’s not that people forgot the spiritual occasion of Christmas, they remember that, however they are living in a world that has embraced the idea that if you are rich, it’s because you are favored by God, and therefore whatever gets you money, must be His will. The good of the people who work for and with you is no longer a consideration. Part of this is probably also that people follow the jobs wherever they may be, so you don’t have a multi-generational relationship with the land and the people around you.

Once again I think that they have missed something because their grasp of history is so poor.  If the culture doesn’t change, as soon as people with stuff to sell realize there is a market, there will be Solstice and Yule things being pushed at us, with ads to convince us that if we aren’t doing it with their stuff, we aren’t doing it right. We have to avoid accepting the underlying premise that we can judge a person by how much he makes, not how much good he does.

Thinking about the pronouns in that last line, when we look at how much woman are often undervalued because they are so much better at valuing raising children and making a home a safe and welcoming place, not simply trying to ‘make more money’. But don’t let me confuse the issue- men were sucked into the same trap when they moved off their homesteads where they raised the food and built the shelters. Like women, they were and are trying to provide safety and security for their children, so they won’t be cold, hungry, and scared, but they are only offered the option of working for a wage to achieve this worthy goal, and have been gulled into tracking security with larger numbers.
It’s a huge change in how we see the world, and until we can change that perspective, any holiday is at risk of commercializing. If we can help change our societies attitudes toward money and people, it won’t matter what name we give gods or which day we celebrate what they give us. Let us all help each other celebrate that which feeds our souls, and we’ll get through the long winter, the days will get longer, and we’ll all make it to spring together.

Holidays and Rituals

You may have noticed that I enjoy holidays. I like that they remind us of good things we may fail to appreciate in our daily lives, (or, in the case of awareness days, of the bad things others need to deal with), and that they bring us together. As I write, today is Firefly Day, (4-24) where fans of the short lived SF TV show share their fandom, or Douglas Adams Day, where people carry a towel, or Talk like a Pirate Day, or yesterday where Dr. Who fans made tally marks on their arms.

These actions being done by people who may not know each other, may help each other find other people who have something in common with them. Unlike sports fans, who can assume that those in the stadium with them are also fans, they are more like the early Christians who could identify each other with drawing two curving lines- representing the “Jesus fish”- that could be drawn in dust or spilled wine and then wiped away unnoticed by those not in on the symbolism. Masons have secret handshakes, and gangs have “colors”. We want to know that we are part of a special group.

Humans have a need for community, a need to show solidarity, to feel part of a group. We reinforce this with rituals, a series of actions performed according to a prescribed order” with the intent of creating a desired result, whether a shared goal or simply to know who the others who share your goals are.

Being part of the community was natural when most people stayed their whole lives in the same town. It used to be that people could assume that everyone they saw was like them, thought the same, did the same things. In the modern world we have lost that (perhaps false sense of) security. Currently 17.7% of Americans go to church weekly, which is still above the 5.5% of Americans who are regular football spectators (although much less than the 13-30% fandom numbers in other countries from Europe to Australia). On the other hand, over 21% of Americans got to baseball games, more than Church services. But that still leaves four out of five of us not having church or sports to provide a sense of being “inside a group”. So we show signals to our own groups- those who are in the same fandoms as we are, who love what we love, think what we think.

And to share a holiday, to do something together (even if with others scattered across the whole world) is to share a ritual. Whether you are pausing for a moment of silence to remember the victims of the Shoah, or the Armenian Genocide, or whether you are carrying a towel or wearing a lilac on May 25th, you are doing something that creates a connection between you and your community- even if it is a community in minds rather than proximity of bodies.

Our world is different, our friendships are maintained not by working elbow to elbow, but by being in contact often through modern technology. So it makes sense that our rituals and holidays would be done the same way.