Gene Expression

The season needs no reason

Below I spoke of historical perspective, while earlier I referred to Christmas as “universal pagan wine poured into a particular Christian chalice.” I thought I might elaborate upon this.

First, the cultural and historical origins of Christmas are multi-textured. Though Christians assert “Jesus is the reason for the season,” a more precise formulation might be that “Jesus became the reason for the season in the minds of some.” This is important. It is not without rationale that Christian groups like the Jehovah Witnesses reject Christmas, it is not a scriptural festival. Its emergence in the 4th century coincided with the synthesis of Christianity with Roman Imperial culture as the latter took upon the former as the state religion. In 274 the Roman Emperor Aurelian dedicated a temple to the sun god, Sol Invictus, on the 25th of December, Natalis Sol Invictus, “the birth of the invincible sun.” Interestingly, many early depictions of Jesus Christ co-opted solar imagery (e.g., the halo around the Christ). It seems that the thrusting forward of December 25th as the birth of Christ was strongly motivated by co-option of a pre-existing festival. Additionally, holiday merry-making seems to have its classical antecedants in Saturnalia. But this tendency of a mid-winter festival is not limited to Southern Europe. Yule and its cousins play an even greater role in the north than they do in the sunny Mediterranean. The darkness of the mid-winter solstice festivals bloom to usher in the season of hope and lengthening days. Customs like the Yule Log, Christmas cookies and gift exchange all emerge out of this pre-Christian substratum. This is was not unknown to the Christian Church, during the medieval period there were futile attempts to suppress some of these practices. A great enough frustration broke out during the Reformation that groups like the Puritans banned the celebration of Christmas, which was after all a minor holiday next to Easter.

Today the Christmas season has become capitalism’s handmaid. And yet nevertheless there is an economic case against Christmas. But such arguments will, I suspect, be as successful as Christian attempts to co-opt or abolish a fundamentally primal holiday. So long as winter’s darkness passes over us in the Northern Hemisphere our minds will demand a luxury to usher in the new year. It may not be economically optimal, but the human psychology naturally introduces inefficiencies and ‘irrationality’ into the action of Homo economicus. And so in some ways the battle between those who would “defend” Christmas, and those who promote a more inclusive Holidays, is somewhat beside the point, the name is less than the substance that persists. The tendency toward mid-winter holiday is, I believe, evoked from the natural interaction of our cognitive machinery and the seasonal flux of the world around us. The emergence and perpetuation of mid-winter festivals in agricultural societies in the north isn’t a coincidence or an act of cultural diffusion, it is a tendency which our minds are canalized toward. I believe that in general it is best to make the best of our eternal instincts in this matter. Our nature does not insist that we engage in a gross orgy of consumption after all, but neither can we truly honor the Puritan intent to root all acts in scriptural reason, or the economically optimal behavior which would deny the darkening skies above which finally cede ground to the sun. In the end, such exuberant “inefficiencies” are the ends toward which efficient means aim….

Comments

  1. #1 Mustafa Mond, FCD
    December 24, 2006

    The season needs no reason

    I’m sticking with the tilt of the Earth’s axis.

    So long as winter’s darkness passes over us in the Northern Hempisphere

    Lay off the weed, dude, it’s addling your mind.

  2. #2 Agnostic
    December 24, 2006

    Lay off the weed, dude, it’s addling your mind.

    He’s from the Portland area, so he can’t help it — it’s just in the air. ;)

  3. #3 moonite
    December 25, 2006

    So in a nutshell, christmas is an elaborate cultural/social strategy to combat the effects of seasonal affective disorder? I was having a similar thought after buying some gifts at a department store and wincing as I got out to the parking lot to see it was already dark.

  4. #4 razib
    December 25, 2006

    christmas is an elaborate cultural/social strategy to combat the effects of seasonal affective disorder

    i’m skeptical of functional explanations, but perhaps. an analogy might be that xmas is to mid-winter what a funeral is to the death of a loved one. it can’t change the fact that a loved one dies, but it seems a common strategy to deal with communal loss and grief cross-culturally. note that midsummer tends to be a less important festival in most regions of the north.

  5. #5 jaakkeli
    December 25, 2006

    Midsummer is either the number 1 or number 2 celebration of the year in Finland. Christmas beats it for some people (kids, the elderly), but Christmas gets beaten in most objective measures of intensity (eg. the spike in death rates). The supposed Christian reasons behind it are completely unimportant (and unknown) to most people, but there are pagan traditions and magic to compensate, so it’s not “just” a few days off with a big party.

    I know it’s also celebrated in Sweden, Norway and the Baltic states, but I mostly don’t know the intensity. It might be lesser, considering that those are more southern populations that have less nightless nights (and longer summers). Midsummer is unimportant in the _south_ where there is at least a dark moment during the night. (Also, AFAIK the Russians only find it special in the regions close to Finland, the only place where they have significant populations at similar latitudes. But they also think Easter is bigger than Christmas – which BTW for them is in January, weeks after the solstice…)

  6. #6 diana
    December 25, 2006

    Well you say the season needs no reason but this entire post describes the reasons for the season.

    Whatever, Merry Christmas!

  7. #7 Tyler DiPietro
    December 25, 2006

    Agnostic,

    He’s from the Portland area, so he can’t help it — it’s just in the air. ;)

    I see that the other Portland isn’t much different from the one I occupy here on the east coast. ;)

  8. #8 razib
    December 25, 2006

    the women are hotter, the mountain’s taller and the air cleaner west coast yo ;)

  9. #9 Tyler DiPietro
    December 26, 2006

    the women are hotter, the mountain’s taller and the air cleaner west coast yo ;)

    Over here you can get Lobster for the price of a 10 oz. steak, and get to see pretty coastal landscapes. Plus the relative attractiveness slack left by our native-born women is generously made up for by female tourists from Montreal (just visit Old Orchard in the early-mid summer to see what I mean).

  10. #10 Tyler DiPietro
    December 26, 2006

    Okay, the above post didn’t quite come out like I wanted it to. Suffice to say the comments are self-deprecating sarcasm.

  11. #11 chet snicker
    December 26, 2006

    sir,

    you are no gentlemen! are quebecois females in existence just to satisfy your male gaze?

    yours truly,
    c.v. snicker

  12. #12 Tyler DiPietro
    December 26, 2006

    Judging by the amount of skin covered by their vestures, I’d guess that they were gunning for such. But I would prefer the satisfaction of more than my gaze. ;)

  13. #13 chet snicker
    December 26, 2006

    sir,

    your glibness is a reflection of your unexamined white male privilege. a woman should be able to dress however she wants without having to worry about your fugly gaze. a gentlemanly act would be appreciate only when invited by a lady’s comportment and manners. then again, i’m an 8.8 out of 10, so perhaps i’m being ungenerous to my inferiors.

    yours truly,
    c.v. snicker

  14. #14 Tyler DiPietro
    December 26, 2006

    a woman should be able to dress however she wants without having to worry about your fugly gaze.

    True, in the abstract at least. But I wouldn’t be able to preen around Old Orchard Beach as scantily clad as the Quebecois without women saying things like “down boy” and “don’t rape us”. Why the double standard?

  15. #15 chet snicker
    December 26, 2006

    Why the double standard?

    sir,

    to whom much is given, much is expected. honor is ours to preserve sir, given to us by the grace of god. if we lose it the world shall be a poorer place.

    yours truly,
    c.v. snicker

  16. #16 Robert Hume
    December 28, 2006

    You are edging toward the truth. Christmas as we know it is a major artistic creation of the European, and particularly British, cultures. There are the gifts which come from the three wise men. There are the Christmas trees, etc., which come from light and life amid the Northern Dark. There is Santa Claus and his reindeer which come, perhaps, from Odin flying through the sky pulled by reindeer or from the great poem by Clement Moore.

    There are the great classical and folk music we play and sing each Christmas. There is the great art which depicts mother, child, the three wise men the angles and the star. There are the creches from Europe, Africa, and South America; a great folk expression.

    All together, it is an expression of the possibility of love from God to man and of man to man, irrespective of race.

    The suppression of Christmas may possibly originate in part from a suppression of religion; but in major part it turns out to be also, intentionally or not, a suppression of European culture.

    Fortunately Christmas is such a magnificant spectacle, festival, and story that it appeals to all peoples as seen by its being picked up in Muslim, Buddhist, and Confucian lands. Be our guest!