Thursday, December 11, 2014

Semantics and Pagan Holidays

One of the fringe benefits of managing a seasonal holiday blog is the steady supply of free pet peeves. While it certainly doesn't top the list, I've recently been devoting an unhealthy amount of time fixating on the following phrase: "Co-opted pagan holiday." Normally, one should avoid unhealthy things, but since Christmas is a time for indulgence, perhaps you'll indulge me while I permit myself a short rant on the subject.

First, a disclaimer. I've probably been guilty of abusing the term once or twice myself on this blog. I don't recall using it (or the even harsher term, "stolen") in anything other than a joking context, but - if I have - it was an oversight, an error, or I was being an idiot. Because claiming that Christians co-opted or stole pagan holidays is misleading.

You'll note I didn't say it was wrong. From a factual standpoint, it's neither true or untrue. You could assemble a number of experts who agree on every relevant fact about the origins of Christmas and still not come anywhere near a consensus on whether anything was co-opted. From a specific point of view, it could even be described as accurate. But that point of view is fundamentally dumb.

Let's start with the facts. Many early trappings of Christmas were largely derived from Roman holidays. Depending on who you want to believe, the date was either directly based on various Roman festivals or assigned due to its proximity with the winter solstice (I'd argue for a mixture of the two).

Some sources will tell you the date's correlation with pagan holidays and the solstice are incidental or even a coincidence. Anyone who tells you that is full of reindeer shit... and that stuff levitates. People have been celebrating the solstices for more or less all of human history. The idea that the solar calendar and major local festivals wouldn't have been a factor is laughable.

So. What's wrong with the term "co-opted"? My primary issue is inference. It implies that these traditions belonged to one culture and were improperly appropriated by another, and that's misleading on multiple levels. First of all, there's no reason to consider them the "property" of pagan Rome any more than Christianity. Rome certainly didn't invent the practice of throwing a party on the shortest days of the year, nor were they the first to infer symbolic and spiritual significance to the time.

In other words, if Christians co-opted or stole these traditions, so did the Romans. Same goes for the Egyptians and the Greeks. And, while we're on the subject, neo-pagan groups trying to "take back Solstice" are borrowing it from Secular traditions, the Christian holiday, and numerous other sources.

In short, the people Christians inherited Christmas traditions from weren't being original, either.

I also object to the image of co-option as it pertains to the transfer. While the religious shift to Christianity was certainly not peaceful, I don't see anything criminal about the passing of traditions. When people discuss the "co-opting of pagan customs by Christians" they're often implying something akin to plagiarism at best. I think that's a needlessly antagonistic description.

Details of the transition of cultural elements are of course speculatory, but I find it more likely that people brought beliefs and customs with them as they converted, as opposed to some sort of coordinated attempt to rob others of their culture. There were certainly debates over the value of things like celebrating Christmas around the solstice, but I doubt those were really the driving forces behind the holiday's spread.

How should we interpret the origins of Christmas? I've stated before that I believe Christmas is best understood as a continuation of pre-Christian festivals. I stand by that: the name and elements of the narrative have evolved over time, but the holiday endured.

This is obviously not the only way to look at the holiday. If someone wants to insist on defining Christmas as the set of holidays celebrating the birth of Christ that were inspired by preexisting celebrations, it's difficult to prove them wrong. Though I would point out that variations in Christmas traditions over time have been larger than the difference between early Christmas celebrations and Saturnalia, and that the line between the two is arbitrary in nature.

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