Sun | Aug 20, 2017

No ceasefire from Christmas war

Published:Sunday | December 27, 2015 | 12:00 AMIan Boyne, Contributor

EVEN COMBATANTS at war have traditionally called a ceasefire during Christmas. So powerful and passionate has been the hold of Christmas on people.

But militant secularists and atheists inAmerica have no such scruples and have announced no ease-up in their war on Christmas.

America is the trendsetter for Jamaica, and very soon fellow travellers here will launch their own secularist war. In my view, that’s a permissible war – it’s their choice, their democratic right in a free society.

And it’s the right of Christians to push back and fight back. But it’s such a pity, many would say, that this season of peace and goodwill should not be spared from mankind’s proclivity for conflict.

So serious has this war on Christmas become in the United Sates that House Republicans have now introduced a resolution (564) to “protect” Christmas.

Says the resolution: “Expressing that the symbols and traditions of Christmas should be protected for use by those who celebrate Christmas ... be it resolved, therefore, that the House of Representatives recognises the importance of the symbols and traditions of Christmas; strongly disapproves of attempts to ban references to Christmas; and expresses support for the use of these symbols and traditions by those who celebrate Christmas.” Increasingly, retail outlets have been putting up signs saying, ‘Happy holidays’ rather than ‘Merry Christmas’. Christians find that troubling, and some have launched campaigns to boycott those businesses.

But why should Christians try to bully business people who choose, as is their right, to use a more inclusive sign? They can put whatever is decent and in good taste on their stores.

Christians can put merry Christmas on theirs. But this Christmas war inAmerica is heating up. DISRESPECTING GOD Secularists have installed a rainbow-coloured (gay symbol) Festivus pol in the Oklahoma Capitol.

There has been very vociferous and strident reaction by Christians and lawmakers over this. Some Republicans issued a press release condemning this action, which they deemed provocative and disrespectful of Christian symbolism during this season.

“This sacrilegious symbol wrapped in the gay-rights flag is not respectful of God or the many visitors, including children who arrive by the busload, during this time of the year to celebrate the peace and joy and remembrance of the sacrifice of Christ for our sins.”

The release continued, “This effort to mock the celebration of the birth of Jesus, our Lord and Saviour, does not illustrate the best judgement of those who manage our state capitol.” State Republican John Bennett made this statement, reflecting an increasing view of Christians: “If Christians put up something antithetical to Islam during one of their most holy days, we would be attacked and there would be a demand to stop.

It seems we are free to be a Christian as long as we don’t live out our faith ... . This gay pride symbol should not be allowed to stand.” The struggle in America over atheism versus theism is not just an ideological and philosophical struggle. It is a political struggle as well.

And that is why the atheists and secularists are fighting so hard to remove references to Christmas, Christ and the religious symbolism of Christmas. They don’t mind Christmas as a cultural symbol.

I have just read Stephen LeDrew’s recently published (2015) tour de forcebook, The Evolution of Atheism: The Politics of a Modern Movement. If you want to understand the aggressive and vitriolic New Atheism that emerged after 9/11, you have to get this book. It is essential reading to understand the culture war in the US.

OPPONENTS FOR CENTURIES

Mark you, Christmas has had its opponents for centuries. And from Christians themselves. Puritans were vehemently opposed to Christmas.

Besides, unorthodox but well-known groups like the Jehovah’s Witnesses and the former Worldwide Church of God (followers of Herbert W. Armstrong) have waged a valiant war against Christmas for many decades. 

Other small groups have emerged, warning also about the pagan origins of Christmas and urging Christians not to keep it.

Peter Espeut and I have had our own battles on this over the years.

He fired his pre-emptive salvo last Friday in his column, ‘The arrogance of knowledge’. But I have declared a ceasefire this year! In fact, I want to side with him in critiquing one of his critics.

In a letter to the editor published in The Gleaner last Monday, ‘You’ve got it wrong on Christmas’, Devon Gray quotes a 1914 edition of the Catholic Encyclopedia which mentioned that the first recorded date of Christmas being celebrated on December 25 was in AD 336 during Constantine’s reign.

This was supposedly to contradict Espeut. But Gray did not read carefully. Espeut was not saying in his article that December 25 was being celebrated as Christmas before the fourth century. He was making the point that Christmas, or the celebration of the birth of Christ, came before that time and this predated pagan adaptation.

But Espeut has been careless with the evidence, or was careless in his argumentation. For while Christians were certainly reflecting on the date of Christ’s birth from the second century, there was no celebration by the Christian Church of Christmas until the fourth century.

So Espeut is right in correcting the common misperception among Jehovah’s Witnesses, Armstrongites and other sectarian detractors of Christmas that the first time contemplation of Christ’s birthday popped up was in the fourth century when the Roman Church clearly adopted it from pagan Saturnalia customs.

That’s pure ignorance, which, for example, the dean and president of the Berkeley Divinity School at Yale, Professor Andrew McGowan, exploded 13 years ago in his article in the scholarly journal, Bible Review(‘How December 25 became Christmas’, December 2002 edition). Clement of Alexandria (in Egypt, about 200 AD, makes reference to the date Jesus was born. He mentioned that several dates were proposed, though, significantly, none advocating December 25.

The earliest dates for the celebration of Christmas were May 20, March 21, April 21, April 15 and April 20 or 21. Says Professor McGowan: “Clearly, there was great uncertainty, but also considerable amount of interest in dating Jesus’ birth in the late second century.”

So it is not true that the first-time Christians began thinking about celebrating the birth of Christ, it was because of the desire to capitulate to paganism. In the second century, the Christians were being persecuted by the pagans! They would hardly have thought of adopting their customs to worship the founder of their persecuted religion.

So Espeut was partially right in his historical reconstruction. But McGowan was very clear: “There is no mention of birth celebrations in the writings of the early Christian writers such as Irenaeus or Tertullian.

Origen of Alexandria goes as far as to mock Roman celebrations of birth anniversaries, dismissing them as pagan practices – a strong indication that Jesus’ birth was not marked with similar festivities at that place and time. As far as we can tell, Christmas was not celebrated at all at this point." Ah, that's the point, Peter!

The fact that some Christian theologians were musing on various dates does not amount to an actual celebration by the Church. I won't accuse you of a sleight of hand. It's just unwarranted conclusions from the evidence. (I have called a ceasefire this year, remember!)

We can argue motives for the eventual adaptation of Christmas celebration in the fourth century, but what is unmistakable is that Christmas celebrations then were adopted at the pagan season of Saturnalia when the Christian emperor, Constantine, had every motivation to co-opt and baptise a very popular pagan festival.

Christmas is hard to beat. It has been around for many centuries and has survived various mutations. The Christians had to bow in the fourth century by adopting this popular winter solstice festival. My secular, atheistic friends, you might change some symbols but the people yearn for this season of goodwill, cheer, family gatherings, partying, and fellowship.

• Ian Boyne is a veteran journalist working with the Jamaica Information Service. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com and ianboyne1@yahoo.com.