What’s Wrong with The Holidays
There are seven major U.S. holidays: Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Years Day, Easter, The Fourth of July, Memorial Day and Labor Day. There are a few minor ones such as Columbus Day, Presidents Day, Veterans Day, Valentines Day and Halloween and there are other coincidental and cultural ones such as Passover, Martin Luther King Day, Yom Kippur and Kwanza.
For most of us, and for the most part, Thanksgiving and Christmas seem to be the two holidays for which there are significant obligations and certain significant expectations, which revolve around and involve family. That these holidays require a great deal of psychological preparation is an understatement.
Historically Thanksgiving memorializes a gathering of Pilgrims and Indians at the time of the fall harvest. One legend has it that as the Pilgrims were then on the verge of starvation, the Indians taught them how to survive the harsh New England winter and may have even assisted them by supplying much needed food.
The favor was repaid in kind by the Pilgrims who purposefully threw their Smallpox infected blankets out on the perimeters of their settlements because they knew the Indians desperately needed them and would therefore use them. The Indians picked them up, brought them to their lodges and because they had no natural immunity to the disease were promptly decimated. Thus a simply effective form of genocidal germ warfare eliminated the Massachusetts (Massasoit) tribe and subsequently many more tribes as the disease spread from village to village; then eventually across the entire country. Eventually the Indians did give something back by introducing Syphilis to the White Man, but at least the method of transmission and the intention was more fun, pleasurably enjoyable, benevolently intended; and also not immediately lethal.
At the end of the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln designated the day to be a day of true thanksgiving for the salvation of the Union’ which had nothing whatsoever to do with either Pilgrims or Indians.
Today, and now that the Indians are forgotten and out of the way we usually commemorate this original mixed cultural event with a family feeding frenzy.
Parsing out the Smallpox
Christmas is a contrivance of the early Christian Church that was made to coincide with and thus to supersede long standing cultural rituals of the winter solstice or of mid winter pagan celebrations. It literally means Christ Mass.
In ancient Rome the winter holiday Saturnalia was designated to honor Saturn, the god of agriculture, designated as a month long festival given over to hedonistic pleasures. Within that month at the time of the solstice, there was a feast honoring children, Juvenalia, and on December 25th the birth date of the god of the sun, Mithra, that particular day was observed as being the most sacred day of the year. Druidic Europeans celebrated the winter solstice simply because the darkest days were then over, longer days would soon prevail being a generic concept I can wholeheartedly embrace.
Norsemen celebrated the Yule from December 21st into early January, also in recognition of the return of the sun, celebrating it by burning giant logs in fire’s that could last up to twelve days; ergo the possible derivation of the twelve days of Christmas. In some areas of Europe domesticated animals were slaughtered at this time so that they would not have to be fed during the months when feed stores were scarce, thus making this the only time of year when fresh meat was available for consumption. It was also a time when beer and wine fermentation reached a climax. Need I say more? Germans honored Oden, a terrifying vengeful god who in subscribing to the naughty and nice theory, made nocturnal flights to directly observe his people’s behavior and then decided upon who would prosper or who would perish. People hid inside their homes to avoid him.
For eons, early Christians observed Easter as their principle holiday, but it was not until the fourth century that the Church, on some arbitrary whim that a certain Pope decided to create a holiday celebrating the birth of Jesus. The truth is that no one actually knows the day when Jesus was really born. Some people think it was March of the following year: that is 0.25 AD.
Pope Julius I chose December 25th to coincide with and to absorb the pagan holidays, thus increasing the chance or the odds that it would be popularly embraced. He originally called it the Feast of the Nativity. After attending church, true believers would usually then become inebriated, then in a carnival like atmosphere crowned a ‘King of Misrule.’ Poor people would then knock on the doors of the wealthy demanding food and drink, but if the rich folk did not comply by paying back a presumed societal debt to the less fortunate, these aristocrats could then risk suffering mischievous revenge. Perhaps these indigent masses were just getting the holiday confused with Halloween or perhaps trick or treating simply became shifted to an earlier date on the calendar.
The Greek Orthodox Church celebrates Christmas 13 days after December 25th highlighting the ongoing mystery about the actual nativity date and creating significant friction between two great subcategories of Christianity. Puritans in England outlawed the holiday as being a decadent pagan ritual, while American Pilgrims imposed fines for celebrating it, until in 1870 the United States Congress overrode the prudes and finally recognized it as a Federal Holiday.
Thus it is easy to see how the hodgepodge of Christmas customs may have evolved. Thus includes its several names, the varied celebrations of Jesus birth, the emphasis on children, the invention of Santa Claus as a corruption of the patron saint of charitable giving, Saint Nicholas, the twelve days of Christmas, the Yule log, the eating and drinking, the socializing and the gluttony.
Somewhere along the line it has also became as romanticized as a Norman Rockwell painting or the vignette of a team of Budweiser Beer’s Clydesdales Horses towing a carriage to Grandma’s house over the river and through the woods during a gentle snowfall; just a picture perfect day, with perfect weather, for a perfect family consisting of a perfect three generations.
Christmas has also become an over commercialized capitalistic nightmare as well as an excuse for overindulgence and excess at every level. It has also been given over to a time when people decide for just one day out of the entire year to be charitable, loving, and giving or to visit relatives they often would not other wise give the time of day, while hypocritically pretending they actually like them. It is a day that children come to expect a trove of toys and gifts they either do not really need or actually deserve or which they will then ignore in about two days hence, when they then again beg their parents to buy them something else.
Politicians seize it as an opportunity to truck out the hypocritical concept of temporary armistice and world peace, with the irony being that sometimes the people we happen to be fighting are not even Christians who could care less about the one day of the year they may not be shot at or bombed.
The real problem derives from a lack of understanding that the idyllic Norman Rockwell family does not really exist. Subsequently then with holiday fantasies and expectations going unfulfilled or with a plurality of people actually believing that most families other than their own are having that Norman Rockwell day, there is a tendency toward large scale disappointment, bickering, feuds and collective depression.
The winter holidays then become a prime time for the vengeful emergence of seasonal depressive disorders and tend to be a peak time of the year for a substantial incremental increase in alcohol or drug abuse as well as suicide rates. That is unless you happen to be a school teacher, when Labor Day is the one that throws you into a withering little ball of pure angst.
Instead, the entire concept of these holidays should be simplified, grounded more in reality and put back into a better relative and spiritual perspective. Thanksgiving should be a day of gratitude by most of us for at least having something to eat, and to serve as a reminder that many in the world at the same time are starving to death. Christmas should remind us that every day of our lives we should try to perform at least one random act of kindness for one randomly selected stranger.
He’s making a list
And he’s checking it twice.
He’s going to find out
Who’s naughty and nice.
Santa Claus is coming to town.
And a very Merry Mithras, too
Photos: 1 Lithograph/Unknown source 2. © Norman Rockwell 3. Personal collection