I began writing on Christmas morning. I returned to finish on Easter. The leaves are now beginning to emerge within little buds, signaling the return of life – the movement out of dormant darkness. Given this context, how can I help but think of Jesus?
And so, a straight-forward blog post on academia became a drawn-out melodrama starring the “King of Kings.” This is not a religious tome. Rather, Jesus is an extremely useful demonstration of a larger point, which I’ll start to get to at some stage, hopefully.
Before we begin, I want to preview the main issues under consideration and point out the chief ‘problem’ that this blog’s thought exercise seeks to address. The first and most direct question is: How have we come to accept an annual celebration of Christ in a way that is so contrary to his teachings? The second question is: What can this show us about strategies of power and oppression, which might help undo current paradigms and create something better – or at least avoid repeating the mistakes of the past? In the end, unraveling the ways that institutionalizing Jesus corrupted the core of his teachings helps explain a lot of the world we experience today. By untethering him and other truly transformative ideas from inherently self-serving societal structures, we can perhaps begin to create something more equitable and joyous – for everybody.
Part I: The Christmas Trick
Isn’t it interesting that Christmas, the day Jesus was not actually born, has become the chief holiday of Christian peoples? As my wise mother recently pointed out, it’s Easter that should be the “big deal.” It is Easter that distinguishes Christianity from other religions – the resurrection, the promise fulfilled, the visceral demonstration of forgiveness, which Jesus offered the Romans who killed him. Without getting into debates around virgin birth and whether history was revised to give Jesus a more spectacular origin story, Christmas is kind of nothing. Jesus doesn’t become Jesus until probably his 30s, once his training in Judaic mysticism and the mystery schools of the near east was complete.
So, why is Christmas important? Well, the historical answer probably starts with moving Jesus’s birthday to coincide with pagan winter solstice celebrations. The Church provided gifts of beer and food to the poor around this time. Peasants also received a break from toiling at their menial labor (as did slaves where and when they existed). This engendered good will toward the Church among a skeptical people, reluctant adopt to this imperialist religion. Much later, the traditions of gift-giving that came to be associated with the holiday proved very attractive to early capitalist advertisers. At Easter, they market cheap plastic eggs and candy – but no one is selling extra cars and flat screens. Christmas holds its place within our culture, in part, because it was a much easier holiday to commodify and profit from – for both the medieval Church and today’s corporations.
Thus, Christmas morning in America has become the ultimate consumerist devotional. I don’t discount its value in terms of bringing family together, uplifting the spirit, or catalyzing generosity in Scrooges the world over. But such vaunted ideals have become largely a Pied Piper’s song, leading us to shopping districts and online marketplaces. The culmination of “Christmas joy” is the unwrapping, conducted with varying levels of ceremony and tradition. It’s an exercise that appears to stretch back much further than the four or so generations that it can truly claim.
The festivities of unwrapping presents contain a semblance of sanctity, lent by twentieth century cultural creation and the vague allusion to “Christ” each time we say “Christmas.” Our exercises of materialism, sugar, and, sooner or later, booze have been legitimized as a proper celebration of Jesus and togetherness. These cultural forms of expression are sanctioned, even as they involve heinous crimes against the teachings of the man they are meant to venerate.
I’m not here to rant about Christmas or the commodification of belief. The more interesting question is simply: Who gets credit for the effectiveness of this trick? How is it that we have, by and large, accepted, adopted, and perpetuated the contradictions of our Christmas celebrations? Should I be impressed with the power of the prophet from Nazareth – whose mere invocation is capable of sanctifying just about anything – or Madison Avenue for successfully tying ancient holiness to modern-day consumerism?
The answer to these questions is complex. It’s worthy of a long, academic treatise. But, given where it ends up, such an approach feels a bit inappropriate. I will, however, start putting the pieces together through historical inquiry. We can’t understand where we are without knowing where we’ve been. In a movement toward the answer, then, let’s undertake a quick thought exercise.
Teleport, through time, and imagine what it would have been to stand with Jesus in his historical context. It’s two thousand years ago. Maybe you’re hanging out during some downtime, lounging in the shade of a cypress tree. You’re part of a radical sub-culture, attempting to convince people that love and forgiveness ought to be at the core of the human experience. Those you’re speaking to have been violently subjugated by a series of imperial states. The latest is a foreign, European one that values obedience and commerce above all else. The wealthy, the powerful, and the mainstream religious leaders all dismiss you as a zealot (or whatever the pre-Christian word for ‘heretic’ is). Your ideas, your firmly held beliefs, challenge the Judaism of your own family and ancestors. They also run contrary to the spirituality of nearly all other humans at the time, who root themselves in polytheism and/or some form of animism. Most people probably roll their eyes at you or make jokes behind your back. Meanwhile, they continue to actively or implicitly support religious-political structures that subjugate them. And yet, you seek to love and help alleviate their suffering, pushing through frequent frustration with their lack of awareness. After all, you’re critiquing their entire way of being and attempting to supplant it with a conceptual kingdom of “Heaven on Earth,” rooted in the belief of a single God and his presence within each of us. The message seems simple – God’s Light is for and inside everyone. All you must do is seek it. But to your audience, it’s farfetched. Still, you know this is the Truth, a path to a better world, and you’re willing to sacrifice everything for it.
How is it that such a maligned, underdog of a movement spreads from the metaphorical cypress tree to become the largest and most powerful religion on the planet? You probably know some of the answer. Rome adopted it as its official religion, a legacy continued by the European kingdoms that followed, which advanced it by missionizing and colonizing.
Only, the Christianity that emerged to dominate the world diverged in significant ways from the original message of Jesus and the goals of his followers. Priests were made arbiters of grace. The Church became an extreme, hierarchal bureaucracy and mandatory tithes a requirement for salvation. Murder and conquest served as central demonstrations of faith.
Why? And what does this have to do with modern Christmas?
Here's where history will come in handy – understanding how we got from Jesus to Roman Christianity is fundamental to the question of how we got from Christ’s birth to dreams of a Range Rover under every tree. The truth about the 20th century’s ‘Christmas trick’ is that it’s not novel and not even particularly clever. It’s only the fault of Madison Avenue marketers to the extent that a child of abuse is responsible for the byproducts of his traumas. Christmas’s secularization and monetization during the past 150 years is the latest result of a much longer manipulation. It merely rides the coattails of millennia-old misuses of Jesus’s transformative power. It’s a process that’s been copied and repeated over and over in Western European culture, adapting to contemporary conditions under the direction of the dominant group. ‘Madison Avenue’ just brought it into the 20th century context of a nominally Christian culture and society rooted in consumerism and capitalism at the behest of their corporate overlords.
My favorite Bible story has always been Jesus flipping out about people lending money in a temple. The place was sacred, not a room to conduct such secular, dirty business. Yet, every car commercial in December is profiteering off the desecration of the sacred – just like those money lenders did 2000 years ago.
In Part II, we’ll explore a bit more of the history involved in creating Christianity and its connections to the present, moving closer to a valuable lesson.