Putting the X back in Xmas

It may come as a surprise to you, but there are some people who not only say they dislike Christmas, but really do vehemently hate it. Despite the fact that these people are often shunned as grumpy old men, there are several valid and notable objections to certain parts of this wonderful time of year. The journalist Christopher Hitchens once jokingly compared the traditional Christmas festivities to living in a one party state, noting that “all broadcasts, all songs, all references, are, just for that magic few weeks, like living in fucking North Korea.”

I have found myself confronted by a great feeling of joy when hearing Christmas songs each year, a feeling that soon gives way to loathing and contempt for hearing the same, tired old songs, repeated over and over again, ad nauseam. I’ve also noticed that, whenever an objection is raised to this repetition, the dissenter is often denounced (incorrectly) as a ‘Scrooge’, or told that they just “haven’t gotten into the Christmas Spirit.”

So what exactly is this Christmas spirit? And, for that matter, what exactly is Christmas? In order to understand this, it is important to investigate origins of this festive season, often mistaken as a “Christian holiday”. During the times of the Roman Empire, Saturnalia, an extremely popular festival in honour of the god Saturn, was held from the week leading up to the winter solstice and continued for a month. It was a time in which the Roman social order was tipped on its head, with slaves taking the place of their masters. There was also a suspension of the courts, with no punishment for destruction of property or for assault. This created an extremely hedonistic time, renowned for heavy intoxication, rape and human sacrifice, as described by the poet Lucian. Roman authorities would select an “enemy of the people” to become the “Lord of Misrule”, who was forced to eat and copulate glutinously. At the end of this time, the innocent man or woman would be slaughtered by a Roman priest, in order to ward off the “forces of darkness.”

During its early years, Christianity’s main celebratory event was Easter. However, with the Roman Empire coming under Christian rule during the 3rd and 4th century AD, Church officials realised they had to find a way to increase subscription to their God. In order to do this, they decided to create a holiday that would commemorate the birth of Jesus. This proved difficult, due to the fact that the bible did not give a date for his birth. In order to overcome this, Pope Julius I chose the 25th of December in an effort to embrace and absorb the Pagan holiday of Saturnalia, in the hope that Christmas, and Christianity as a whole, would be adopted amongst Romans. And so we (or at least some of us) come to celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ on the 25th of December.

Yet Christmas time of old is a stark contrast to the heavily commercialised holiday we now endure each year. Seeking to capture the true spirit of Christmas with his brilliant song ‘Christmas Carol, Tom Lehrer was quick to remind us that “Christmas, with its spirit of giving, offers us all a wonderful opportunity each year to reflect on what we all most sincerely and deeply believe in… money.” With shoppers spending 40.3 billion pounds during December last year, it’s clear to see that many of the religious implications of Christmas have been replaced by a capitalist imperative to own the latest iPad, Xbox or Playstation. In ‘Christmas Carol’, Lehrer also jokes that “relations sparing no expense’ll / send some useless old utensil / or a matching pen and pencil / just the thing I need, how nice!” It seems the almost altruistic idea of charity and goodwill, the most pivotal message imparted to Ebeneza Scrooge in Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, has been subverted by the need to simply appear a ‘giving person’. As I’m sure we all know, this leads to the amusingly cheap and bizarre presents one is often brought by fringe family members.

Despite this, Christmas as it stands today remains a very special occasion. For many students, it is a holiday reserved for taking a break from university life and spending time with long-missed family members. This view is echoed in White Wine in the Sun by singer-comedian Tim Minchin, who shares my feelings towards Christmas despite having “all the objections to consumerism, [and] the commercialisation of an ancient religion.” He goes on to explain why Christmas is so important to him, as a time for “seeing my dad, my brothers and sisters, my gran and my mum.” For me, this line perfectly captures the true spirit of Christmas. It is a secular time, for eating grandiose meals, drinking copiously and exchanging long-desired gifts with those special people in my life. So let’s carve off the commercialised trimmings and enjoy this Christmas spirit for what it should be: a time for family, friends and, let’s be honest, truly terrible puns.

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