by Doctor Science
First of all, this is what a War on Christmas looks like:
I recall being taught that one reason Washington attacked on Christmas was specifically because (English) American colonists didn't celebrate the holiday. The German Hessian mercenaries did, though, and so would be hung over and vulnerable when Washington and his army made their surprise attack. In other words, at the time of the Revolution Christmas was unAmerican.
The people who fight back against the alleged War on Christmas by saying "Jesus is the reason for the season" know even less about Christian history than they do about American history. Christians celebrate Jesus' birth in late December (or early January, for the Eastern Orthodox) because there were already seasonal celebrations there that were thematically appropriate, especially the Birth of the Unconquered Sun. The season itself is the reason; Jesus became attached to it, not the other way around. The Christmas tree, the presents, the lights, the foods -- none of these are in origin Christian, though there are Christian glosses or justifications for all of them.
Jews often argue that Hanukkah is not an analogue to Christmas precisely because Hanukkah has an historical and scriptural basis in the revolt of the Maccabees -- the fact that we light candles at the winter solstice is mere coincidence.
I never really bought that, and in The Jewish Festivals: A Guide to Their History and Observance Hayyim Schauss argued that I was right. He pointed out that the Mishnah doesn't mention the Hanukkah candle-lighting, and that it's only barely discussed in the Gemara. There are different stories to explain the ceremony, too: that they commemorate the "Miracle of the Temple Oil", or that they represent eight spears found in the Temple and used as candle-holders during the re-dedication. Schauss concludes:
The Hanukkah lights, originally, had nothing to do with Hanukkah, but originated with an older festival that occurred at the same time of the year and that was forced out by the new Hanukkah festival.
That Hanukkah took the place of an older festival is no cause for surprise. For, as we have seen, this happened with every other festival of the Jews and of other peoples as well. A new period needs a new festival. But people do not take an ordinary week day and make a festival of it; they take over a day that previously had a festive character. And it is a general rule that the story, the explanation, is always about the new festival, but the ceremonies are carried over from the old festival. A new meaning and interpretation is sought for them, so that they will fit into the new festival. ... the original festival had to do with fire and light. It was no doubt a nature festival, one of those semi-holidays with a heathenish background that was bound up, not with the official Jewish religion, but with the folk belief. (p.224; I changed his spelling from "Chanukkoh")
Rachel Barenblat, the Velveteen Rabbi, has been hosting a discussion about Jews and The Tree, because of all Christian customs the Christmas Tree is the hardest for non-Christians to resist. In the comments, Elaine Dent (a Lutheran pastor) says:
it feels like there is a similarity (perhaps I am wrong) between the Jewish question of tree or no tree and the tension Christians face: praise that we have found God-is-with-us in Jesus vs. what the secular/commercial culture is celebrating in this season. I love the tree and the gifts, etc, etc, yet I always find myself asking: and what does this have to do with God? I love the customs, and won't throw them out, but they sure can be distractions, and I find myself cutting back on how much I do and avoiding the stores. So here I am in the middle of the dominant Christian culture wondering what is spiritually helpful about a Christmas tree per se?Rachel replied, speaking about:
the tension between Christmas as a basically secularized gift-giving festival and Christmas as a religious holiday filled with meaning for the faithfulI think both the rabbi and the pastor are missing that two different things are being called "secular" here.
There is a large element of the American Christmas that is IMHO truly divorced from religious feeling, that focuses on getting and spending. This is secular in the sense of commercial -- it is the realm of Homo economicus. "Secular" here means "of the world, of the time we live in" -- trivial, superficial, unspiritual.
But behind the word "secular" I also hear in saecula saeculorum -- "from age to age, cycle upon cycle". The sort of thing Schauss called "heathenish" and what the Revolutionary-era Americans shunned as "pagan" is not without religious feeling, but that feeling doesn't necessarily fall neatly within the bounds of a particular faith. It's within the realm Rudolf Otto named the numinous: the emotional spring behind or underneath religion.
To have a green tree in the house, filled with light, in the darkest and coldest time of year, as we feel the year turn from old to new -- how can that not be numinous? When we decorate with green branches and red berries, this isn't from Christian iconography --
"I remember hearing," said Susan distantly, "that the idea of the Hogfather wearing a red and white outfit was invented quite recently."(from Hogfather, by Terry Pratchett). The rising of the sun and the running of the deer, seeing our families and having enough to eat: all of these things are worth celebrating. Such celebrations don't have to be either secular or religious, in the usual sense: they are pagan in the sense of "rustic, countrified, what the common people do". Human, in other words.
NO. IT WAS REMEMBERED.
So we do have a Yule Tree in our house, and at its top is the sun:
(image is a placeholder until we figure out where the frak we put the box of ornaments). As Schauss says, the story changes but the festival is the same -- we have more than enough to eat, and the Sun rises.