31 Dec 2019  |   05:41am IST

So this is Christmas

Samir Nazareth

In the prelude to Christmas, I am sure you are being forwarded requests not to use Xmas in lieu of Christmas. In the US, President Donald Trump crows about the fact that he has been instrumental in reviving ‘Merry Christmas’ as a greeting instead of the more secular “Happy Holidays”.

Many argue that the term ‘Xmas’ is a war on Christ because it crosses out Christ in ‘Christmas’. While others see the term Happy Holidays as negating the religious aspect of the celebration.

I have never understood the reason for hullabaloo about Xmas because to me ‘X’ symbolises the cross on which Jesus died. Therefore ‘Xmas’ is indicative of Christ’s birth and death and therefore the promise of hope, death and renewal – which is what Christianity is about. 

There is a certain hollowness to the fastidious umbrage against ‘Xmas’ because Christmas celebrations have evolved over the centuries. The early church saw birthday celebrations as pagan and therefore discouraged commemoration of Christ’s birth. One should not forget that the choice of December 25 is not actually based on the Bible as it does not mention when Christ was born. According to Britannica Encyclopaedia, the choice of December 25 was the Christianising of the Roman celebration of solis invicti nati which translates today of the rebirth of the unconquered sun. This was a popular holiday in the Roman Empire to celebrate the winter solstice and resurgence of the sun. Further, the first recorded celebration of December 25 as Christmas was in CE 336. Importantly the commemoration of Christ’s birth and the promise it holds was not always looked on with favour. For example, during Reformation the Puritans banned Christmas as it had become associated with drunkenness and associated misbehaviour. One wonders what they would do now if they saw Christmas celebrations.

Christmas, as a time for family and children was not a liturgical inspiration. It is argued that authors like Charles Dickens who gave Christmas its current hues. Who has not read A Christmas Carol?

Let’s look at the Happy Holidays controversy in the US. The first question that needs to be asked is whether this term impedes celebrations of Christmas? Being wished ‘A Happy Holidays’ does not prevent a response of ‘Merry Christmas’. Nor does it hide the many Christian and non-Christian symbols related to the birth of Christ which adorn homes, buildings and advertisements. What is more important is that this one term is reflective of a number of festivals in this season – Thanksgiving, Hanukkah, winter solstice, Kwanzaa and New Year. So, to argue that the greeting ‘Happy Holidays’ is being used undermine Christmas is creating a false narrative.

So why this anger against ‘Xmas’ and ‘Happy Holiday’? Is it a symptom of a far greater malady?

In a way, the angst against ‘Xmas’ and ‘Happy Holiday’ are related. Both brim from the fear that Christianity is under threat and therefore it needs protection.

So, let’s start from the beginning. Christianity is not a western religion. It is a religion born in what is today modern-day Palestine and Israel. In fact it reached what is now modern-day India in CE 52, much before its arrival in the West. Further, there are multitudinous Christian sects each having a different form of worship. And these forms of worship are also culturally influenced. For example, the Madonna is worshipped by different names in different regions. 

The threat of Christianity declining because it is influenced by the cultures it is practised in is a trope. The truth is that Christianity, like all other religions, is being taken over by the secularism of commercialisation.

Religious occasions which are supposed to be moments of reflection, prayer and thanksgiving have become economic events. Ostentation has become the byword for celebration of these religious festivals. The commercialisation of the religious festivals wipes out the reasons behind the commemoration of such days.

Which also begs the question – do we need religious festivals to remind us of our gods and their demands of us?

All religious tenets provide their followers with guidelines to live the everyday. Gods and saints present believers with their lives as models of conduct to be emulated. It is very hard to believe that the founders of religions focused on celebrations or commemoration as a way to practise the religion they created. Nor, did they ask for the religions that they created to be protected. Neither did they demand revenge be exacted from those supposedly depreciating them or what they founded. 

I wonder if religions are supposed to make us petty minded. Back in the day religions or systems that defines a way of life, were supposed to aid people live together. Unfortunately, human progress and ambition ensured that even though humans practised the same religion they were given opportunities to wage war against each other. One has seen this in Christianity, Hinduism and Islam. Historically, religion has also been used to govern and as an excuse to conquer and subjugate. Today what we see is a similar conflict between practitioners of different religions. There is a desire for one-upmanship of one religion to the detriment of the others. However, in today’s secular, democratic and syncretic society, purposeful recidivism will open the door to kalyug.

There is a siege mentality that now afflicts religions. Religions have been struck by the affliction of people claiming to practise them. The practice is superficial and is focused on feeding the ego – something every religion speaks out against. 

The beauty of secularism is that everyone gets an opportunity to live with, practice and celebrate all religions. Let this Christmas not only remind us of Christ but also of the births and the tenet of other divine forms that gave us the many religions we have today.

(Samir Nazareth writes on socio-economic and environmental issues)


Idhar Udhar