Dr Paul Moon: 'Tis the season of joy, tinsel and much humbug

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Glittery decorations are already starting to blot homes and businesses.
Photo / NZPA
Glittery decorations are already starting to blot homes and businesses. Photo / NZPA

The Victorians bequeathed us many things that are good but their frilly, kitschy Christmas was not one of them.

Around the country, glittery decorations, many maintaining their 19th century colours and forms, are already starting to blot homes and businesses as we are swamped by the perennial tide of tinsel and tack, ostensibly to celebrate the birth of Christ.

Call it a season of goodwill if you want, but if rates of violent crime, drunkenness, family break-ups and suicide are any measure, goodwill is a commodity in short supply around this time of year.

The first thing that gets wrapped up every Christmas season is the myth about the festivity itself.

Its meaning has been reduced to a syrupy concoction of faux-affability (all evaporated in the sobriety of early January), generosity propped up by a spike in personal debt levels, a vague inkling about mangers and wise men, all accompanied by the tired mantra that "it's about family".

It is trotted out like a social antidote that is supposed to send us into a celebratory stupor for a couple of weeks. Even for the faithless, Christmas seems to hold some appeal.

While they discount the religious core of the celebration, they still consider its festive shell part of our heritage.

Naturally, most churches continue to go along with the celebration, but then, churches do not always have the best credentials for telling us about theology.

The Reformation was a response to centuries of misplaced priestly dogma and aberrations from Biblical teachings that were so serious people were prepared to lose their lives to challenge them.

It was in the long wake of the Reformation that Christmas received its first serious challenge.

Taking the lead from Presbyterians in Scotland, Oliver Cromwell's Government famously banned Christmas in England in the mid-17th century, although the historical small print shows that it was not about suppressing people's joy, but more about the bad theology that lay behind the festivity.

His parliament issued an ordinance in January 1645 which said: "There is no day commanded in Scripture to be kept holy under the Gospel, but the Lord's Day, which is the Christian Sabbath."

Based on this fact, it was decreed that "Festival days, vulgarly called Holy days, having no Warrant in the Word of God, are not to be continued".

Christmas was held up for special attention because of the way in which the public had "turned this Feast, pretending the memory of Christ into an extreme forgetfulness of him, by giving liberty to carnal and sensual delights, being contrary to the life which Christ himself led here upon earth".

It had become the type of false idol John Milton had warned of: A "civil kind of idolatry" promoted by those "religions full of pomp and gold".

The English public was not prohibited from enjoying themselves, as later (mainly Restoration) critics unfairly claimed, but Parliament simply insisted it was wrong to claim that these celebrations had any Biblical basis or purpose, and that to attach the Christian faith to Christmas was blasphemous.

The message may have been severe but the logic propping it up was - and is - compelling.

Similar measures were adopted in Boston, Massachusetts, in 1659, with the prohibition of the celebration of festivals, including Christmas, introduced on the basis that they were "superstitiously kept in other communities, to the great dishonour of God and offence of others".

The prophet Jeremiah's condemnation of the heathens who would take a tree from the forest and "adorn it with silver and gold" was another reason cited in the 17th century to end the arboreal aspects of Christmas - especially as they had been grafted on to various pagan European tree cults.

The sense of pure religious conviction that Cromwell and others crusaded for has long since retreated into small crevices in modern Western society, and we have consequently relapsed into Christmas, but in a form even more blemished by it being drenched in gaudy commercialism as well as a certain degree of moral ignorance.

The first generation of Christians had no notion of Christmas at all and throughout history there have been regular attempts to remove the celebration from the calendar.

It would be interesting to see whether this December, churches might just consider clearing away the grime of Christmases past - stemming back to the festival's unashamedly pagan origins - and reconsider the reasons why the historical fight against Christmas as a Christian celebration has never really been declared over.

Dr Paul Moon is a professor of history at AUT University.

- NZ Herald

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