McMaster University’s Latham Hunter, who three years ago dissed Christmas by saying she “doesn’t particularly want to put the Christ back in Christmas” nor “reinforce the notion that men are the foundation of the most important things in the world” (and was recently panned by a Guardian columnist), is now pondering how an anti-consumerist atheist should, er, “celebrate” the holiday.
Her youngest kid still asks about ‘ol St. Nick, Hunter says, to which she responds “we don’t particularly like a fantasy wherein a white man has so much power he can whiz around the planet making deliveries to all the children of the world in one night.” Not to mention, there are “so many children who need a home, medicine and/or food” but Mr. Claus … brings them a toy?
“WTF, Santa?” the prof asks.
And when they ask about Jesus we take much the same tack: if Jesus loves us all, why do so many suffer? If the Lord provides, why are so many being driven from their homes and starving? What, they weren’t faithful enough? It doesn’t make sense to us.
So how does Christmas make sense to a family like ours? How do we locate ourselves and our beliefs (if, indeed, we have any) in the season?
Her answer actually isn’t as ridiculous as you might expect:
Humans have long made a habit of feasting in the late fall, to celebrate the end of the harvest and a time of plenty even after the cold and the dark have descended. The ancient Romans celebrated Saturnalia — a pagan winter solstice festival — and decorated their homes with evergreen wreaths, an early predecessor of the Christmas tree. For thousands of years, we’ve done things like this to celebrate human tenacity — our ability to live through fallow times and persevere through the seasons like the green of the fir tree.
The worship of evergreen trees as symbols of eternal life can be traced back to ancient Egyptian, Chinese and Hebrew cultures. The Vikings and Saxons were tree worshippers; their story about St. Boniface and Donar’s Oak led to later Western folklore about evergreens being triangles reflecting the Holy Trinity, sprouting up like arrows pointing to heaven and everlasting life.
In medieval times, the “Tree of Life” mystery play about Adam and Eve was performed on Dec. 24: its set was a tree decorated with apples. Once people started putting up trees in their own homes, they used red balls to decorate the boughs instead of apples. Despite our fall from grace, despite our eviction from the Garden of Eden, we persevere, and the apples are a reminder. Again, it comes down to our desire to celebrate humanity and our hope for eternal life, despite all the struggles we endure.
Although Santa Claus as we know him is a relatively recent creation, Hunter continues, his origins can “be linked to this same impulse we seem to have, to celebrate humanity against all odds.”
The old traditions make sense to her because there’s “no enchanted sleigh [and] no supernatural immaculate conception.”
“The more we are distracted by the magical and the materialistic,” Hunter concludes, “the further we move away from the humanity of the season.”
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