Friday, December 02, 2005

How the Christians Stole Christmas

‘Tis the season for complaining. Specifically, ‘tis the season for Christians to chatter and moan about America’s secular culture. “Happy Holidays” has replaced “Merry Christmas,” Kwanzaa is in and Christ is out and as a Catholic, I’m expected to get upset. But it’s hard to do. As Grandpa might have said, after 500 years, a man jest gits tired.

For nearly half of the last millennium, Christians have slowly been chipping away at Christmas. Now, in imitation of Alexander the Great who wept because he had no more worlds to conquer, they caterwaul because they have nearly completed their task. Are they upset because it took so long or because it’s almost gone?

America’s Christians have fought long and hard for this day. Why aren’t they celebrating?

After all, the attack on Christmas began in a most ingenious fashion. Instead of attacking the day itself, the other major holy days of the year were first stripped away. The law of prayer is the law of belief, as the saying goes, and the law had to go.

Thomas More’s character in A Man for All Seasons summarized the situation nicely, “What would you do? Cut a great road through the law to get after the devil?… Oh? And when the last law was down, and the Devil turned round on you, where would you hide, Roper, the laws all being flat? This country’s planted thick with laws from coast to coast man’s laws, not God’s and if you cut them down . . . d’you really think you could stand upright in the winds that would blow then? . . . Yes, I’d give the Devil benefit of law, for my own safety’s sake.”

But the Christians who started the war against Christmas didn’t have the benefit of a good screenwriter, so they didn’t understand the consequences of their actions. The first holy day to be expunged from the Christian calendar, the first law of prayer to die, was All Holy Eve now known as Halloween. The man who murdered it? Martin Luther.

In 1517, he chose All Holy Eve, the vigil of All Saint’s Day, to attack the idea that those who had died deserved any respect or care from those who lived. According to Luther, prayer afforded no one grace. The Reformation literally converted the communion of saints into the coven of witches; every person who invoked the aid of the saints was now guilty of a demonic attempt to commune with the dead.

Not surprisingly, the rise of the Protestant Reformation created an incredible upsurge in demon-hunting and witch trials. Wherever Protestant strength undermined Catholic authority, the upper-class intellectuals of the day would drive secular mobs to burn and hang witches. Protestant ideology transformed All Holy Eve from a day of sanctity that commemorated communion with God into a day of evil commemorating Satan’s power.

It took a few centuries, but the first holy day had fallen. It would not be the last.

Throughout the whole expanse of the year, holy days began to decay into holidays. The most serious assaults were made on feast days whose Masses were celebrated with special joy.

How many people remember Candlemass? It is the Mass celebrating the Presentation of the Child Jesus in the Temple and the Purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Offered forty days after Christmas, Candlemass marks the end of the Christmas season, as everyone used to know:

Down with the rosemary, and so
Down with the bays and mistletoe ;
Down with the holly, ivy, all,
Wherewith ye dress'd the Christmas Hall

Robert Herrick (1591-1674), "Ceremony upon Candlemass Eve"

By the late 1800’s, Americans had transformed this most ancient feast in honor of the Virgin Mary into Groundhog Day - a signal accomplishment in the continuing Protestant attempt to separate Catholic Church and state. And the two goals, the destruction of holy days and the separation of church and state, should not be seen as separated or separable.

After all, Martin Luther not only began the attack on holy days; he was also the first to propose the idea of church-state separation. Ironically, Luther’s deep devotion to Mary has gone down the same memory hole that has eaten the holy days, thus no one realizes that Luther destroyed what he most loved. But it hardly matters. He is long since dead, and according to his own rules, his aid cannot be invoked by either side of the debate.

Meanwhile, the destruction proceeded apace. Michaelmass, the Mass offered on September 29th in celebration of St. Michael’s victory over Satan, became the day to settle rents and collect accounts. By the late 1800’s, it too had been stripped of all the celebratory hospitality that had marked it as a major feast of the Catholic Middle Ages.

Childermass, the December 28th Mass commemorating the Feast of the Holy Innocents slaughtered by Herod, was not replaced by another event so much as it was simply overcome by the commercialization of the holiday. It slipped into oblivion. America had won the war against nearly every major Mass in the liturgical calendar.

Indeed, between 1700 and 1776, not a single Mass was celebrated in New York City - it was illegal. And, if it had not been necessary for American Protestants to employ French Catholic military support, priests would not have been present to celebrate Mass in New York during the Revolution either. The Mass had long since been stripped out of Protestant society like meat from the bone.

Candlemass, Childermass, Michaelmass and now Christmas. Is it any wonder that a population who opposed any celebration of the Mass would eventually oppose the Mass celebrating Christ’s own birth?

Catholics complained when Protestants stripped the Mass out of Christmas. Now Protestants complain that atheists will strip Christmas out of the calendar.

But what, exactly, is the problem with obliterating all reference to Christ’s Mass? Isn’t this what America has been working to accomplish for 200 years?

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