Myths About Christmas In The U.S.

NativityChristians in the United States — especially of the Religious Right variety — tend to believe a lot of things about Christmas which are not true, and verifiably so. They use their factually-incorrect thinking to reach invalid conclusions about how this holiday should be celebrated. Let’s go over some of these myths:

  1. Christians have always celebrated “Christ’s birthday”: This is just not the case. For the first couple centuries of Christianity, the birth of Jesus was not celebrated — at all. There are a number of reasons for this, but perhaps the most significant is that the earliest Christians viewed the celebration of birthdays, by definition, to be a pagan practice. Christians were discouraged from celebrating their own birthdays, so it’s hardly likely they’d have wanted to celebrate Christ’s. As late as the turn of the 5th century, the association between birthdays and paganism was still being made (e.g. by St Augustine in De doctrina christiana II.21, among other places). Of course, by Augustine’s time, some Christians were observing Christmas, and were in the process of pegging it to their calendar … coincidentally at around the time of the winter solstice, which also happened to have been a time-window in which other, older, pagan holidays had been celebrated. Among these were the multi-day holiday Saturnalia, Dies Natalis Solis Invicti. For a number of reasons this happened to be a convenient time of the year for holidays, so it had long been used for that purpose — first by pagans, then by Christians. It’s quite natural and understandable that they did so.

  2. The customs of Christmas are age-old: This is also not true. We think of things like gift-giving as an old Christmas tradition, but really, it’s not. From the time Christmas was first observed by the Church — intermittently in the 4th century, then more steadily by the middle of the 5th — and on into the Middle Ages, the only Christian activity performed on Christmas, was the celebration of a special Christmas mass — and in the first few centuries these special Christmas masses were attended only by clergy, not the laity. Christmas trees, decorating and feasting were all much-later developments. Gift-giving had been a custom in some pagan holidays, including Yule and Saturnalia, but it did not become a Christmas custom until the Middle Ages, and even then this was not consistent (it happened earlier in England than the Continent, for example). The Christmas tree went in the opposite direction — it went from the Continent to Britain, and thence to America.

  3. All Christians celebrate Christmas: This claim is absurd on its face. There are, even now, some Christians who refuse to celebrate it, such as Jehovah’s Witnesses. Historically, there have been Christian sects who also did not celebrate it, and they even repressed it where they could (such as the Puritans did in colonial New England). The truth is that the only holiday that all Christian sects have in common, is Easter — but even then they don’t all observe it on the same date. Most sects also observe Pentecost in some way, even some that don’t observe Christmas. (And those two holidays were borrowed from Judaism … the former having been Passover and the latter having been Shavuot.)

  4. Christmas has always been celebrated only on December 25: This is not true, not only because not all Christians have designated December 25 as “Christmas,” but because not even all of those who do, actually celebrate that day. Some Christian sects — e.g. the Russian Orthodox Church — assign Christmas to days other than December 25. Other sects celebrate Epiphany, the annual commemoration of the visit of the Magi, in preference to Christmas. This is more common in Orthodox Christianity, but it’s found even among some western Christians, e.g many Hispanic cultures, which celebrate what they call “Three Kings Day.”

  5. “Evil ‘secularists'” are trying to ban Christmas: This is just silly, persecutory and conspiratorial thinking … even if it’s very commonly said and thought among the Religious Right. One could construe efforts by various groups to remove Nativity scenes from town hall lawns this way; but it’s still not an effort to abolish Christmas completely. Neither the ACLU nor any other group has ever — to my knowledge — tried to remove a Nativity from private property, or to take Christmas trees out of people’s homes. Nor have they made any effort to barge into churches to take down Nativities, nor prevent churches from having Christmas services. Christians of whatever sort are fully free to celebrate Christmas in private, however they wish. Decisions by stores — to say “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas” — have also been a sore point in the eyes of Christians, but these are private decisions made by businesses, and in the United States, the people who own and/or manage businesses are free to make decisions like that. (Really!)

  6. Using “Xmas” instead of “Christmas” is disrespectful: People like to complain that using “Xmas” somehow “takes the ‘Christ’ out of ‘Christmas’.” This is just not the case. The “X” in “Xmas” is a christogram which, itself, means “Christ.” The Greek letter Χ or chi is the the first letter in “Christ” as the Greeks wrote it (i.e., Χριστος or Christos). As it happens, in other languages there is no single letter for the Greek Χ, since they did not have such a sound, or they wrote it in a different way (such as using the “CH” digraph). So instead of the Greek chi, they wrote another similar-shaped letter, that being “X,” which ended up being a letter in English — but used for another, unrelated, sound. In this regard, it’s no different from other christograms like “IHS” or the chi-rho (☧). In a way, quite the opposite of “taking the ‘Christ’ out of ‘Christmas’,” that “X” — in reality — is precisely what puts the “Christ” into “Xmas”!

  7. People and businesses have been forced not to say “Merry Christmas”: The idea that some kind of coercion has forced people and businesses to use “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas,” is simply absurd. There is no such effort underway … anywhere. Unfortunately I cannot prove this; it’s impossible to present positive evidence that something does not exist. I can, instead, only provide you with Bing News, Google News and Yahoo News searches, and promise that you will find no one is preventing anyone from saying “Merry Christmas.” Instead, you will find exactly the opposite — concerted campaigns to force people and businesses to say “Merry Christmas,” even if they do not wish to. The idea that saying “Merry Christmas” has somehow been abolished, or is being abolished, is a flat-out lie. It is not happening — anywhere.

  8. “Happy Holidays” is a recent politically-correct substitution for “Merry Christmas”: This couldn’t be further from the truth. “Happy Holiday” or “Happy Holidays,” as a Christmas-time greeting, has been around for decades. That it’s a practical shorthand for the more traditional, but much longer, “Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!” is obvious. Moreover, it was commonly used long before the advent of “political correctness” in the 1970s. Irving Berlin, for example, wrote the song “Happy Holiday,” which was part of the musical movie Holiday Inn, released in 1942. To suggest it was invented by advocates of “political correctness” is, therefore, demonstrably, chronologically untrue.

  9. Christmas is the most sacred holiday on the Christian calendar. This is commonly stated, but is absolutely, undeniably, 100% not true. The most sacred holiday for Christians, is Easter, the day which commemorates Jesus’ resurrection. Easter was celebrated long before Christmas ever was, to the point where its dating was a point of contention among Christians a couple centuries before Christmas ever was pegged to the calendar. Easter was observed on varying dates as early as the middle of the 2nd century, and dating it was discussed, for example, at the Council of Nicaea in 325 CE. At that time — as noted already — Christmas was merely a mass that was held annually, and attended only by clergy, only in some places. It was not a “holiday” in any conventional sense, not even in terms of the Greco-Roman culture of that period.

It’s long past time for the annual bellyaching over the so-called “War on Christmas” to stop … however it seems to be just too attractive for the Religious Right to let go of. This is in spite of the fact that their effort to make it clear to the universe how they celebrate Christmas, runs contrary to Jesus’ own admonitions against public displays of piety and righteousness.

Really, no matter how persecuted Christians may feel, they do not have any right to make demonstrably-untrue statements in support of their delusions. All their “lying for Jesus” simply must stop.

Photo credit: jimforest.

Page created: November 16, 2009. Last modified: August 15, 2017