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Christmas is Winning the War on Christmas
December 25, 2013 8:11 PM   Subscribe

Christmas is Winning the War on Christmas
posted by Golden Eternity (136 comments total) 14 users marked this as a favorite

 
This is why I love the War on Christmas meme - it's such a stupid overreach I can't help but see it as an own-goal, helping further sour organized religion in the minds of most people under the age of 60. Yes please religious conservatives, please do spend a month harping on in a shrill monotone about why any wisps of diversity, humor or ecumenicalism regarding our overwhelmingly homogenized, saccharine boomer-friendly mainstream cultural experience of the winter solstice must be stamped out with Christ's iron boot on our face, forever. Keep winning those hearts and minds.
posted by crayz at 8:32 PM on December 25, 2013 [114 favorites]


Reza Aslan has some nice succinct comments on this topic as well.
posted by George_Spiggott at 8:33 PM on December 25, 2013 [17 favorites]


I still maintain that the pagans have won.

Sure we call it 'Christmas', but in reality, the entire country/world celebrates solstice around a decorated tree. A tree: what the heck does that have to do with Christ, his message, or anything of the sort? Not too much. What relationship does that have to earth worship and paganism - quite bit more.

The pagans won long, long ago.
posted by el io at 8:34 PM on December 25, 2013 [82 favorites]


We string the tree with the symbolic guts and eyeballs of defeated enemies to appease the great wolf that has devoured the sun! It's a mid-winter miracle!
posted by Artw at 8:57 PM on December 25, 2013 [32 favorites]


The pagans won long, long ago.

Well, TBH like a lot of paganism a lot of it only goes back a hundred years or so at most.
posted by Artw at 8:58 PM on December 25, 2013 [8 favorites]


Um, no, Artw. Pagan celebrations of the solstice, and the use of trees in those rituals, go back a good deal more than a hundred years.
posted by LonnieK at 9:02 PM on December 25, 2013 [7 favorites]


The pagans won long, long ago.

I'm not sure I'd call having your symbols co-opted by an opposing army "winning" but to each his own, I guess.
posted by dhammond at 9:12 PM on December 25, 2013 [32 favorites]


The pagans won long, long ago.

"Whatever you want, I mean, just keep giving me these eggs."
posted by Celsius1414 at 9:13 PM on December 25, 2013 [4 favorites]


LonnieK: to say that someone in pre-Christian Europe had a festival that was about an evergreen tree is one thing, but the unified "pagan" as a single entity with universal practices is fairly new, and much of what we call "pagan" today dates to an ingenious, very successful propaganda campaign devised by Aleister Crowley and the Golden Dawn in the mid twentieth century (see "Wicca", the Rider-Waite tarot, much of what became New Age etc.).
posted by idiopath at 9:14 PM on December 25, 2013 [11 favorites]


Atheists can (and do) celebrate Christmas too.
posted by oinopaponton at 9:20 PM on December 25, 2013 [3 favorites]


Atheists can (and do) celebrate Christmas too.

Of course we do. But we don't mean it as Christ-Mass, we just use that word because it's the word now for the Winter Solstice Holiday, instead of Yule.
posted by localroger at 9:27 PM on December 25, 2013 [10 favorites]


like a lot of paganism a lot of it only goes back a hundred years or so at most.

Yeah, man! It was those dirty hippies who adopted those nazi beliefs from that whole nude german thing a few years before. Wadn't no paganism back in them old westerns, that's fer SHER!
posted by telstar at 9:29 PM on December 25, 2013 [1 favorite]


George_Spiggott: Reza Aslan has some nice succinct comments on this topic as well.

Indeed. I think these comments are key:
Well I don't think there is any war on Christmas, but I do think there is a war on traditionalism. This war is called progress, something that has always been happening.
...
This is the most despicably commercial holiday ever. If you can think of a worse way to celebrate Jesus, let me know! I mean honestly, I can't think of a more horrific and ironic celebration of the life and teachings of Jesus than Christmas.
Merry Brumalia indeed.
posted by filthy light thief at 9:38 PM on December 25, 2013 [8 favorites]


we just use that word because it's the word now for the Winter Solstice Holiday, instead of Yule.

I kind of disagree, actually, as an atheist child of a Christian family. My family sure doesn't think it's celebrating the solstice, and actually I don't either. I'm celebrating my family. Some of my family members are actively celebrating Jesus. Neither celebration really gets in the way of the other, which is why secular American Christmas is the best.
posted by oinopaponton at 9:40 PM on December 25, 2013 [24 favorites]


If the War on Christmas didn't exist, secular folks and religioue conservatives alike would have to invent it. The imaginary meme does a good job giving both sides a reason to trumpet ridiculous, breathless opinions.
posted by KokuRyu at 9:42 PM on December 25, 2013 [3 favorites]


If the War on Christmas didn't exist, secular folks and religioue conservatives alike would have to invent it.

I can't decide whether this sentence is tautological or cancels itself out completely. Surely no war exists until the belligerents invent it, and then it does.
posted by George_Spiggott at 9:46 PM on December 25, 2013 [7 favorites]


Can we still have a War on Boxing Day? I've been stockpiling arms all afternoon.
posted by neroli at 9:48 PM on December 25, 2013 [14 favorites]


In any event if there is a war on Christmas, the pro-Christmas faction should be delighted. If there's one thing we've proven in America in the last fifty years or so, it's that the way to get a lot more of a thing is to declare war on it.
posted by George_Spiggott at 9:50 PM on December 25, 2013 [25 favorites]


For those in the US who haven't heard of it, modern boxing day is pretty much like black friday in the states (with a more interesting history - read the link).
posted by el io at 9:50 PM on December 25, 2013 [1 favorite]


It does feel like this year Christmas overran one of our main bulwarks against it, Thanksgiving. Now Halloween is the only thing keeping it from conquering the whole calendar. Hopefully we can turn back Christmas there, since Halloween is the only other holiday with it's own specialized seasonal stores.
posted by ckape at 9:57 PM on December 25, 2013 [6 favorites]


I can't decide whether this sentence is tautological or cancels itself out completely. Surely no war exists until the belligerents invent it, and then it does.

The sentence is a rhetorical false equivalence ploy. The goal is not logical.
posted by srboisvert at 9:59 PM on December 25, 2013 [6 favorites]


I can't decide whether this sentence is tautological or cancels itself out completely. Surely no war exists until the belligerents invent it, and then it does.

Si Dieu n'existait pas, il faudrait l'inventer (If God did not exist, it would be necessary to invent him)
-Voltaire
posted by ActingTheGoat at 10:14 PM on December 25, 2013 [3 favorites]


telstar: it is true that there were shamanistic / animistic / polytheistic beliefs that predated Christianity in Europe. But even the catch all "pagan" is a gross simplification (coming from a designation that basically historically meant "those fools who live in the country and don't believe in one true God"), and the consistent unified version is a recent (and very intentional) invention.
posted by idiopath at 10:17 PM on December 25, 2013 [6 favorites]


Our families didn't have trees this year, nor was there an orgy of gift-crapping. In lieu, there were donations in-name to local and global charities. We did have several excellent dinners and a lot of visiting. One part of the family did the annual go-to-church thing. Most of the family did not.

Did we win or lose the War?
posted by five fresh fish at 10:44 PM on December 25, 2013 [1 favorite]


I'm celebrating my family.

Don't forget the wine.

(And the tissues.)
posted by obiwanwasabi at 10:45 PM on December 25, 2013 [4 favorites]


Even as an atheist, I'm so very, very much happier to see people attending church services for christmas than gouging each other's eyes out at Wal-Mart. Some things even seculars and the religious can agree on: like the proposition that kindness and celebration are better than trampling people for flatscreen TVs.
posted by George_Spiggott at 10:47 PM on December 25, 2013 [45 favorites]


It does feel like this year Christmas overran one of our main bulwarks against it, Thanksgiving. Now Halloween is the only thing keeping it from conquering the whole calendar. Hopefully we can turn back Christmas there, since Halloween is the only other holiday with it's own specialized seasonal stores.

To quote Seanaan McGuire, if Christmas tries to impose itself on Halloween then Halloween is taking June. By force. All of it. It'll be a very spooky summer.
posted by The Whelk at 10:53 PM on December 25, 2013 [6 favorites]


WE MUST FIGHT ON (Nsfw)
posted by Potomac Avenue at 11:05 PM on December 25, 2013 [4 favorites]


The war on Christmas was lost over 1800 years ago. These are just aftershocks.
posted by Hactar at 11:07 PM on December 25, 2013


Saying that the pagans won because the Christians stole all their best bits in their march over them is like saying the Red Sox really won all those babe Ruth World Series' games or some other sports metaphor that's not 4 1/2 Godiva Chocolate Liquers into the "Holiday" spirit.
posted by Potomac Avenue at 11:15 PM on December 25, 2013 [4 favorites]


Or that those random Matrix guys were winning when Agent Smith stuck his hand through their chests and assimilated them.
posted by XMLicious at 11:31 PM on December 25, 2013 [6 favorites]


Saying that the pagans won because the Christians stole all their best bits in their march over them is like saying the Red Sox really won all those babe Ruth World Series' games

It's more like saying the Native Americans won because Washington named their football team the Redskins.
posted by straight at 11:51 PM on December 25, 2013 [24 favorites]


The funny thing is, where I once would probably just have said an off-hand "Merry Christmas" to people (if I expressed any season-based wishes at all), I'm now very conscious to avoid saying it at all unless it's to friends or family I specifically know celebrate the holiday (and even then, probably only on Christmas Eve or Day), lest I be lumped in with the O'Reillys and Palins of the world. So... good work Fox News?
posted by retrograde at 1:08 AM on December 26, 2013 [17 favorites]


The funny thing is, where I once would probably just have said an off-hand "Merry Christmas" to people (if I expressed any season-based wishes at all), I'm now very conscious to avoid saying it at all unless it's to friends or family I specifically know celebrate the holiday (and even then, probably only on Christmas Eve or Day), lest I be lumped in with the O'Reillys and Palins of the world. So... good work Fox News?

I don't think I've ever met anyone who is actually offended by a Merry Christmas greeting. If either you or the person you're giving the greeting to celebrates Christmas, it's entirely appropriate. Something like that is usually meant well, and most people receive it as such, even if it's not their tradition. If someone wished me a Happy Ramadan because they celebrated it, I'd be very happy because that means someone wishes upon me some of the goodwill they have from a holiday.

Now, if you're not being yourself but also an organization where you are broadcasting a message for a much wider audience, it makes sense to consider that your organization might not want to officially celebrate Christmas and not everyone that your organization broadcasts to does either. Especially when you're dealing with the dominant cultural/religious celebration in a country, you don't want people to feel totally alienated because that's the exact opposite of the intended effect.

And that's really the key thing here. Are you saying Merry Christmas for your sake or for theirs? Are you doing it out of a sincere desire for goodwill, or to try to exert cultural pressure upon those who are resisting it? If you mean well, most people take it well, so you're perfectly fine wishing people Merry Christmas. No one will get upset.
posted by Lord Chancellor at 1:34 AM on December 26, 2013 [9 favorites]


[A couple of comments deleted. There have been many, many, many opportunities to talk about drones, Hitler, 9/11, Iraq, Afghanistan, Democrats, Republicans, etc. on MeFi, and there will surely be many, many more – but maybe we can try to avoid those derails, and stick more to the topic here? With any luck at all, "The War On Christmas" won't come up again 'til next year.]
posted by taz at 1:35 AM on December 26, 2013 [9 favorites]


Atheists can (and do) celebrate Christmas too.
posted by oinopaponton at 5:20 AM on December 26


This statement could only be surprising in America.
posted by Decani at 1:36 AM on December 26, 2013 [6 favorites]


I'm tempted, here in the deep red South, to begin saying "Happy Christmas" to see if I can get someone angry enough to lecture me that it's MERRY Christmas, and how I'm ruining it for everyone.
posted by thebrokedown at 1:57 AM on December 26, 2013 [9 favorites]


The War on Christmas has long been settled.

The capitalists won.

I wonder if Jesus would enter Walmart and unplug all of the credit card readers?
posted by Talez at 2:05 AM on December 26, 2013 [15 favorites]


This statement could only be surprising in America.

Why? America invented Ceremonial Deism. Celebrating Christmas when you're not Christian is as American as the Whopper.
posted by Talez at 2:06 AM on December 26, 2013 [3 favorites]


The capitalists won.

Then why does its main figurehead look like Karl Marx?
posted by graymouser at 2:33 AM on December 26, 2013 [2 favorites]


>The capitalists won.

Then why does its main figurehead look like Karl Marx?


It's a little joke by Mammon and Dives.
posted by GenjiandProust at 2:42 AM on December 26, 2013 [1 favorite]


Christmas won the war on Christmas in the sense that the vast majority of us would rather drink eggnog and be nice to each other than squabble pointlessly over invented grievances.

Happy Hogswatch everyone.
posted by justsomebodythatyouusedtoknow at 3:13 AM on December 26, 2013 [3 favorites]


Christmas won the war on Christmas in the sense that the vast majority of us would rather drink eggnog and be nice to each other than squabble pointlessly over invented grievances.

Sounds like somebody didn't have the Festivus spirit this past Monday.
posted by graymouser at 3:30 AM on December 26, 2013 [6 favorites]


No one talks about the war on Thanksgiving, and that one's actually real - it's being waged by the big retailers who have their employees working instead of celebrating with their families and who are commercializing yet another holiday. Next year, I can imagine they will open on Christmas so they can get a jump on clearing their left-over merchandise in on-Christmas-after-Christmas sales. People will line up and trample each other to get at the amazing bargains and WalMart et. al. will have won again.
posted by tommyD at 3:36 AM on December 26, 2013 [15 favorites]


thebrokedown--I'll be happy to pop over and say "Happy Christmas" because it is "Happy Christmas" and not "Merry Christmas" here in Ireland--And I can even reassure your Southern Neighbors that the Christian tradition is rather strong and well (still) here
posted by rmhsinc at 4:25 AM on December 26, 2013 [1 favorite]


My family sure doesn't think it's celebrating the solstice, and actually I don't either. I'm celebrating my family.

Tim Minchin captured it for me. [Warning: homesickness trigger for expat antipodeans.]
posted by rory at 4:44 AM on December 26, 2013 [5 favorites]


Sorry obiwanwasabi, didn't see you up there.
posted by rory at 4:46 AM on December 26, 2013


What I love about Christmas is it's basically a secular holiday made of a bunch of pagan traditions crammed together, and although Christians think it's theirs, it still mostly works. In a way, it's accidentally about diversity and tolerance (peace on earth etc.)

That and family, generosity, and the sense of wonder/uniqueness about it. Which are somewhat threatened by commercialism and excess, but those are a part of the hoilday too.
posted by Foosnark at 4:53 AM on December 26, 2013 [3 favorites]


dhammond: "I'm not sure I'd call having your symbols co-opted by an opposing army "winning" but to each his own, I guess."

Isn't this essentially what the early Christians did though? Really the athiests are just talking back this holiday from the man.

This bit from the article: " The city granted their permits. Out of twenty-one displays, eighteen were atheistic. " had me lolling. This Fox is the problem with declaring war with secular community: they have a lot more time on their hands because they aren't busy going to church.

Now I'm off to my Christmas tradition of going to boxing day sales with a friend.
posted by Mitheral at 4:59 AM on December 26, 2013 [1 favorite]


This is my neighborhood, and I've lived in the area for years. Though it's not quite the "People's Republic of Santa Monica" anymore it's about as Blue as it gets.

I think a lot of people here accepted the displays as tradition and didn't really pay them much mind, but a lot of people I know were not happy with the hostile response when the open lottery system was implemented, giving everyone an opportunity to have a display. As far as being a front on the war on Christmas, the front consists of a letter or two to the editor in the SMDP and not much else.

Yestersay morning I posted a photo in the Christmas MeTa of the sunrise, taken from the park. The displays were gone, but as far as I know it was still Christmas.
posted by Room 641-A at 5:00 AM on December 26, 2013


Met someone yesterday at a party here who was telling us that she doesn't celebrate Christmas because of its pagan origins. I couldn't tell if she was being ironic; all that I know is that we dont have enough ironic freethinkers / atheists in Singapore lately.

Yeah, I also got asked at the party if I celebrated Christmas by one of those elderly uncles who tend to say crazy things when faced with people who aren't like them. Thing is, we always had some form of celebration for all festivals, whether Hindu, Muslim or Christian, albeit in a secular fashion; for Christmas, we used to have redecorated pine trees, stockings and presents in my childhood, but I know almost nothing of the Biblical fables and stuff. Heck, I didn't even know the manger plays were called Nativity plays until I saw Love Actually.

Wasn't sure how I could convey all of that to a seemingly observant sort of a crowd without them turning evangelical. I only could muster an elongated Well.... before the uncle got distracted into making fun of my first name.
posted by the cydonian at 5:40 AM on December 26, 2013


No war on Christmas in Canada.. The vast majority of Canadians are fine with having a "Merry Christmas".
posted by five fresh fish at 5:55 AM on December 26, 2013


Christmas as celebrated in the US has so little to do with the birth of Christ. Santa, Fristy, The Lexus December to Remember Sales Event, Black Friday sales that have a body count, Christmas Trees, etc. Whether a person wishes you happy holidays or merry christmas is irrelevant. If Christians feel their holiday has been co-opted by heathens, they can take their holiday back by ditching the tree, santa, gift exchange, etc and just go to church.

I wished my non theist friends a merry christmas yesterday featuring a image of Santa and Jesus on a dinosaur. Santa had booze, Jesus had a light saber. That is my christmas.
posted by birdherder at 6:01 AM on December 26, 2013 [9 favorites]


All right. It's come to this. A lot of people talk about a war on Christmas, but nobody ever does anything about it. And so, in my capacity as King of Albania, Albania hereby officially declares war on Christmas.
posted by Flunkie at 6:17 AM on December 26, 2013 [2 favorites]


Ya know I think we as a predominantly Christian society have a pretty well agreed upon definition of "Pagan" and I don't need MetaFilter telling me that word is off-limits or getting all pedantic and lecturey trying to basically fart on the word.

I've never had a problem with any other "word choice" recommendations and don't think it's a "PC issue" ("PC" is the dumbest term ever) but what Aleister Crowley and others may have written about the "New Age" and such does not invalidate the typical usage of the word "Pagan," which Reza Aslan invokes himself. Pagan is probably a unique word in that it does imply some negative provincialism, but there are few people alive that fall under that umbrella that would be offended by it, and the value of the word as an "aggregation of millenia of valuable pre-Christian religious civilization" is undeniable IMHO. I wonder how "pagan" is used in Europe.

I think "Pagan" is a popular term because it does unite so many disparate pre/non-Christian religions against what ultimately was a monolithic destroyer of worlds and cultures and by smarmily trying to crush the word "pagan" into meaninglessness, no favors are being done until you pull out the individual practicing religions and tell me more about them rather than implying that Yule celebrations maybe "go back a hundred years." FFS. They may not have gotten along or had monolithic beliefs and many would be offended to be lumped in with others even if they are united against the scourge of Jeebus, but by golly, "Pagan" is a word that means things in American religious contexts. Celebrations of the Solstices, Equinoxes, the yule log, etc: yes they're pretty fucking far-out pre-Christian and most people are fine with calling them "Pagan" as a shorthand for "those long dead people that Christian fucknuggets extinguished." The nice thing is that Christians don't really mind using the word for its common use either and they can derive that little bit of hateful satisfaction using the word as a perjorative without really offending anyone because the word was de-fanged long ago.
posted by lordaych at 6:28 AM on December 26, 2013 [6 favorites]


Celebrations of the Solstices, Equinoxes, the yule log, etc: yes they're pretty fucking far-out pre-Christian

I can't find any scholarly account of the yule log being pre-Christian. That seems to have been an hypothesis that was floated a long time ago and then simply assumed to be fact. But there don't seem to be any actual historical accounts of the Yule Log that go back beyond 12th century Germany.

I find the idea of speaking of "pagan" cultural traditions without further qualification odd. It's like saying "in non-Muslim traditions, people worship eels." Well, no doubt there are some non-Muslim traditions where people worship eels, but the relevant question, surely, is which ones? To say "pagan people did X" is equally over-broad.
posted by yoink at 6:57 AM on December 26, 2013 [4 favorites]


I find the idea of speaking of "pagan" cultural traditions without further qualification odd.

What is odd is that Christianity and modern secularism have converged in a singular way: They pretty much ignore the seasons. Sure we pay lip service to the fact that the year is passing and observe milestones like the Christmas and Easter, but we even when we bring evergreen trees into the home or fetishize bunny rabbits we're not thinking of the fact that the days will finally start getting longer and warmer, or that we are at the annual peak of Nature's bounty.

And it is a pretty universal trait of "pagan" religions that people are paying attention to those things. They are not passing the gifts around to mark some life event of a holy person far in the past or because all the stores are having sales; they're doing it because it affects the weather and food production and so on. They are paying close attention to these things because they are matters of life and death, and there is genuine joy in observing that the rhythm of the seasons is proceeding on schedule.

Different pagan religions of course observed these things in different ways, and the traditions we have for Christmas and Easter reflect a mishmash of pre-Christian European symbols, but one thing that is just about completely universal among pagans is that they are actually paying attention to these rhythms of life and death. Christians and modern secular technocrats aren't, although for rather different reasons.
posted by localroger at 7:17 AM on December 26, 2013 [4 favorites]


There will never be an official "war on Christmas" until there is vast oil resources involved - sorry, I mean WOMD...
posted by greenhornet at 7:31 AM on December 26, 2013


What I like about modern secular holiday celebrations is how they have so seamlessly re-coopted the fun parts of Christmas. Decorations, stockings, gifts -- I can guarantee you will find those in the house of virtually everyone I know, regardless of whether they identify as religious or not. In that sense secularism has won, and even the most religious households are engaged in the commercial and popular aspects of Christmas.

I grew up in a hippy-ish household and for most of my childhood my parents very self-consciously chose to celebrate things like the solstices and the equinoxes over Christian holidays like Christmas and Easter. Contrary to the War on Christmas people, I wasn't scarred for life, but contrary to the fervent neo-pagans it wasn't all that big of a deal either. It was fun and I liked it, just like kids who grow up decorating Easter baskets probably enjoy that, too.

Personally I see the primary problem that of commercialization -- if enough people started celebrating the solstices, you'd start seeing "dark Saturday" or "rebirth Sunday" sales with people getting trampled, same as already happens. The mistake of the War on Christmas people is worrying about a few atheist activists, when they should be worried about Walmart and Sears. I am certain that there are a lot more people elbowing each other at sales than there are in church, for example.
posted by Dip Flash at 7:35 AM on December 26, 2013 [4 favorites]


Try again w/o examples, I see this "War on Christmas" as merely Christianity recapitulating its moral philosophy that started (in Christianity, AFAIK the general idea preceded Jesus.) with the Way on Jesus. I find this trope common in human history, and also boring and aesthetically displeasing.
posted by save alive nothing that breatheth at 7:38 AM on December 26, 2013


They pretty much ignore the seasons

Only someone who is profoundly uninterested in the rituals of most major Christian churches could make such a statement. It's just absurdly untrue.
posted by yoink at 7:38 AM on December 26, 2013 [5 favorites]


And it is a pretty universal trait of "pagan" religions that people are paying attention to those things. They are not passing the gifts around to mark some life event of a holy person far in the past or because all the stores are having sales; they're doing it because it affects the weather and food production and so on. They are paying close attention to these things because they are matters of life and death, and there is genuine joy in observing that the rhythm of the seasons is proceeding on schedule.

I don't know about modern Western/North American paganism, but Roman religion followed a calendar that was so far out of whack with the actual seasons that they were at one point celebrating seasonal religious events months late. It didn't really seem to bother them. And Saturnalia, not unlike Christmas, was so popular as a festive/party time that the holiday got officially expanded.
posted by lesbiassparrow at 7:47 AM on December 26, 2013 [4 favorites]


As someone who was raised Southern Baptist but attended a Catholic secondary school where I was required to learn the liturgy (though not participate in actual rituals like Mass) I think I am qualified to say something about the rituals of major Christian churches.

At the level of individual worship Christianity is profoundly dismissive of the seasons. They are in fact quite vocal that "Jesus is the reason for the season" at both Christmas and Easter, and those who are deep enough into the koolaid are very suspicious of pagan symbols like Christmas trees and Easter bunnies precisely because they are distractions from the "real" reason for the holiday.

And they do this for good reason; the tension between Christian and pagan elements in these major holidays is long-standing, from the very well documented process by which the Vatican very deliberately co-opted them to drive its own expansion. The Vatican could not fully suppress these earthy symbols because that would have defeated the whole purpose of co-opting the celebration. But the actual meaning of those symbols has been very carefully ignored.

Roman religion followed a calendar that was so far out of whack with the actual seasons that they were at one point celebrating seasonal religious events months late. It didn't really seem to bother them.

It bothered them a great deal. Rome was one of the first civilizations advanced enough to disconnect itself that badly from the actual passing of the seasons, but even then some fellow named Julius felt the need to do a massive overhaul to fix the calendar problem.

And in fairness to Christianity Gregory felt a similar need to fix that fix in time, but like many matters the reasoning was largely invisible at the level of individual worship, where most people weren't even expected to understand such things.
posted by localroger at 7:53 AM on December 26, 2013 [1 favorite]


It bothered them a great deal. Rome was one of the first civilizations advanced enough to disconnect itself that badly from the actual passing of the seasons, but even then some fellow named Julius felt the need to do a massive overhaul to fix the calendar problem.

The reasons behind Julius Caesar's reorganization of the calendar are so vastly complicated and often so unconnected with religion that I think it's hard to say that that was his primary motivation.
posted by lesbiassparrow at 7:58 AM on December 26, 2013 [3 favorites]


C'mon the reasons for the Roman calendar situation aren't all that complicated. They needed to keep schedules synchronized across an empire without the benefit of modern communications. This required a fixed calendar instead of observation of actual seasonal changes which might vary from region to region. In this sense the Roman calendar problem is really more like the modern secular dismissal of the seasons, because it was driven by commercial and political forces. When the tension between calendar errors and the actual year became intolerable, it had to be fixed by imperial decree so that again it would be synchronized across the empire.
posted by localroger at 8:22 AM on December 26, 2013 [2 favorites]


I like to say "Christ is born." It's true any time of the year, but it sounds seasonal without being sloganable.
posted by michaelh at 8:57 AM on December 26, 2013


Met someone yesterday at a party here who was telling us that she doesn't celebrate Christmas because of its pagan origins. I couldn't tell if she was being ironic

This is a thing, and it pleases me that anti-Christmas types have more in common with Puritans and Jehovah's Witnesses than with Rousseau, Hume, Voltaire or Russell.
posted by michaelh at 9:01 AM on December 26, 2013


I don't mind getting the stink-eye when I say, "Happy Whatever Holiday You're Weirdly Touchy About," because THAT is the spirit of Whatever.
—Merlin Mann
posted by furtive at 9:59 AM on December 26, 2013 [5 favorites]


My own religious forebearers successful fought and won a war against Christmas in 1647. We had it outlawed in Boston for 25 years; anyone caught acknowledging the heathen festival received a hefty fine. This was, of course, all undone by that abject papist and friend of the Dutch, Edmund Andros, who backed us into a corner with his imperious ambitions and, God help me, Anglicanism. Each year I maintain our historic position by burning a Christmas tree out back behind the barn.
posted by Baby_Balrog at 10:05 AM on December 26, 2013 [15 favorites]


As a secular Jew who emigrated from the godless Soviet Union, I fucking love Christmas. It's the most American holiday I can think of: many of the traditions are syncretic across a wide swatch of cultures and beliefs, the celebration of it pisses off the sort of fundamentalists mindset I sincerely dislike, the Coca Cola corporation can take a good share of credit for popularizing the contemporary Santa Claus mythos, and most of the good Christmas songs were composed by Jews.
posted by griphus at 10:16 AM on December 26, 2013 [13 favorites]


If you mean well, most people take it well, so you're perfectly fine wishing people Merry Christmas. No one will get upset.

My ancestors were persecuted for not celebrating this holiday, which was used as an occasion for pograms repeatedly throughout the centuries. Care to guess again?
posted by 1adam12 at 10:19 AM on December 26, 2013 [2 favorites]


I'm in the axial tilt camp, but specifically reply "Merry Christmas!" rather than my usual "same to you!" when I get such wishes from my boss, because a) my boss believes in the War on Christmas, and b) I like paying rent.

When I work holiday retail, I go with a generic "have a good one!" allowing the recipient of my totally sincere well wishes to insert whatever they please, whether they celebrate any holiday or not.
posted by asperity at 10:45 AM on December 26, 2013


Here is a funny thing: I have a friend that works for Fox News (desperation job, for the excellent health insurance mainly :) ) and all of their holiday stuff there is "happy holidays". No mention of Christmas apart from the tree by the menorah. Nobody actually gives a damn.
posted by gaspode at 10:46 AM on December 26, 2013 [8 favorites]


My ancestors were persecuted for not celebrating this holiday

Too bad they weren't Puritans; they'd've got to persecute people for celebrating it!
posted by Sys Rq at 10:49 AM on December 26, 2013


Last night before I went to sleep I tried to think of songs celebrating the birth or impending birth of a baby that weren't essentially Christmas carols, and I came up with only a single example (by Ginny Reilly, a singer with a devoted following here in the Seattle area).

That's the trouble with the baby Jesus: he sucks up all the love and attention people could and should be devoting to real babies and makes it all about him (with a capital "M").

And the whole (bizarrely) Santa Claus mediated business of giving gifts to actual children-- a return of the repressed kind of insurgency? A survival? I don't know.
posted by jamjam at 10:50 AM on December 26, 2013


... How about In the Ghetto?
posted by asperity at 10:52 AM on December 26, 2013 [3 favorites]


Last night before I went to sleep I tried to think of songs celebrating the birth or impending birth of a baby that weren't essentially Christmas carols, and I came up with only a single example (by Ginny Reilly, a singer with a devoted following here in the Seattle area).
Isn't She Lovely
posted by Flunkie at 11:02 AM on December 26, 2013 [1 favorite]


songs celebrating the birth or impending birth of a baby that weren't essentially Christmas carols

Isn't She Lovely
posted by Daily Alice at 11:02 AM on December 26, 2013


Jinx.
(Although I suppose that two of us coming up with the same song at the same time means there aren't a lot of counterexamples.
posted by Daily Alice at 11:04 AM on December 26, 2013 [1 favorite]


Well, that or Stevie Wonder's awesome.
posted by Flunkie at 11:08 AM on December 26, 2013 [1 favorite]


While I am sure that in the world there are, in fact, people who take active offense at misdirected "Merry Christmas" greetings, a lot of the War on Christmas paranoia about it is a sort of misunderstanding.

The base concept is "it is thoughtful to use a neutral greeting when you do not know for sure what someone celebrates or of you are addressing a large enough group that someone listening probably does not celebrate". But then, if one is not doing that, then, doesn't that make such a person "not thoughtful", which is just short of "rude", isn't it? And that's just an insult, telling a person they're rude for trying to spread a little cheer... And, well, it's pretty easy to work all the way up into a lather following that line of thought.
posted by Karmakaze at 11:11 AM on December 26, 2013


While I am sure that in the world there are, in fact, people who take active offense at misdirected "Merry Christmas" greetings, a lot of the War on Christmas paranoia about it is a sort of misunderstanding.

Isn't a lot of the "War on Christmas" rhetoric really about wanting to put up religious imagery, especially nativity scenes, in public spaces, and perform religious music in schools and such? I think "Merry Christmas" vs "Happy Holidays" is just the tip of an iceberg that is really about shoving baby Jesus in people's faces and singing religious songs in secular schools. As an atheist who celebrates Christmas as about loved ones, I think there are problematic things going on here.
posted by graymouser at 11:26 AM on December 26, 2013 [6 favorites]


Yeah, the real success of the Christmas Warriors is to confuse the issues of holiday etiquette and ownership of public schools and public spaces.

Public schools, parks, and buildings belong equally to all Americans. When Christians say "they" won't let "us" sing Christmas songs in "our" schools, they are making an illegitimate claim to own what belongs to everyone. Bill O'Riley would like you to think that objecting to that illegitimate claim is as frivolous as getting upset when someone (perhaps thoughtlessly, but with goodwill) wishes you a Merry Christmas.
posted by straight at 12:08 PM on December 26, 2013 [14 favorites]


Isn't a lot of the "War on Christmas" rhetoric really about wanting to put up religious imagery, especially nativity scenes, in public spaces, and perform religious music in schools and such?

Ostensibly, but it really isn't based on any sort of religious conviction that these things need to be in public. It's more of an ego thing where how dare someone not accept my dominant cultural practice. People get the same way when you eat French Fries in a different manner than them, so they're going to pull every single bullet of tradition or religion to justify their culture and how no one should question their fry eating.
posted by Lord Chancellor at 12:12 PM on December 26, 2013 [4 favorites]


The reasons behind Julius Caesar's reorganization of the calendar are so vastly complicated

Hadn't it reached a point where it was so far off that December (or whatever the Roman winter months were called) was coming around in the summer?
posted by thelonius at 12:19 PM on December 26, 2013


songs celebrating the birth or impending birth of a baby that weren't essentially Christmas carols,

Having My Baby
Papa Don't Preach
Blessed
posted by caryatid at 12:30 PM on December 26, 2013


much of what we call "pagan" today dates to an ingenious, very successful propaganda campaign devised by Aleister Crowley and the Golden Dawn in the mid twentieth century

The Golden Dawn was completely defunct by the mid-twentieth century, and Crowley was far more interested in establishing Thelema as the "new aeon religion" than he was trying to reclaim the term "pagan."
posted by malocchio at 1:00 PM on December 26, 2013 [1 favorite]


I don't think I've ever met anyone who is actually offended by a Merry Christmas greeting. If either you or the person you're giving the greeting to celebrates Christmas, it's entirely appropriate. Something like that is usually meant well, and most people receive it as such, even if it's not their tradition.

I think it's mostly met with eye rolling and mild annoyance. It's meant well, but it's also based on the assumption that everyone is just like them.

When I was working retail, I had a customer who said "you can say Merry Christmas!" I said "happy holidays" again. I remember people wearing those buttons that said "it's OK, you can say Merry Christmas!" as if every retail employee really desired to acknowledge Christmas, but was only saying happy holidays because of some political correctness gone mad, and their stupid button could free us from the shackles of political correctness to joyfully assume that everyone is just like them.
posted by inertia at 1:12 PM on December 26, 2013 [8 favorites]


To say that someone in pre-Christian Europe had a festival that was about an evergreen tree is one thing...

Indeed it is one thing to say. I said it, and so have a lot of other people: For at least 2000 years many of those 'someones' and their rituals have been labeled 'pagan' by the monotheistic faiths that supplanted them, and very often co-opted them.

but the unified "pagan" as a single entity with universal practices is fairly new,

Undisputed.

Much of what we call "pagan" today dates to ... the mid twentieth century

Not sure who "we" us that sentence. Yes, the word is used today by some to refer to 20th-century counterculture. But that doesn't negate its older, broader, standard usage. Far from it.
Modern-day 'paganists' have no more continuity with the pagan cults of old than hippies smoking mescaline can trace their culture to the Navajo. Mere imitation of a few selected badly-understood rituals does not an Indian make.
posted by LonnieK at 1:15 PM on December 26, 2013


sure sure war on christmas. I'm more interested on the whore on christmas.
posted by telstar at 2:11 PM on December 26, 2013


I like saying Merry Xmas to idjuts.
They get all offended because I'm taking the 'Christ' out of Christmas.

Then I LOL at them because they're idjuts.
posted by BlueHorse at 2:35 PM on December 26, 2013


Is there any evidence that anyone in the USA doesn't prefer "Merry Christmas"? Because in Canada, as evidenced in the link I provided up above, most everyone regardless their religious faith prefers "Merry Christmas".

My suspicion is that you've all been duped by Fox News. Hook, line, and sinker.
posted by five fresh fish at 2:38 PM on December 26, 2013


I like saying Merry Xmas to idjuts.

They're just stuck 1000 years in the past. It's perfectly normal a thousand years in the future.
posted by Talez at 2:49 PM on December 26, 2013 [1 favorite]


C'mon the reasons for the Roman calendar situation aren't all that complicated. They needed to keep schedules synchronized across an empire without the benefit of modern communications. This required a fixed calendar instead of observation of actual seasonal changes which might vary from region to region.

It was not empire that drove the calendar changes. Keeping schedules synchronized was very easy - all you were timing them to was the arrival of governors and that was dependent on them actually having elections for praetors and consuls...which were spotty because of endless rioting in the Late Republic, not because of calendar issues. Taxes were driven not by calendar dates, but by seasons, because the tax farmers and their crews needed to be able to sail to collect taxes and that was dependent on weather. As it was the Romans were now all in constant warfare so they didn't even need the festivals that kicked off the campaign season to be at the right time. Caesar changed the calendar in part at least because he was a megalomaniac who also had rigid ideas about rules for a great deal of things - including grammar - so much so that he had published a book on grammar (though, to be fair that was a common pastime in the Late Republic). As for empire, local calendars worked alongside the Roman calendar and were not replaced by this, any more than the Macedonian one replaced various Near Eastern calendars when they rolled in.

But that's a derail: your point was "it is a pretty universal trait of "pagan" religions that people are paying attention to those things. They are not passing the gifts around to mark some life event of a holy person far in the past or because all the stores are having sales; they're doing it because it affects the weather and food production and so on. "

I just pointed out that Roman religion and paganism was quite happy to celebrate festivals at completely the wrong time because eh, that was the date on the calendar and if Pales wanted Parilia on an April 21 that fell in the middle of summer you were going to do it, because it worked (and despite not knowing what gender Pales was or any of you being shepherds any more). And my (admittedly) limited knowledge of a range of Roman and Greek festivals have a huge commercial side - the Isthmian and Olympic games were known for their insanity and commercial sides while also being religious festivals. It's not like Christianity or the modern world invited pointless gift giving and excess... :)
posted by lesbiassparrow at 2:50 PM on December 26, 2013


we're not thinking of the fact that the days will finally start getting longer and warmer,

I dunno, this must depend on where you live, but for me the whole point of xmas has always been because without it, this time of year just freaking sucks. It is sad and cold and dark and almost unbearable, so you have to make up a few dozen silly little ways to get through it - ways to decorate, special things to eat and drink, excuses to sing and watch sentimental movies, excuses to express love for each other - take time off to visit and give gifts.

I'm based in the northern US where it's been freezing recently, and currently spending my christmas break in London where the sun is setting sometime around 330 in the afternoon (though it's not as cold). I'm definitely celebrating this holiday for earth-based reasons. I'm not saying I have always paid full attention to the pagan significance of every tradition, but just that, if christmas took place at a time of year when I could be out watching free movies in the park and swimming in the moonlight, I wouldn't be decorating a tree in my living room and getting sentimental about small gifts in socks. These things become meaningful because "the weather outside is frightful."
posted by mdn at 2:58 PM on December 26, 2013 [3 favorites]


Why do writers insist on describing black churches as "black churches" when no other churches are assigned colors? Is it because the swaying-while-singing description wasn't cliche enough?
posted by headnsouth at 3:12 PM on December 26, 2013


Why do writers insist on describing black churches as "black churches" when no other churches are assigned colors? Is it because the swaying-while-singing description wasn't cliche enough?


There are denominations which explicitly label themselves as Black, e.g. the African[-American] Methodist Episcopal Church. This is not unique to Blacks - there are Korean Protestant denominations, there's the Armenian Apostolic (way oldschool) and Armenian Catholic (in communion with Rome) churches, etc...
posted by save alive nothing that breatheth at 3:55 PM on December 26, 2013 [3 favorites]


> much of what we call "pagan" today dates to an ingenious, very successful propaganda campaign devised by Aleister Crowley and the Golden Dawn in the mid twentieth century

Not so - though you are quite right that "paganism" and "wicca" are basically a modern invention. As the great ceremonial magician of the late nineteenth/earliest twentieth century, Crowley's work had some effect on all branches of magic, but he had no interest or direct involvement in either the modern pagan or wiccan movements. Both the Golden Dawn and the OTO are classic "mystery school" organizations continuing the long history of western mainstream occultism as an exclusive, intellectual, "sophisticated" and philosophic endeavor which is a far cry from the animist and populist wiccans and pagans.

The Wikipedia is not a good source here - they conflate pretty well all organized ritualistic mysticism not associated with a major religion as "paganism".

If I had to name one person who was the godfather of all this, it'd be Gerald Gardner.
posted by lupus_yonderboy at 4:19 PM on December 26, 2013 [3 favorites]


...a choir from a local black church swayed on stage as they sang, "Happy birthday, Jesus! Happy birthday, Lord!"

Other churches in the story are called "Mt. Olive Lutheran Church," "Trinity Baptist Church," "Santa Monica Catholic Church," "Pacific Crossroads Church," "First Presbyterian Church of Santa Monica," "Vintage Church," "Metro Cavalry Chapel," "United Methodist," "Immanuel Bible Church," and "St. Anne's Catholic Church."
posted by headnsouth at 4:25 PM on December 26, 2013 [6 favorites]


headnsouth and save alive are both right. The problem is that headnsouth's original post appeared to raise a question about a general issue.
Only after save alive answered that did headnsouth make clear the post was about a specific passage in a specific channel.
In that narrow instance, not knowing more, it seems to be condescension/discrimination/racism. But there are times and places when 'black churches' is a perfectly good phrase to convey a specific thing. "The Birmingham Bus Boycott was organized out of black churches."
posted by LonnieK at 4:40 PM on December 26, 2013 [2 favorites]


lesbiassparrow, I'm really not sure what point you're trying to make here. Considering that paganism pretty much encompasses everything that isn't monotheistically Judeo-Christian, of course there are fliers and the Romans (and I'll give you the Hindus too) formed social structures so complex that they could afford to forget their naturalistic roots. But for the most part religions that have not been co-opted by wealthy empires find their roots in natural phenomena. The seasons might not be so important to an equatorial tribe but the tides and constellations still are. And in the southern hemisphere the seasons are backward. But things like that are the starting point.

By comparison, Christianity is almost defiantly anti-nature, with its obsessive focus on an eternal afterlife rather than reasonable gains in the here and now. That really is a fundamental difference, even with the Romans.
posted by localroger at 7:10 PM on December 26, 2013


mdn, you're very close I think to the very reason primitive peoples celebrated at midwinter. Yeah, it's just a miserable time anyway, but so are November and February. But the Solstice is not just any miserable point in the year, it's the nadir; it's the point where, if you are paying attention, nature promises that it will get better because the days start getting longer instead of shorter. Even if there's a bastard snowstorm in February the days are getting longer, not shorter, and those days of movies in the park and swimming in the moonlight are coming back.
posted by localroger at 7:15 PM on December 26, 2013


mdn, you're very close I think to the very reason primitive peoples celebrated at midwinter. Yeah, it's just a miserable time anyway, but so are November and February. But the Solstice is not just any miserable point in the year, it's the nadir; it's the point where, if you are paying attention, nature promises that it will get better because the days start getting longer instead of shorter. Even if there's a bastard snowstorm in February the days are getting longer, not shorter, and those days of movies in the park and swimming in the moonlight are coming back.


I know that I definitely appreciated solstice time and Christmas a whole lot more when I moved out of the city to an acreage and focused on growing food and got chickens. Paying attention to seasonal changes and just generally being way more aware the yearly cycle because it became more directly connected to feeding me. Also because of my initial circumstances it became more connected to comfort. For the first couple of years I was without potable water and had to bring it in for everything except for flushing the toilet. My house was also not well insulated to so winter really did become 'cold and dark' in a way I had not experienced before. The flip to days starting to become longer really became a psychological 'yeah hah, we're on the upswing from here on' and meant that the planning and dreaming of next season got into gear.

I felt that I really understood in a more core type way why this time of year became a point of celebration. Also in general sense, in terms of how food cycles work, is a time when there is a lot available compared to the rest of the year. The harvests are done and food put away as well as a time when food that has a certain pantry life is going from it's good to more 'meh' state. If I was to really do it like it was used to be done it is time when decent fresher meat is available. Oh and it also meant that my chickens would slowly start laying more as 'light' with chickens means more eggs.
posted by Jalliah at 8:13 PM on December 26, 2013 [1 favorite]


By comparison, Christianity is defiantly anti-nature, with its obsessive focus on an eternal afterlife rather than reasonable gains in the here and now. That really is a fundamental difference, even with the Romans.

It really depends on which Christian groups you're looking at and who you're comparing them to. There have been plenty of Christians concerned with improving life and society in the here and now. And (most) Christians look like big fans of the goodness of the physical world compared with (many) Gnostics or Buddhists.
posted by straight at 8:27 PM on December 26, 2013 [1 favorite]


(And I have to agree with the people who think lumping every non-Christian religion together into a single "pagan" umbrella seems bizarrely ethnocentric.)
posted by straight at 8:32 PM on December 26, 2013 [3 favorites]


It seems like a useful descriptor for "non-Abrahamic religions what Christianity wiped out & appropriated."
posted by save alive nothing that breatheth at 8:45 PM on December 26, 2013


There have been plenty of Christians concerned with improving life and society in the here and now.

Well, sure, one of whom just assumed the Papacy. But "concerned" doesn't mean "primarily concerned." Both Catholicism and most Protestant offshoots would in many cases put the concerns of the afterlife over the concerns of the herelife. They care about the poor, but they care more about other much more abstract things. Such as for example the A-word.

And (most) Christians look like big fans of the goodness of the physical world compared with (many) Gnostics or Buddhists.

You do realize Gnostics are Christians, even if the mainline Christian organizations consider them heretics?
posted by localroger at 8:59 PM on December 26, 2013


Well, sure, one of whom just assumed the Papacy. But "concerned" doesn't mean "primarily concerned." Both Catholicism and most Protestant offshoots would in many cases put the concerns of the afterlife over the concerns of the herelife. They care about the poor, but they care more about other much more abstract things. Such as for example the A-word.


There are so many differences in what protestant denominations focus on. I grew up in Canada's largest protestant denomination and the heaven, not much hell afterlife stuff was there but it was so minor. I never was taught or even felt that it was about doing stuff to get to heaven. It was and still is focused on this life and things like working towards creating the kingdom of heaven here on earth in the sense that there was a lot of focus on social justice, ecological concerns (creation) and the spiritual journey of the individual in this life reflected both inwards and outwards to broader community. Hell in terms of the afterlife just wasn't there. Going to hell was never a fear. "Hell' was more a spiritual metaphorical concept and used more in reflections on the state of things in the world at large and the psychological state of the individual.

As a I grew older I started paying attention more to other ways of doing Christianity. Particularly the protestant denominations that were on TV out of the US. It was so foreign to what I had been brought up in. It took me quite a while to even sort out what they were talking about and focusing on. I do know that denoms do exist in the US that are similar to what I grew up in with but they're not part of popular culture in the way that the ones that have been hooting and hollariing over the years. Even the words they use to describe things are different. I still have trouble getting my head around the whole born again type theology for instance. It just didn't exist in my theology. Same with original sin thing. It's there but looked at in a very different way.

I suppose this is just a long way of me describing how your general description of what Christians focus on just doesn't jive with what I know most and that it doesn't come from an obscure or small offshoot of the religion.
posted by Jalliah at 9:47 PM on December 26, 2013 [1 favorite]


You do realize Gnostics are Christians, even if the mainline Christian organizations consider them heretics?

Maybe. There's no real good evidence one way or the other, but it's possible some forms of Gnosticism pre-date Christianity. Either way, the Gnostics were definitely getting a lot of their dualism from Plato and Pythagoras, which I'd think you would put in your "pagan" box.
posted by straight at 10:45 PM on December 26, 2013


There's no real good evidence one way or the other, but it's possible some forms of Gnosticism pre-date Christianity.

I believe the Nag Hammadi Library is the evidence you're looking for. By contrast there are no known pre-Christian gnostic texts at all.

And, to rerail a bit, while Plato and Pythagoras may have been pagan in the sense that they are non-Judeo-Christian, they are not the specific pagans from whom we get the symbols of Christmas.
posted by localroger at 6:49 AM on December 27, 2013


Also, the influence of Platonism on Christianity is so huge as to make the suggestion that being influenced by Plato indicates paganism seem somewhat ill-founded.
posted by howfar at 9:32 AM on December 27, 2013


I have heard "pagan" used to refer to the pre-Christian religions of Europe, any "primitive" religion, any non-Abrahamic religion.

In each case it's incredibly arrogant and dismissive.
posted by mountmccabe at 2:12 PM on December 27, 2013


Relatedly I don't see the argument in the linked article being accepted by anybody who thinks there is a War on Christmas. This movement is for many a new version of the They're taking Christ out of Christmas complaints.

Everyone saying "Merry Christmas" wouldn't appease as a secular capitalist holiday is not the goal.
posted by mountmccabe at 2:20 PM on December 27, 2013


I have heard "pagan" used to refer to the pre-Christian religions of Europe, any "primitive" religion, any non-Abrahamic religion.

The last is the accurate definition.

In each case it's incredibly arrogant and dismissive.

No, it's descriptive.
posted by localroger at 3:04 PM on December 27, 2013 [1 favorite]


pagan

late 14c., from Late Latin paganus "pagan," in classical Latin "villager, rustic; civilian, non-combatant" noun use of adjective meaning "of the country, of a village," from pagus "country people; province, rural district," originally "district limited by markers," thus related to pangere "to fix, fasten," from PIE root *pag- "to fix" (see pact). As an adjective from early 15c.

Religious sense is often said to derive from conservative rural adherence to the old gods after the Christianization of Roman towns and cities; but the word in this sense predates that period in Church history, and it is more likely derived from the use of paganus in Roman military jargon for "civilian, incompetent soldier," which Christians (Tertullian, c.202; Augustine) picked up with the military imagery of the early Church (e.g. milites "soldier of Christ," etc.). Applied to modern pantheists and nature-worshippers from 1908.
So the original meaning is something like "country bumpkin".
posted by XMLicious at 3:16 PM on December 27, 2013


Definitions change. Of course the dominant invasive Christian culture would be derisive of people who resist it. That is not what is generally meant by the word for the last half century or so though.
posted by localroger at 3:30 PM on December 27, 2013


Your assertion was that it's merely descriptive if it's used to mean "any non-Abrahamic religion". But in 2014, talking about "the pagan religions" as something embracing, say, Shinto and Sikhism and Buddhism and the Hare Krishna movement and Scientology, as well as everything that isn't at some point derivative of Judaism, is not going to sound much less arrogant and dismissive than it would have in 1964.
posted by XMLicious at 4:21 PM on December 27, 2013 [4 favorites]


XMLicious I have several dozen friends who are active in the New Age and American Indian Movement communities, plus several actual anthropoligists, all of whom I met because if you want semiprecious gemstones in the New Orleans area you have to buy them and we were selling them in the early 1990's, and ALL of those people use the word pagan the way I have described, in many cases self-descriptively. In all that time including nearly a decade doing gem and mineral shows I have never met a single person who considered the word "pagan" to mean anything other than a neutral term for "other than Christian."

For reference you might also check out how the use of the word "queer" has shifted in the last couple of decades. It's a similar thing, but happened much earlier.
posted by localroger at 5:21 PM on December 27, 2013


I am not surprised that there are lots of people who are adherents to New Age religions and people who attend conventions where crystals are sold who casually use the term for whatever they want. And there are others, undoubtedly. I'm sure there are also people who use the term "gypsy" as freely too. If you think you have never ever ever met a single person who would use the word "pagan" pejoratively, though, nor anyone who would find it dismissive or ignorant were you to call them a pagan, I think you must move in and discuss religion in very narrow circles.
posted by XMLicious at 5:55 PM on December 27, 2013 [1 favorite]


For a description of a real war on Christmas, check out the latest episode of Mike Duncan's Revolutions....
posted by GenjiandProust at 6:02 PM on December 27, 2013


XMLicious I have to think one of us is moving in a circle full of judgemental assholes, and it isn't me. I consider that fortunate.
posted by localroger at 7:30 PM on December 27, 2013


I do occasionally run into people who go on and on about how "anti-nature" religions they don't like are.
posted by XMLicious at 8:18 PM on December 27, 2013 [1 favorite]


lesbiassparrow, I'm really not sure what point you're trying to make here. Considering that paganism pretty much encompasses everything that isn't monotheistically Judeo-Christian, of course there are fliers and the Romans (and I'll give you the Hindus too) formed social structures so complex that they could afford to forget their naturalistic roots. But for the most part religions that have not been co-opted by wealthy empires find their roots in natural phenomena.

I guess that I am not sure it's accurate, given the enormous breadth of religions encompassed by the term paganism, to think of/describe them as any more in tune with the natural cycle than any other form of worship.* Some of them may be, some of them may not. I just think it's a bit reductionist to use such a broad term for what is an enormous mass of religions geographically and historically, though I understand why people do it.

*I say this as someone not especially fond of the Christian church either. But it does have enormous regional variations some of which are better in tune with the environment than other forms of Christianity.
posted by lesbiassparrow at 8:37 PM on December 27, 2013


localroger: "In all that time including nearly a decade doing gem and mineral shows I have never met a single person who considered the word "pagan" to mean anything other than a neutral term for "other than Christian.""

Hi! Buddhist here, chiming in to say if you call me pagan I will look at you and say "lol wut?" In more formal language, your definition is inadequate and wrong.
posted by Lexica at 8:57 PM on December 27, 2013 [3 favorites]


Well Lexica, in less formal language I'd say you are behind a curve that I have been seeing for a ling time. Maybe I'm a bit further on that curve than most people. But words get ground down into the fine particles over time, and for the people that I know that happened long ago to pagan, as it happened to words like queer and negro in similar form.
posted by localroger at 9:53 PM on December 27, 2013


So, responding to someone who is explicitly saying they don't accept being named a pagan by telling them they're behind the curve? Nope, not arrogant or dismissive at all.

Also, people and movements reclaiming the epithet "queer" for themselves is one thing, but one religion or a small group of people supposedly reclaiming "pagan" by deciding that nearly all the other religions in the world should accept being identified that way is pretty arrogant. Especially when there's an intersection between that and "Neo-Paganism" and various other twentieth century syncretist or eclecticist religions at the same time arrogating the term to themselves basically as a form of guerrilla marketing because it has better brand awareness than names they might come up with on their own. (And sometimes quite literally people who are marketing books or events or products for sale with that branding motif, rather than necessarily adherents of said religions themselves.)

(Not that there's anything wrong with syncretism in general of course, as it's usually full of win and hybrid vigor, not even with those particular syncretic religions.)
posted by XMLicious at 10:19 PM on December 27, 2013 [3 favorites]


XMLicious, I find your attitude toward this word totally bizarre. Exactly what is it about pagan you find so offensive? I have traveled in some quite diverse circles and never encountered this.

I suspect the problem goes back to your ridiculously obsolete etymology, ironically derived from a Roman pejorative when pretty much everybody nowadays agrees that "pagan" is a good description of the pantheistic Roman religion itself.

I know quite a few actual Native Americans who have no problem describing the culture they are deliberately reclaiming as pagan. I suppose you could say that paganism implies a closeness to nature and lack of "sophistication," in the sense that they are not all formalized to the point where you need a college degree to keep the gods straight or a calendar so formalized that you let it get months out of whack with the natural world before realizing you have a problem. If it is "pagan" to actually observe the solstice by watching the sky instead of calculating it with a formula that's increasingly inaccurate, is that really a bad thing?

I suppose if I was drawing up a scorecard and rating my sophisticated pantheistic religion against others I might want to distinguish myself from those country bumpkins, but as a relative outsider I would just consider that elitist snobbery. At the end of the day it's all invisible sky beings and I consider the most sophisticated worshipers (and this includes some Christians) to be those who understand that the deities might not actually exist, but that the rituals and observances have functional value to us as humans. People who worship from that perspective have no problem with the coexistence of diverse religions because following one does not imply the invalidity of another.

And in my experience the people most likely to have that kind of religious understanding are pagan. They worship to connect with things from which civilization has largely separated us. And I suppose there is an ivory tower somewhere from which that might appear to be a bad unsophisticated thing. If so I would be avoiding it though.
posted by localroger at 7:16 AM on December 28, 2013 [1 favorite]


I have heard a couple of evangelical Christians refer to Hindus, Buddhists, and other major contemporary religions as "pagans," but I think even they knew in the back of their heads that it was a weird way to talk and out of touch with both modern society and the way the word has evolved.

Other than them, I can't think of any time I've heard the word used to mean anything other than the mostly European people that became Christianized (plus sometimes the Romans) and gave us Christmas trees in return, and the modern blend of New Age, Wiccan, neo-Druidic, and various other syncretic pieces that sometimes get collectively called "pagan."
posted by Dip Flash at 7:41 AM on December 28, 2013 [3 favorites]


If it is "pagan" to actually observe the solstice by watching the sky instead of calculating it with a formula that's increasingly inaccurate, is that really a bad thing?

...

And in my experience the people most likely to have that kind of religious understanding are pagan.


It's extending things like this to all non-Abrahamic religions—'cause hey, what's the difference, they're all pagans—that seems pretty obviously arrogant and dismissive to me. You can quite easily come up with a rationale that what you're saying isn't a "bad thing", and that you're actually conveying a complement or something along those lines, and still be arrogant and dismissive.

And despite your utterly flabbergasted reaction to what I'm saying, the fact that you understand me well enough to keep analogizing this to the use of "queer" and "negro" would seem to indicate that it isn't quite as incomprehensible as you make it out to be. It's pretty amazing that you can use the phrase "invisible sky beings" and still act all bewildered as to why anyone might find talking this way to be dismissive or arrogant.
posted by XMLicious at 8:51 AM on December 28, 2013 [3 favorites]


I'm a bagan. I worship bread toruses.
posted by George_Spiggott at 10:49 AM on December 28, 2013 [1 favorite]


BBC blocks Tim Berners-Lee from having an atheist deliver the Thought for the Day
posted by George_Spiggott at 11:22 AM on December 28, 2013 [1 favorite]


"Crowley...had no interest or direct involvement in either the modern pagan or wiccan movements.'

Wrong.

Funny you should mention Gardner in the same comment. It was Crowley and Gardner who invented Wicca (a term for which "Paganism" has been used as a rough synonym, without exhausting it's meaning).
posted by not_that_epiphanius at 8:36 PM on December 28, 2013 [2 favorites]


Turning 'pagan' into an arrogant and dismissive epithet today will require a louder complaint than I've heard -- and a greater social movement than I would expect to rise. That's because ancient pagans are long dead, and modern-day pretenders to the viney throne have little influence.

Arrogant and dismissive? Religions generally are. They stake their ground, defend their beliefs, and place those who don't subscribe on the outside. Or worse. There were worse classifications than 'pagan' -- and prelates promised direr fates for them and and other unbelievers than being called a name.

A language is a dialect with an army, and I'd throw in a church. When churches prosper they help shape language. The word is generally used to describe certain ancient societies, as explained above, without explicit or implied insult.
posted by LonnieK at 7:38 AM on December 29, 2013


Meant to include:
Pagan societies & religions were 'arrogant and dismissive' of others as well. cf Native Americans, particularly in the west, whose torture of captives 'not of our kind' was routine and horrific.
posted by LonnieK at 7:50 AM on December 29, 2013


The word is generally used to describe certain ancient societies, as explained above, without explicit or implied insult.

If you read further up, though, that's not what's been under discussion. localroger explicitly rejected the applicability of the term just for certain ancient societies—which I'm noting you favorited, LonnieK, though of course since favorites don't mean anything specific it may not be relevant—or just for the modern "pretenders to the viney throne", as you say, and is asserting that it's a term that a Buddhist should be chastised as "behind the curve" for rejecting when applied to them.

Yes, being tortured by the Inquisition or scalped by a Cheyenne soldier (or by any of the various European colonials around the world who also took such trophies, even in the same conflicts, though I'm not sure any of it derives from religion very much) is a worse injury that being called a "pagan", or being called a devotee to an invisible sky being or a pretender to a viney throne, but that doesn't really have any bearing on this.
posted by XMLicious at 10:20 AM on December 29, 2013


[the use of 'pagan' to describe certain ancient societies is] not what's been under discussion.
Oh. I thought it had been.

localroger explicitly rejected the applicability of the term just for certain ancient societies
localroger rejected the term for certain societies, and not for certain (other) societies. I don't think 'certain' means what you think it means.
posted by LonnieK at 5:15 PM on December 29, 2013


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