December 3, 2001
1:31 AM   Subscribe

Now that the holidays are almost upon us, we should remember the ancient and true meaning of Christmas, and not succumb to modern distortions and tawdry commercialization.
posted by signal (30 comments total)
"Apostatizing Christianity jumped in bed with paganism!"

Actually that wasn't quite the way it happened. When Constantine took over what was left of Rome, and the Roman Catholic Church came into being, they adopted many pagan beliefs that were already entrenched in generations of tradition. They didn't jump in bed with pagans. The Christians weren't being converted to paganism. The opposite occurred. Constantine was born a pagan but converted to Christianity and when he took over Rome, he wanted the same from his followers.

What we now know as the Roman Catholic Church was in its infancy, and they were trying (and some historians would say they succeeded) to convert the pagans to Christianity. They just used what was already in existence to get their points across. That's what's important to note here: they worked within the traditions that already existed in order to change them.

This is known as Querty Theory. Look at your keyboard. Why are the letters not in natural alphabetical order? Because when typewriters were first invented, the letters used more often than others were squished together, which caused the keyboard to jam more frequently. So typewriter makers moved the letters around so that they were more evenly balanced, so typewriters would work better.

When manual typewriters gave way to electric typewriters, and later computer keyboards, the problem of jamming keys together went away. However by then everybody already knew how to type with the old keyboard. Attempts to re-alphabetize the keys failed. People wouldn't buy those keyboards even today, cuz then they'd have to learn how to type all over again.

Qwerty theory is common in the car industry. My car has a gearshift in between the front seats, as if it were a standard transmission, but it's an automatic. Some cars moved the gearshift to the steering column, but for people who were used to driving a standard, putting the automatic gearshift in the same place that the standards had been for years was just more comfortable for many carbuyers.

Why are some car engines still measured by horsepower? Because in the days of Henry Ford people still used horse-driven carriages. Before he turned "automobile" into a household world, people were still comparing his horseless carriage to the horse-driven buggies still on the road. Over time that faded away, and even the word horsepower is rather archaic, but throughout the first half of the 20th century, it was commonly used.

If you observe history, you'll see that querty theory is part of the natural progression of ..well, progress. There's nothing wrong with this. It's qwerty. It's quirky but it's cool. It's how human beings operate. As we approach the 21st century, we should embrace all the pasts of Christmas. What it meant long ago. What it means to people today. What it will mean to us in the future.

The solution is not to diss Christmas or insist that the world stop celebrating it because its origins aren't precisely what you want them to be, whoever you are, but to take what's already there and find for yourself the best of the holiday season: what will bring the best out of yourself? It's not the day that's important.

The spirit of giving is what matters. The hope for peace on Earth and good will toward men; that's what should be kept alive. Hopefully, people of any faith can agree at least on that point. Judith Hayes has the right idea. So what if she's an aetheist? The holiday's still fun. She's found many pleasant memories over the years. Celebrating a holiday that other people find other things in doesn't detract the greatness you can find in it for yourself. Be you Pagan, Aetheist, Christian, Muslim, or Agnostic, there's something in the celebration of the winter solstice for everybody. So be good to one another, and party on dude!
posted by ZachsMind at 3:15 AM on December 3, 2001

Why are some car engines still measured by horsepower? Because in the days of Henry Ford people still used horse-driven carriages.

Well, it's true that people were driving horse drawn carriages, but by the time the car was invented 'horsepower' was already a standard mesurement of engine power.
posted by delmoi at 3:26 AM on December 3, 2001

This is all nice but I Want Gifts! You mean to tell me a vrgin gave birth to a typewriter keyboard? No wonder it was all replaced by the computer keyboard!
posted by Postroad at 4:28 AM on December 3, 2001

I'm sorry I worded it wrong, but it doesn't change the point. Some still use horsepower even today. It was used as measurement for force because it was something that people understood. If someone reading these words knows from personal example what horsepower really means, they are truly blessed. I can count on one hand the number of times I've been near a horse in my lifetime. I understand what the phrase means, but in practical purposes it's meaningless to me.

Should we erase the word from our culture because it's impractical? Of course not. It's a small clue to where we've been.
posted by ZachsMind at 4:36 AM on December 3, 2001

christmas is all about giving, yes? - well i just want to tell everyone what to give me.
posted by monkeyJuice at 4:37 AM on December 3, 2001

nice post, ZachsMind.
posted by kv at 4:52 AM on December 3, 2001

In addition to ZachsMind's fine post, I'd like to point out that some historians think that, while Christians used some elements of pagan solstice celebrations for Christmas, the actual date they chose had nothing to do with the solstice.

It was thought that great men died on the day they were conceived, thus if Jesus died in March/April, he must have been conceived around then and therefore his birthday was in December. So the date of Christmas comes from the date of Good Friday, not because it coincides with the solstice.

(Here's a reference to St. Augustine's De Trinitate.)

I've also seen people derive the date from the Gospels: John the Baptist was conceived around some sort of festival, if it was Yom Kippur, around Sept. 25, then the time Mary conceived (when John's mother was in her sixth month, according to the Gospels) would have been about March 25, nine months before December 25.
posted by straight at 6:05 AM on December 3, 2001

Xmas is surely just an excuse for a piss up and some days off work at the most depressing time of the year.
posted by Summer at 6:05 AM on December 3, 2001

is christmas not about a Lego advent calendar? cause that's where i'm headed, right now.
posted by o2b at 6:22 AM on December 3, 2001

Xmas is an excuse for me to foist my experimental mulled-wine and hot rum drink recipes on unsuspecting guests. Not that they do much complaining, mind you.
posted by MrBaliHai at 6:23 AM on December 3, 2001

did i actually make a good comment to a post for once or are y'all just makin' fun o' me agin?
posted by ZachsMind at 6:33 AM on December 3, 2001

What seems most interesting is how the makers of the Christianity were able to repackage something old with something new and, with the help of a major backer, sell it incredibly successfully.

Sort of like when the World Wrestling Federation created Demolition. They were a lot like the Road Warriors of the WCW/WCCW, only different. And with Vince MacMahon behind them, they achieved a much higher level of recognition (perhaps not so much with the insiders as with the less-discerning everyday Joe), even though their finishing move quite clearly lacked the punch of the Flying Clothesline From The Top Rope.

Or like O-Town.

What moves you?
posted by jaysoucy at 7:16 AM on December 3, 2001

> Now that the holidays are almost upon us

like savage animals in the night.
posted by pracowity at 7:18 AM on December 3, 2001

It was thought that great men died on the day they were conceived

posted by rushmc at 8:09 AM on December 3, 2001

From the "the" link in the post: "You should bear in mind that all Muslims follow and believe in what the Qur‘aan has to say unreservedly."

Yeah, right.

If that statement doesn't sound absolutely ridiculous to you, then try it with "christians" and "bible" in the appropriate places.
posted by yesster at 8:25 AM on December 3, 2001

BTW - excellent post! Wonderful to show that xmas has never had a "stable" and "true" meaning. And for those who long for the old time religion, you just have to ask, "which one?"
posted by yesster at 8:38 AM on December 3, 2001

Zach: nice comment. Not that we still won't make fun of you.

'Tis the season for syncretism! What better example than the Christmas Tree itself?

According to the passage from Jeremiah in the referenced article, indoor tree decorating is a no-no. Does that mean it's ok to have an artificial tree?
posted by groundhog at 8:56 AM on December 3, 2001

yesster -- Well, there are two levels of interpreting the Qur‘aan/Islam, Bible/Christian parallel -- one in which you're right, and one in which you're wrong. (Isn't that always how it is?)

I think it's an important point to make that, if such a distinction is possible, the Qur‘aan is a holier book to Muslims than the Bible is to Christians. Anyone reading the Qur‘aan must ritually clean him/herself before reading. It's not a book to be translated or paraphrased. The Qur‘aan is thought of as the literal word of God -- i.e., a transcription of His speech, in the very language in which he spoke it. The Qur‘aan establishes itself as the sole source of Muslim authority and the sole source of study for devout Muslims. Et cetera.

There are plenty of Christians who tacitly believe that whole portions of the Old Testament are, if not rambling, spliced-in bits of historical irrelevance, at least superseded by the New Testament. Of course, some people believe that every word of the Bible is holy and literally true. But the point is that Christianity encompasses such a debate. Christians divide over such issues. Muslims do not divide over any equivalent issue. The core belief of Islam is that the Qur‘aan is the authoritative word of God as transcribed by Muhammed. It is, by definition, not possible to be Muslim and not believe this.

On another level, you might be saying that Muslims don't really obey the Qur‘aan; that they violate its precepts. No doubt that's true in some cases. But, in areas of belief, sadly, belief is all. And I think there is a valid distinction to be made.
posted by argybarg at 9:19 AM on December 3, 2001

Oh, and ZachsMind:

I hate to disrupt the lovability that's sprung up around your post, but S. J. Liebowitz and Stephen E. Margolis wrote in this article in the Journal of Law and Economics that the Qwerty Theory (including the supposed superiority of the Dvorak keyboard) has no basis in the actual history of the typewriter. They write:

We conclude that the example of the Dvorak keyboard is what beehives and lighthouses were for earlier market-failure fables. It is an example of market failure that will not withstand rigorous examination of the historical record.
posted by argybarg at 9:48 AM on December 3, 2001

If you're feeling cynical and pissed about Christmas, I highly recommend having a kid. My son is just old enough to be cognizant of what's going on this year and man oh man. It's a lot more fun doing all this xmas crap with a youngun just giddy with joy at every corny step.
posted by glenwood at 10:31 AM on December 3, 2001

glenwood, while I completely agree that Christmas with a kid is wonderful, I wouldn't recommend it as an antidote to being pissed off.
posted by groundhog at 10:51 AM on December 3, 2001

With all due respect Argy, I find it difficult to follow the line of thought followed by Liebowitz & Margolis, because as I understand it, the Dvorak keyboard didn't appear on the scene until 1932, while the Qwerty keyboard had been around since 1872. But even if I gave Liebowitz & Margolis the benefit of the doubt, Dvorak failed in favor of Qwerty because it was not superior initially.

Qwerty Theory is about the failed resurgence of the Dvorak keyboard in the days of ARPANet. Not the initial introduction of both Qwerty and Dvorak over half a century earlier.

To try to get back on topic, the early Roman Catholic Church took the pagan celebrations that already existed and adapted them to their own Christian ends, just as computer makers took the already popular Qwerty keyboard and adapted it to their ends. That's what Qwerty's all about. Saying Christmas is really a pagan holiday is like saying a Qwerty keyboard is really a Dvorak keyboard in disguise.

And now that I've pounded this poor thing in the dirt, if you still don't get where I'm coming from Argy, I give up. I'm gonna go make me a PB&J. =)
posted by ZachsMind at 11:27 AM on December 3, 2001

Show me a Dvorak keyboard for $20 and I'll be happy to switch. I seem to be topped out on Qwerty at 97 wpm.
posted by rushmc at 11:36 AM on December 3, 2001

there's something in the celebration of the winter solstice for everybody

true, but the solstice is on the 21st, and I'll celebrate the way I usually do, by getting up with the sun and going for a nice long walk. Four days later, I might take advantage of the lack of traffic and openness of Chinese restaurants to drive straight through the center of downtown Seattle, park where I want to, and hang out with other people who aren't doing the usual celebrating -- the one day of the year the Chinese place is full of Jews. Actually, this year I'm going to Alaska on an empty ferry and except for the purser wearing a santa hat, I'm safe from That Holiday.

While I have nothing against the people who wish me "Happy Holidays" I guess I would implore everyone to remember that since people celebrate the season differently, or not at all, being mindful of that at your office holiday parties, your gift giving [and receiving] and your 25dec plans can really help spread "good will toward men" [and women]
posted by jessamyn at 12:01 PM on December 3, 2001

As a 3rd-generation atheist, christmas has always been a big deal for me and my family, and I guess the "happy heretic" pretty much sums up what I feel about the holiday.

However, as a Southern-Hemisphere kind of guy, I've always thought it odd that we celebrate Christmas (a winter sun-god rite) in Summer and Easter (a spring fertility rite) in Fall. Gotta love the cultural-colonialism, I guess.
posted by signal at 12:09 PM on December 3, 2001

Show me a Dvorak keyboard for $20 and I'll be happy to switch.

You don't need a new keyboard, the computer will remap the keys for you. I type Dvorak on three computers in exactly this manner.
posted by kindall at 12:17 PM on December 3, 2001

Great post, signal. Much good reading to be had in all those links.
posted by Neb at 3:50 PM on December 3, 2001

You don't need a new keyboard, the computer will remap the keys for you.

I tried that once for a couple days, and it seemed promising, but I need the key labels to make the actual transition, I think.
posted by rushmc at 10:01 PM on December 3, 2001

Nothing to say, but great thread and posts guys. Fascinating reads signal. You have all those bookmarked? Because they don't appear to be impromptu googlings. if so/if not how long did it take you to peice it all together? Are you being paid for your cutting-edge contributions? if so/if not, you should!

Zach. Once again, a noble brain burst on your part.
posted by crasspastor at 2:33 AM on December 4, 2001

crasspastor, it actually was impromptu googling, but on a topic I've been interested in for a long time, since I read a book called "Biography of the Devil" by a french guy, Couste, I think, where they explained the Mithraic origin of Christ, and its relation with other sun-god figures.

But I feel it was actualy Zach's contribution which set the tone for the thread.
posted by signal at 8:29 PM on December 5, 2001

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