The seasons

By Razib Khan | December 22, 2011 11:00 am

Over at Less Wrong there is a discussion on the Winter Solstice celebration. It being Less Wrong there’s a great deal of introspective analysis. That’s fine. When I was younger I did the “Solstice” celebration thing, though today at this age I think that if you live in the United States you should just own or disown Christmas. If you look into the history of this specific celebration it becomes clear that it isn’t so clearly specifically Christian in origin. The reality is that really just reflects the cosmopolitan materialism of the West of our day. Most people have reservations about the materialism, but there’s obviously some social and personal utility in the holiday.

In relation to another winter celebration, David Frum expresses the Jewish ambivalence toward Hanukkah, a minor holiday which had the fortune to be near Christmas on the calender. But Hanukkah is another example of “owning” something, and recreating it your own image. Frankly, I feel that in some ways Hanukkah was originally a celebration of the Al Qaeda of its day, the Maccabees. If you listen to this episode of In Our Time you can easily read between the lines and see where I’m coming from. The irony, or perhaps an expression of an iron law of history, is that the later Hasmoneans (the dynasty founded by the revolt) were themselves the sort of cosmopolitan Hellenists their ancestors disemboweled for their heresies. The Herodian scions of Hasmonean maternal heritage were  prominent figures in the court of the Julio-Claudians, before the Jewish Wars and the absorption of Hellenistic Judaism into paganism and Christianity threw up a barrier between Jewishness and the gentile world in 2nd century.

In any case, best wishes and happy holidays.

Image credit: Wikipedia

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Comments (18)

  1. Brett

    Christmas in the US is pretty much two separate holidays sharing the same day already. You’ve got

    1. “Secular Christmas”, with Santa, reindeer, most carols, presents, Christmas Trees, and gifts.

    2. “Religious Christmas”, with Jesus in a manger, hymns, nativity scenes, and Handel’s Messiah.

    It’s easy to just say, “I’m celebrating the secular/awesome Christmas, and not the religious one”. Same for Easter, and to a much greater extent Halloween.

  2. Darkseid

    I put up my Festivus pole each year but that’s about it. On the day of, we exchange our gifts, do Airing of Grievances and then, of course, Feats of Strength but it’s nothing too involved. Just a small tribute to the history of my People.

  3. much two separate holidays

    i think that’s too extreme. there’s a pretty wide and diverse continuum.

  4. the later Hasmoneans (the dynasty founded by the revolt) were themselves the sort of cosmopolitan Hellenists their ancestors disemboweled for their heresies.

    Mmm…and good tidings of comfort and joy!

  5. John Emerson

    This is an old story, but: Christmas became an American national holiday only in the 19th century. Before that time it was either not very important, or in some cases discouraged or forbidden. The main reasons were, to begin with, the traditional ways of celebration (gambling, partying, etc.) and later the holiday’s association with Britain.

    The commercialization makes Christmas a perfect free-marketer holiday — a celebration of the opulence of our economy. Some fundamentalist freemarketers might dislike the “something for nothing” aspect.

  6. leviticus

    John is spot on,

    The inherent contradictions in American attitudes towards Christmas may be partially explained by the disconnect brought about by the Puritan rejection of the old Christmas traditions as pagan and the later importation of Victorian neo-Christmas traditions to fill the vacuum. While the South actual maintained continuity with the old British party-hard Christmas, colonial inferiority complex, Evangelicalism’s spread, and a regional tendency to mimic Yankees insured the Victorian neo-Christmas traditions would win out in the South as well.

    The Puritans, and their secular descendants, as the dominant economic and political culture set the tone for the Christmas celebrations of subsequent immigrants, insuring the dominance of the Anglo-US North Victorian holiday.

    All those religious folks screaming that Jesus is the reason for the season, and “xmas” is a sinister, secular plot to get Jesus out of the holiday are seemingly oblivious of early radical Protestant rejection of the holiday.

    Christmas traditions with actual unbroken provenance to Early Modern Europe, such as old Christmas bonfires, with firing of rifles and male drinking, and kris-krinkling, aka belsnicking, that managed to survive the Evangelical onslaught into the 20th century are long gone. My grandparents remembered these traditions as children in rural Virginia in the 1920’s, but the local boomers have no such childhood memories (homogenization of American pop culture?)

    On final point, the parallels between American soldiers’ experiences and attitudes towards Iraqis and Afghans and those of Roman soldiers in Judea are probably a little close for comfort, and are thus ignored.in

  7. toto

    Christmas in the US is pretty much two separate holidays sharing the same day already.

    i think that’s too extreme. there’s a pretty wide and diverse continuum.

    I don’t know, his “secular” Christmas really is a different holiday in origin. It’s a very, very light repackaging of the Saint Nicholas day that is still celebrated in Northeast France and the Low Countries. Paint the guy in red (a recent addition), remove the “evil sidekick” and the fun stories (like the kids in the barrel), add some reindeers, and there you are.

    (Fun facts: the staunchly secular French school system generally prohibits Christmas Nativity scenes, but tolerates the teaching of Saint Nicholas stories – presumably due to the local tradition aspect).

  8. “Christmas traditions with actual unbroken provenance to Early Modern Europe … that managed to survive the Evangelical onslaught into the 20th century are long gone.”

    What about Yule logs (not terribly common but not unheard of) and caroling (modern form of wassailing)? (I’ve also read that Christmas hams are a modern version of the Yule boar.)

    I’d always assumed Christmas trees were an old pagan tradition, and was surprised to learn they’ve only been around for a few centuries.

  9. RK

    There’s quite a bit of Hanukkah revisionism as well. The miracle of the oil lamps doesn’t show up until centuries after the revolt: for instance, there’s no mention of it in the Mishna (though there are references to kindling lights at the darkest times of the year). Some earlier sources explain length of the festival as commemorating eight iron spears the Maccabees reportedly found when they entered the temple; II Maccabees suggests the eight days was because the festival was really a late celebration of Sukkot (sukkot bekislev). I think the earliest mention of the oil miracle is in the Gemara (tractate Shabbat).

  10. Clark

    I’m not sure it’s fair to compare the Maccabees with Al Queda. I mean no one is banning Islam anywhere. Of course the various Jewish guerrilla organizations under both the Greek groups and then later the Roman ones did have a lot in common. (My favorite treatment was still Life of Brian. I saw it after taking a semester on the Roman history of the region and realized it wasn’t that far off from what I studied)

  11. Spike Gomes

    This is probably bad of me, but reading the whole LW post and comments made me laugh quite a bit. I know they aren’t NTs, but they’re otherwise smart enough to realize they come across as having a massive tone of unwarranted self-importance, right?

    Also I get jollies off a group of rationalists creating a premise off one of the most messed up science fiction writers in the world was seeing things with crystal clarity rather than being an emotionally disturbed racist autodidact shut-in who wrote fiction that reflected that fact.

  12. I mean no one is banning Islam anywhere.

    the idea that the seleucids were “banning judaism” is really easily problematized. in other words, that perspective naturally arises from some very specific jewish sources, and is kind of strange in the broader context of how hellenistic societies behaved.

  13. John Emerson

    The al-Qaeda-like zealots in Roman Palestine are discussed in Marvin Harris’s “Cows, Pigs, Wars, and Witches”. He relates historical resistance groups to the Biblical Jesus, Judas, and John the Baptists.

  14. Sandgroper

    Chinese traditionally celebrate Winter Solstice.

    Because of its history, Hong Kong has an unusually large number of public holidays, celebrating both the Western/Christian and Chinese festivals. So for example you get both Christmas and the Buddha’s Birthday (converted from what was a holiday for the Queen’s Birthday before the reversion of Hong Kong to Chinese sovereignty).

    So on 21 or 22 December we all troop out, as my daughter put it happily “to consume hapless baby animals” (suckling pigs) and ‘tang yuan’ (glutinous rice balls filled with sweetened sesame paste and floating in sweet soup). I counted this year – we had roast suckling pig, roast pidgeon, roast goose, pork ribs, pigs’ trotters, fish and lobsters, plus bean curd, several different kinds of vegetables and rice – massive animal protein and fat consumption, followed by a steaming bowl of delicious sugar bombs. If you are going to do yourself in diet-wise, that’s the way to go.

    And then at Christmas we do it all over again, but with different hapless animals like turkeys, salmon and beef in Western style meals.

    Given a choice between one or the other, the family clamours to have the whole damned lot. It’s an orgy of ridiculous consumption – in which I participate very cheerfully. Actually I wouldn’t mind losing Christmas because the trappings are getting old and tatty for me compared to the cleaner lines of the Chinese adornments, the materialism of it gets me down, and I yearn less for the things of my youth, but it is becoming more, not less, popular, such that it now overshadows the Solstice Festival. It seems easier to acquire festivals than to lose them.

    Anyway, have a good one of whatever you’re having.

  15. Clark

    That’s a good point Razib. Much like there’s debate in the later Roman wars about the so called lost legion that the Jews claim they killed. There’s no reason to assume the texts claims are true. That said it really wasn’t uncommon for a conquering nation to limit local cults and try to impose their own for better control of the region. So I wouldn’t be surprised if Alexander and company hadn’t imposed a lot on the local religion. And of course tensions over Hellenization raged for centuries later as you note. But I suspect you’re right that “ban” is probably a big exaggeration – however the limiting of religion is fairly probable.

  16. There’s no reason to assume the texts claims are true. That said it really wasn’t uncommon for a conquering nation to limit local cults and try to impose their own for better control of the region. So I wouldn’t be surprised if Alexander and company hadn’t imposed a lot on the local religion.

    part of it is a difference in perceptions of religion. if it is correct that the jews had started to shift from henotheism toward de facto monotheism, then the rather milquetoast requirements for syncretism would be objectionable. the maccabees themselves attest to forced conversions of non-jews in their jewish state, so it isn’t as if they were on high moral ground here. and the imposition of shift in religious norms which they enforced was likely far more thoroughgoing than the selucids would have demanded.

    there’s also the likelihood that the maccabees and their allies were a motivated minority, perhaps more of a minority than the american revolutionaries. there’s plenty of textual and archaeological evidence of hellenizers and assimilationists among jews, from the jewish texts themselves, but also in other records and evidence. the battle between the maccabees and hellenizers then is analogous to the battle between islamists and ‘muslim moderates.’ rabbinical judaism, what we think of as judaism qua judaism, is just one particular stream out of this jewish religious milieu. the other stream became christianity, and later islam.

  17. Justin Giancola

    My christmas wish is that this population explosion of the pinboard every other day doesn’t continue all holiday long. I at least try and read most of it. I know it’s like your job and all, but not all of us read like micromachine man…or stop holding out on us with the time tivo.

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This blog is about evolution, genetics, genomics and their interstices. Please beware that comments are aggressively moderated. Uncivil or churlish comments will likely get you banned immediately, so make any contribution count!

About Razib Khan

I have degrees in biology and biochemistry, a passion for genetics, history, and philosophy, and shrimp is my favorite food. In relation to nationality I'm a American Northwesterner, in politics I'm a reactionary, and as for religion I have none (I'm an atheist). If you want to know more, see the links at http://www.razib.com

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