Happy Pagan Feast Day, Mr. O’Reilly

Why the right chose the wrong side in the war on Christmas

Illustration By Mike Gorman

Santa Claus and his elves probably came from pagan Scandinavian traditions. The Swedish Julbukk (yule goat) started out as a beast of burden for Thor, the god of thunder; eventually, it became the transport for the yule elf, who exchanged gifts for a serving of porridge. Now Santa leaves presents and takes his milk and cookies.

“Yule” is generally believed to mean “feast.” The yule log was a special piece of wood selected to kick off the winter-solstice feast by lighting a fire to symbolically encourage the rapid return of the sun. Bits of ash and burnt wood were saved as talismans to protect the house throughout the next year.

The Old Testament prophet Jeremiah warned the Israelites against decorating their homes with cut trees as the pagans did: “Thus saith the LORD, Learn not the way of the heathen, and be not dismayed at the signs of heaven, for the heathen are dismayed at them. For the customs of the people are in vain; for one cutteth a tree out of the forest, the work of the hands of the workman, with the axe. They deck it with silver and gold; they fasten it with nails and with hammers, that it move not.” (Jeremiah 10:2-4, King James Version)

When the sweet, high-pitched voices of children unite for “You better watch out / you better not cry” this year, it won’t necessarily be because Santa Claus is coming to town. It’s more likely that they’re concerned about what will happen if the Christmas police catch them saying “Happy Holidays” or “Season’s greetings” instead of “Merry Christmas.”

Yep, Bill O’Reilly—he of the “no spin zone”—has his head in a twirl and his Underalls in a twist over the so-called war on Christmas. He’s not alone, of course; he’s been hyping a book by Fox News colleague John Gibson called The War on Christmas: How the Liberal Plot to Ban the Sacred Christian Holiday Is Worse Than You Thought. O’Reilly’s been suggesting to his faithful viewers that Christians should avoid doing their holiday—oops, I mean Christmas—shopping at stores where employees are encouraged to say “Happy Holidays” while taking credit cards from consumers who are spending money they don’t have on goods made anywhere but the United States to celebrate a holiday that’s never had a doggone thing to do with Christianity.

O’Reilly is joined by none other than Jerry Falwell, who’s joined with a conservative legal outfit called the Liberty Counsel to promote the “Friend or Foe Christmas Campaign” (because if you’re not with them, you’re against them; there’s no such thing as the holiday equivalent of Switzerland). The Alliance Defense Fund, best known for fighting any hint of equal rights for gay folks, is busy promoting its slogan—“Merry Christmas: It’s okay to say it”—while the Committee to Save Merry Christmas is trying to keep the Christ in Christmas—at least in major department-store advertising.

The good news is that, at least for the time being, O’Reilly is more interested in what we’re saying as we run into friends during the close of the year than in issuing continued calls for terrorists to bomb San Francisco’s Coit Tower. The bad news is that he is perpetuating a public fraud. Jesus was never the reason for the season, and there are a whole bunch of perfectly good Christians who don’t celebrate this holiday.

For instance, the Puritans—they of the “pure” religion, albeit a bit quick to light fires under uppity women—outlawed the celebration of Christmas in Massachusetts Colony. None of that pagan stuff on their watch; Christmas trees were, quite rightly, relegated to the same heathen pile that contained maypoles. Jehovah’s Witnesses are among the modern-day Christian religions that do not celebrate Christmas.

See, some Christians actually have the good sense to look into the origins of holidays before rushing willy-nilly to celebrate them. They know that whatever modicum of Christian trappings have been used to decorate the Christmas tree, the holiday itself is the same old mid-winter celebration using the same old pagan traditions that a whole boatload of pre-Christian and non-Christian religions have celebrated worldwide ever since people crawled out of caves long enough to figure out that the sun would come back in the spring.

My Bible-believing mother would be happy to whack O’Reilly upside the head and point out that Jesus wasn’t even born in December; anybody who can read a Bible and do simple arithmetic can follow the two methods used to calculate Christ’s probable birth date as occurring much earlier in the fall. (If you believe Bible accounts: Luke puts the shepherds in their fields, which would put Jesus’ birth in early through mid-October at the latest; calculating his birth as following that of John the Baptist, which also uses the book of Luke, also sets it in the fall of the year, providing that both Elizabeth and Mary had nine-month pregnancies.)

And Jesus never says anything about celebrating his birth. It’s all about the death; his instructions concern commemorating his betrayal, crucifixion and resurrection.

So, how’d we get Christmas? Well, sometime around the fourth century, church fathers decided to celebrate Jesus’ birth near the time of the winter solstice. It might have had something to do with the fact that they couldn’t get the recently converted former pagans to stop decking their halls with boughs of holly, holding feasts, exchanging gifts, lighting yule fires, drinking toasts from wassail bowls, kissing under mistletoe and putting up trees decorated with candles. Folks were in the habit, whether in celebration of the solstice or remembrance of the birth or rebirth of deities ranging from Attis to Dionysus to Osiris to Mithra (for those who don’t know their gods, these belong to pre-Christian religions from Roman, Greek, Egyptian and Persian cultures). Those habits were hard to break, and the early church decided to take an “if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em” attitude. They dressed the pagan holiday traditions up in Christian clothes and called it good.

So, what are O’Reilly and his fellow travelers really upset about?

Inclusion. It’s that simple. The only way they’re happy is if someone gets left out. Taking it upon themselves to separate the sheep from the goats—a job Jesus reserves for himself, thank you—they have to keep Christmas all their own. Never mind that they stole it from pagans, and those are the people who really ought to be hiring lawyers and screaming bloody murder about the watering down of their traditions in the name of Christian supremacy.

It’s this commitment to excluding from the holiday everyone who doesn’t match their idea of good Christian Americans that takes O’Reilly and his minions into the most offensive place of all. If the only way to celebrate the end-of-the-year holidays is to dress them up in pseudo-Christian trappings, a whole lot of folks are going to be left out—including some Christians who refuse to participate in the Christmas mania. And that’s the way O’Reilly and clan like it.

Of course, that’s precisely why I hate it.

I was probably 10 or 11 years old before I figured out that “Hark” wasn’t the name of a “hairy angel” who sang. I’d been sitting in the hall outside the classroom reading a book every December while my classmates practiced their Christmas carols; through the door, it was easy to misinterpret some of the lyrics. I got a new coloring book every October so that I’d have something to do while my peers were using up their orange crayons on jack-o-lanterns and gluing white cotton for beards to their drawings of Santa.

It’s not that observing and respecting the beliefs of my family was too much to ask—but the crap I took from other kids was certainly unnecessary, for the insistence on singing “Silent Night” during school hours ensured they’d know I was different. “Different” means “less than” in grade-school language; kids are like that.

And my family members were Christians. I can only imagine the hell endured by the lone Muslim, Jewish, Hindu or Buddhist child—to name just a few possibilities—in a classroom dominated by Christians in a Christmas frenzy.

That’s precisely the reason that the framers—those folks who put together the Constitution—wanted to keep religion out of the public sphere. Places like schools, libraries, city halls, courtrooms and public squares belong to everyone; we all have a right to feel at home there. And that’s what freaks out O’Reilly and his companions, I suspect; they’re afraid that, if their belief system and culture is just one among many, then it’s not the right one. Emotionally stuck in grade school, they still think “different” means “less than.”

Of course, there could be something else entirely behind the move to put Christ into a holiday that was never his. It might be that, if we all get caught up in discussing what Christmas ought to be, we won’t notice all the rest of the stuff that’s going on: more Americans dead in Iraq, as well as even more Iraqis; jobs disappearing with regularity; consumer debt increasing as quickly as the deficit rises; an impending energy crisis that will make the ’70s look like Happy Days; health-care costs spiraling out of control; an education system that’s leaving children behind every which way; and a president who’s out of touch with it all.

But these real Christians wouldn’t try to distract us like that, would they?