Wednesday, December 24, 2014

The War on Festivus and the Rest of Us

Bill O'Reilly, the only character from that institution for the emotionally disturbed called Fox News whom I find both amusing and appalling, rather than simply appalling, has been on his annual pious crusade about the so-called War on Christmas.
Cartoonist Thomas Nast invented the modern image of Santa Claus in the 1880s

Not that I watch Fox News, there being certain things I just will not do. But one does tend to get a sense of the nuggets they're pumping out of Rupert Murdoch's gold mine at any given time. O'Reilly and his War on Christmas are as much a holiday perennial as the Rockettes and the Radio City Christmas Spectacular.

What is this war on Christmas, exactly?

The casus belli, it seems, stems from an angry belief that Christmas, which nominally celebrates the birth of a historically dubious personage at a time in the year that even the believers concede bears a not entirely coincidental relationship to the lusty pagan Roman winter-solstice celebration of Saturnalia, is under attack by hordes of infidels. These infidels -- they are largely unnamed, but historically we know who the aggrieved faithful mainly have in mind here -- are alleged to have commercialized the sacred holiday and torn from its focal point the Little Baby Jesus, an infant-god born of a virgin in a stable in Bethlehem during the reign of Augustus near fields where shepherds tended their flocks and angels sang on high while three heathen kings, buddied-up on an inexplicable road trip, proceeded anon under guidance of a mysterious brilliant star in the winter sky ... yada, yada, yada.

A large number of people persist in believing this, despite the indisputable fact that none of these and other associated events described in the contradictory accounts in various sacred tracts, composed much later, were actually noted by the contemporary Romans, who controlled the territory and who were well known for paying careful attention to unusual occurrences on their watch. In much later centuries, but especially in the last two, the Christmas narrative -- traditionally a distant runner-up to the primary Christian holiday of Easter -- was more firmly imposed on the winter solstice, partly to offset riotous seasonal celebrations that may have called themselves Christmas but actually owed their origins to Saturnalia.

Hence the perennial lectures about the "true meaning of Christmas," which the believers, claiming they are persecuted, insist has been defiled by others who, for through common sense or contrary dogma, find the accepted religious narrative to be implausible -- and who, truth to tell, become uncomfortable when we hear, or in some cases are expected to join in the singing of, unctuous hymns with pious themes that were composed in 19th century parsonages or 20th Century tin pan alleys.

Back to Bill O'Reilly -- who incidentally fancies himself a historian and whose most recent book has as its central character the World War II hero General George Patton. Of course, General Patton himself would have slapped around an armchair warrior like Bill O'Reilly, who graduated from high school at the height of the Vietnam War in 1967 but somehow managed to dodge the Vietnam draft and avoid service during a war he continues to vocally defend and support. (O'Reilly, along with his colleagues at Fox, Roger Ailes and Carl Rove, is ranked with the execrable Dick Cheney, Rush Limbaugh and other warriors-sans-service on a list, well known to those who did serve, of famous Chicken-Hawks.)

As to the historical origins of Christmas, O'Reilly's said last year, "that's what the U.S.A. celebrates on Dec. 25, the birth of the baby Jesus..." It's a holiday sanctioned in 1870 by the federal government that, O'Reilly said, "acknowledges the country's Judeo-Christian tradition."

It's clever how O'Reilly worked the Jews into that one because, in this country, the religiousness of Christmas has always been a bit of a concern to others who might be tempted to join more enthusiastically in these joyous winter-holiday festivities -- if they didn't have rather long historical markers, as the Judeo portion of the tradition certainly does.

(Incidentally, there's an amusing piece in the Washington Post today on "The War on Jewish Christmas. Here.)

In 1997, under the aegis of Larry David and Jerry Seinfeld, the so-called Festivus episode (its actual title was "The Strike") was aired on "Seinfeld," a show that was of course actually about a group of very funny New York Jews, George's Italian surname notwithstanding.  Festivus was cast as the year-end holiday for "the rest of us." The episode's conceit was that Festivus had been invented as an alternative-Christmas by George's excitable, miserable father. But the real message of Festivus -- for the rest of us -- has been enduring.

The growing numbers of us who don't believe the religious narrative still enthusiastically celebrate the winter solstice -- and what a beautiful and pagan thing a Christmas tree is! What joy there is in coming to Rockefeller Plaza on a cold December day! -- even if Saturnalia's distant descendant, the drunken office Christmas party, has also long ago faded into oblivion.

And as to that "happy holidays" palaver that the media and earnest organizations like Pew Research constantly fret over, I say the hell with it. Who says we have to ironically invoke "Festivus" or refer to this time as a generic happy "holiday," or in fact to call it anything other than what what it has been commonly called since the Council of Nicea?

And so Merry Christmas to all. Even  O'Reilly.


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