Appropriating the Holidays Part III: Happy Holidays and putting the Christ back in... Saturnalia?

Greetings to all - Merry Christmas, Happy Holidays, and Lo, Saturnalia!

This is the third in an ongoing series I’ve written about holiday histories. And yes, I’ve been using one of the most buzzy of buzzwords: appropriation. I started this series with Valentine’s Day, also discussing the lovely Easter. But since it’s the most wonderful time of the year I thought i would turn the calendar page to talk a little bit about Christmas.


It seems with all the effort to put the “Christ back in Christmas” and making sure “Jesus is the reason for the season,” we may be overlooking the origins of the Christmas holiday as a whole. Let’s take a walk down memory lane, shall we?

Christmas trees, ornaments, Santa Claus, presents, and even paper have become symbols of American Christmas tradition. (TRADITIOOOON! TRADITION!) Individual families celebrate in their own way, and the Christmas Tree is a common feature in many American households. What were the origins of Christmas, and where did these symbols and icons come from?

Mithra tree in Persepolis

Mithra tree in Persepolis

Let’s start with the tree. I actually really love Christmas trees, do you? We have a fake half-sized tree at our house even though we consider ourselves agnostic, and it’s fun to go through ornaments and sentimental family memorabilia with our girls. How did this weird little indoor tree come to be a part of our collective American holiday celebration?

One of many legends surrounding the origins of the iconic Christmas tree is one of Saint Boniface, who is said to have disrupted a pagan ritual by destroying the tree where it was being held. (Was that an early preemptive strike for the inevitable War on Christmas? MAYBE!) When a fir sprouted in that place, Boniface declared the new fir tree represented Christ himself. (There’s a cross-related irony to be found there, I’m sure.)

Martin Luther is said to have brought a fir tree into his home to his children, to help him share an inspirational story surrounding an experience he had in the woods. And though a modern family may purchase their Christmas tree at a store instead of bringing one home from the forest, the focus is often on family participation. So it was in the day of Martin Luther, and even in our home!


Lo, Saturnalia!

The Christmas tree goes back much further than Luther. Another, perhaps more significant event in the history of the holiday season generally is the Roman festival of Saturnalia. Celebrating Saturn during the Winter Solstice, people would decorate their homes and gave gifts - sound familiar? Centuries later, in England, Druids would perform rituals in the woods and place evergreen branches above the doors of their homes to ward off evil spirits. Egyptians are also said to have revered evergreens, praising them for their eternal quality.

Well, what about the baby Jesus then? Theologians place the birth of the Christ figure around 3-5 AD. The bible itself is non specific about the actual time of year, but many theologians suggest it is during the springtime due to the presence of the sheep and young animals described. But, it wasn’t until many years after Jesus’ birth that Christmas was even celebrated as a Christian holiday specifically. It was around the fourth century that the church decided to celebrate Christmas around December 25, and they chose that date specifically to align with other pagan festivals and rituals also going on around that time. 

So - if there is a war on Christmas, it has been going on for almost two millennia. And like oh so many parts of our Christian and/or Colonialist history, when it comes to the holiday season, we weren’t the first ones there. To claim this part of December as “Christmas only” territory is to completely erase the FIFTY-something number of holidays between November and December.


“Sorry, pagans. December belongs to us now. Find yourselves a new month to go solstice!”

Saying Happy Holidays isn’t an attack on Christmas. It’s a relatively generic celebratory expression that includes almost everybody - including Jews, pagans, atheists, and Seinfield fans.

While we’re here let’s also discuss the REAL reason for the season: pre$ent$ and $pending! We’re a capitalist economy, right? Christmas symbols are also used effectively in marketing to further drive consumption during the spendiest time of the year.

And never is that more obvious during the holidays, where we try to out-love each other by spending money we don’t have to buy things we don’t need. American Christmases are highly consumer driven. And not just a little, either: U.S. Shoppers, according to the American Research Group, spent an average of $929 in 2016.


Consumer spending is about seventy percent of U.S. gross domestic product, and holiday spending is a large portion of this number. Valentine's day held a distant second to Christmas spending, at $14 Billion overall, or $116 per person. Now I don’t know about you, but I definitely did not get my share of Valentine’s day average spending’s worth of chocolate.

But - let’s be fair. It’s not just about materialism. Did you know Americans are also at their most charitable this time of year as well? Half of Guidestar nonprofits received most of their contributions between October and December. And Americans gave $410.02 Billion to Charity in 2017, so that’s no small figure.

With all that money flying out the doors, do you know what’s absolutely free? Not being an asshole.

So this year,

  • Wish somebody Happy Holidays.

  • Don’t feel pressured to spend money you don’t have to buy things people don’t want or need.

  • Give generously (and wisely) to those that are in need.

One thing almost everyone seems to agree on is that shelter is for everyone, particularly in winter time. I’ve included a starting list of nonprofits that aid and assist those experiencing homelessness below.

As for me, I’ll be spending my time with my kids and trying to practice gratitude. We’ll be eating, watching Elf, and trying to avoid discussing religion and politics. (Tis the season?)



Donation Links

Courtesy of my friend Rana, Here is a not-comprehensive list of non-profit agencies that provide shelter, housing, and/or services to youth, families, and single adults experiencing homelessness in the Twin Cities where you could easily make an online donation: