Monday, December 26, 2005

Taking Saturn out of Saturnalia

Tis the season when even the most blase agnostic finds something special to fight about. But Christmas battles are so complicated this year that you may be reluctant to join.
Don't let that happen. Honor the spirit, you just need to arm yourself with the answers to a few basic questions:

WHERE IS THE "WAR ON CHRIST-MAS" BEING FOUGHT?
On many fronts. Retailers and poloticians refer to fatally wounded evergreens as "holiday trees."
The White house has sent out cards wishing a happy "holiday season," incurring the wrath of conservatives worried that secularists are "taking the Christ out of Christmas."
And the White Witch has cast Narnia into perpetual winter without Chritmas, an assault not only on Santa Claus but on ecosystems vulnerable to climate change.

IS THERE ANY LINK BETWEEN THE WHITE WITCH AND THE WHITE HOUSE?
Nothing proven, but Patrick Fitzgerald is still investigating the "Turkish Delight Connection."

WHY DO SOME CHRISTIANS OBJECT TO THE TERM "HOLIDAY TREE?"
Because it hides the ancient link between the tree and Christianity, found in an original Christmas gospel:
"And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon shepherds abiding in the field, and the angel said unto them: 'I bring you tidings of great joy. On this Christmas go forth and smite a mighty tree, a Norway spruce with pleasing boughs, and place it in your home, and adorn it with candles and red balls and strands of silver.'
And the shepherds were sore afraid and said unto the angel:'What is this spruce you speak of? What is Norway? Wouldst thou allow a small plam tree?'
And the angel said: 'Whatever. Only place on its hightest point a star of gold, or better yet, an angel.'"
Please note the angel did not call it a holiday tree.

DID THE ROMANS SAY "HAPPY HOLIDAYS" TO ONE ANOTHER?
No, the traditional greeting was, "Io, Saturnalia" (the first word was pronounced "yo"), which meant roughly, "Ho, praise to Saturn." Scholars suggest that the date of Christmas was picked in the fourth century to coincide with the Roman holiday.

DID ROMAN PAGANS COMPLAIN THAT CHRISTIANS WERE TAKING THE SATURN OUT OF SARUNALIA?
Perhaps, but in those days there were no conservative all-news channels. The pagans in norhtern Europe must have complained about their traditional Yule solstice festival. Christians not only co-opted customs like burning a Yule log, but also turned Yule into a sysnonym for Christmas.

THEY TOOK THE YULE OUR OF YULE?
And put it into Christmas. For all we know, some Norse lumber merchants tried appeasing both pagans and Chritians by marketing "holiday logs," but the term didn't stick.

WHY ARE TODAY'S CHRISTIANS HAVING SUCH A HARD TIME HOLDING ON TO CHRISTMAS?
In some cases because of ridiculous political correctness, like not allowing the singing of traditional Christmas carols in public schools. But it's mainly because they're up against retailers who don't want to offend their many non-christian customers. That old seasonal admonition of good will to all means more sales.

DOES THE MORAL FABLE OF NARNIA OFFER ANY WAY TO RESOLVE THESE RELIGIOUS DIFFERENCES OVER CHRISTMAS?
Yes. The pro-Christmas side froms an army and destroys the opposition.

ARE THERE ANY OTHER WAYS?
Well, non-Christians could tolerate a few Christmas traditions, and Christians could recognize they're no the only group in the mood for lights and festivites on long December nights.

SO WHAT'S THE RIGHT GREETING?
If you want to be safe- or sell anything- go with "Happy Holidays." Otherwise, say anything you want.

WHATS YOUR CHOICE?
Yo, Saturnalia!

By John Tierney

John Tierney is a columnist for the New York Times. His e-mail address is tierney@nytimes.com.

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