Reimagining Holidays the Old Way

(Design by Malithi Gunawardena | Daily Utah Chronicle)

(Design by Malithi Gunawardena | Daily Utah Chronicle)

By Alison Myers, Arts Writer


Now that it’s November, we can officially wish each other Merry Christmas or Happy Holidays, depending on your take. As we all know, Christmas celebrates the historical birth of Jesus of Nazareth using Black Friday and other sales to mark the days to the big one where we remember how capitalism was born in a manger. Well, something got mixed up there. Growing up in America, all we know about the holidays is that Santa and Jesus both exist and we might finally get a Tamagotchi. It’s about family, snow and time off of school. Any changes to the vague narrative we grew up plunge familiar traditions into turmoil. What do we celebrate? If we dilute the religious messages, is all we’re left with a stressful season of material worship? Or is that what we’ve had for too long already?


The War on Christmas 

If you have a pulse, you’ve probably noticed the “War on Christmas” with the Starbucks holiday cup as the poster child for the debate. The controversy is something to behold. It’s stunning. Of course, much of the debate is blown out of proportion. The Grinch didn’t actually steal Christmas. People who do not subscribe to Christianity should not have to incorporate imagery and ideas into their holiday season.

The defense of American Christian tradition has created an interesting mission to uphold a purist celebration of a holiday season that didn’t originally have any biblical ties. The season, originally dedicated to pagan holidays like Saturnalia, may have given Christmas its place on the calendar, according to studies in comparative religion. The ancient Roman tradition that honored Saturn used the time for festivities and to give small figurines as gifts. Seen as a time of liberty for all people, even slaves were allowed at the table. Although, Christian apologists did criticize the offering of slain gladiators during Saturnalia as a form of human sacrifice, so I’m not saying we should observe it as an alternative. I am saying that we should take Christmas with a grain of salt, like all holidays, and look at the traditions that they sprung from, even the original Christian messages. 


War on Advent

“One trend across denominations is the War on Christmas,” professor Brandon Peterson said, thinking about modern approaches to the holiday season. “There’s a twist on this though, or a hashtag, for War on Advent.” Peterson, an associate professor in the philosophy department, focuses on Christian doctrine, including its traditions throughout history and in its dialogue with philosophy. Advent is the season beginning in late November preceding Christmas for many denominations of Christians, according to Peterson. It’s even gaining traction for some Latter-day Saints. Beginning four Sundays before “Christ-Mass,” it’s about expectation.

“One big theme,” Peterson said of Jesus’ message, “is the coming of the Kingdom of God, or heaven.” The gospel talks about the coming age but also something already happening within Jesus’ ministry. How Jesus talks, according to Peterson, is centered on “the here and now. He encouraged people to go out to those on the margins of society.”

The narrative was flipped during his time. The message shifted to “drop everything and follow me,” which counters aspects of our own materialism. The Christmas celebrated by Christians is supposed to focus on the birth of a man who would flip tables, literally, to end profit in the temple. 

So we’re left with the same question: what do we celebrate? It comes down to what we value. The version of Christmas protected by those fighting the “War on Christmas” is one that stakes itself on an imaginary moral substance, but one that doesn’t actually align itself with inclusivity. It marginalizes other perspectives. Since it only fights for these vague images, it lays expectations for what America should look like, namely, one that values material possessions. Looking at original ideas that led to “Christ-Mass,” it was never about the transfer of material, but the preparation for a better world. Even Saturnalia was about remembering a golden age and breaking class boundaries.

We can’t arbitrarily uphold traditional values like they are intrinsically moral, but many of our current traditions don’t have any moral intentions either, which opens up pitfalls for meaningless shopping and obligation. If anything, the season was about reaching out to the marginalized people in society, about abundance instead of accumulation. There’s a richer tradition lying underneath all of this fake snow, and regardless of what we subscribe to, we can make the season we’re entering less about stress and expectation and more about showing up for people, something we prioritize anyway. The past doesn’t need to dictate the way that we resonate with the holidays, but it can remind us of the humanity we already know. 

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