Let’s say you sneeze in China.
If you are around polite Cantonese speakers, they will say “great fortunate occurrence.” The Catalans of Barcelona will say “Jesus” or “salut”.
In Irish it’s “Dia linn” which means “God be with us.” Jerry Seinfeld says something else altogether.
But the majority of post-sneeze expressions around the world translate as “to your health” in one way or another.
You can probably see where this is going.
Perhaps it’s a peculiarly American thing? A combination of an admirable, vehement sense of what we might call maximum religious inclusion mixed with a cultural emphasis on visible declarations of affiliation.
(The English, in contrast, seem to resent giving basic factual information like one’s legal name even when it’s clearly required.)
My bestie in Hamburg is Muslim of Bosnian extraction. He says “Merry Christmas”. He’s coming to the Hamburg Christmas markets with the rest of us for Saint Nicholas Day on Tuesday. Saying “Merry Christmas” is like saying “to your health” when somebody sneezes. It’s a majority expression -with some exceptions naturally- and it’s also perhaps among the least likely phrases to be deployed maliciously.
Words can only point to things. As discussed last year, the words “Merry Christmas” point to a bubbling cauldron of hybrid beliefs and practices stretching back thousands of years. It’s an umbrella term rather than an attack on spiritual sovereignty.
If you still need a little convincing, here are a few lesser known historical incidents -snapshots, really- that all, along with countless thousands of others, feed into the great, monstrous, tacky, joyous, profound, utterly unique concoction that is Christmas today.
Incomplete little pieces of Christmas
Yes, we all know that Saturnalia is probably the dominant Roman template for Christmas. However did you know that Saturnalia attracted Scrooges as well? In fact, Pliny The Younger so detested all that seasonal celebrating that he had himself built a soundproof room in which to sit grumpily in while the rest of the city partied on.
The Viking Slaughternight continued in Orkney up until the 20th century, where it was known as Sow Night (Dec 17th) and involved slaughtering and feasting on a pig.
Originally, Slaughternight was a large festival attended by farmers from all around. According to the Heimskringla (AD 1220):
To this festival all the men brought ale with them; and all kinds of cattle, as well as horses, were slaughtered, and all the blood that came from them… [was sprinkled over]… the whole of the altars and the temple walls, both outside and inside… and also the people were sprinkled with the blood; but the flesh was boiled into savoury meat for those present.
3. It was a cave at one point
Quite a number of early Christians -such as Origen of Alexandria- believed that Jesus was born in a cave.
In fact, in the first couple of centuries after he lived, there was apparently a cave just outside Bethlehem, complete with manger and swaddling cloth, that was a place of pilgrimage.
Interesting the pieces that survive (manger) and the pieces that don’t (cave), yeah?
4. Christmas isn’t a squatter
There is a persistent idea -long since abandoned by scholars- that Christmas falls on December 25 as a co-opting of the Roman feast of the Undying Sun. Actually, early Christians wanted nothing to do with Roman festivals -filthy pagan events that they are. (Yay!)
More likely it is a continuation of Hebrew tradition -similar to Buddhism in some regards- that holy people lived ‘whole’ lives: that is, they were conceived or born and died on the same year. Since early Christians believed Jesus had died on March 25, working back nine months you get… December 25.
4. It gets loud in Dewesbury
‘Black Tom’ -a 700 year old bell- is rung at Christmas for every year since Christ’s birth, with the peal ending at midnight. It is then rung once more to tell the Devil of Jesus’s birth and to protect the town for the next year. Adorable yet loud.
5. Turkeys have been popular for a while
The first turkeys arrived in Britain at the port of Bristol in 1526. King Henry VIII was probably the first monarch to eat one. And by the 1700s farmers from Norfolk would walk their flocks all the way into London to be slaughtered and sold at Christmas. The turkeys even had specially made leather booties for the trip.
6. Santa is Canadian
In 1982 the Canadian post office created a special postcode for Santa: HoH oHo. The country followed this up in 2008 by making him a Canadian citizen.
7. Christmas was given to kids in the Industrial Revolution
As people moved from the land and into cities, Christmas ceased being a primarily community event and shifted focus toward individual families. In fact, in a case of life imitating art, following the success of Dicken’s A Christmas Carol, urban families began to mimic the scenes of familial bliss described in (some of) the pages.
Christmas became a ‘time for children’ which allowed one of my favourite saints with his emphasis on children to rise to the prominence he currently enjoys today. (Hail Santa!)
8. Crackers are a fine example of Anglo-French cooperation
Based on the design of the French bonbon (sugared almonds twisted in paper ribbons), London sweet-maker Tom Smith invented Christmas crackers in 1847 as a way to… well, to sell more sweets, naturally. He added paper mottoes inside the packages with sweets, sometimes little gifts and -allegedly inspired by an incident where he was startled by a crackling log in the fire- a strip of chemical explosive. (It’s really weird when you think about it.)
9. “My husband and I”
HM Queen Elizabeth’s Royal Christmas Broadcast to Britain and the Commonwealth is the continuation of a tradition started by her grandfather George V in 1932. It moved to TV in 1957. Combined it is among the longest running broadcast events on the planet.
When someone wishes you a “Merry Christmas”, they’re invoking an idea that is too big to fit in their head. If you feel inclined to mention it, you’re rejecting an idea that’s too big to fit in yours. Magic teaches us that words -even sacred words- are poor substitutes for what they point at. Kinda reminds me of an exchange in series 4 of Angel:
DEMON: Mmm, this blood magic. Flesh magic. Older than words. More much power. This magic she will hear. She will hear and remember her true ones.
WESLEY: So no incantations, then?
DEMON: No words. She gives no care about words. (Angrily) Word magic!?
Words just don’t work for big ideas. You can easily make the case that Christmas is only currently Christian, but the people singing the carols definitely are.
We’re talking about a great moving target here. In fact, most of these little factoids came from a children’s book I was given last week at -wait for it- a Christmas party. It’s assumed children will grokk this. Sidebar: I also note (with glee) that the Krampus is making a comeback. Hopefully we’ll be able to take it off the endangered mythic species list by this time next year.
So you’re not Christian. Who cares? Neither are great chunks of Christmas. What are you supposed to say in a situation that covers everything from gingerbread lattes in Starbucks to carolers to sincere believers to small children to clawed Austrian demons?
The same thing you say when somebody sneezes.