The Story of Christmas

Posted: December 8, 2009 by Tim Barclay in Religion
Tags: ,

The following is from an advertising campaign which recently ran in the UK.

This campaign uses what is known as User Generated Content. By getting people to film and send in testimonies on webcams, the company not only saves time and money, but more importantly, it co-opts the apparently genuine, grass-roots nature of the amateur Youtube video blogger to lend unearned credibility to the product.

It is a marketing ploy, and a pretty cynical one at that.

During the 4th century, early Christians were busily spreading the message of Jesus up through Europe trying to gain support and converts as they went. All the civilisations they encountered had strong cultural traditions already which included various annual feast days and celebrations. The most important of which, in a lot of cases, was a midwinter festival some time around the equinox celebrating the end of bad whether being in sight and the eventual return of Spring.

Winter festivals, such as the Scandanavian Jōl, were deeply ingrained in their respective cultures and popular among their people. So the early Christians realised that forcing would-be converts to drop their dancing and feasts in order to accept a new message was going to be a hard sell.

So they adapted their message. Before the 4th century, there had been a certain amount of speculation about when Jesus had been born, but no date could be said with any real certainty. So the early church exploited this hole in their knowledge by creating a midwinter celebration of their own to mark the newly fabricated date of Christ’s birth. The actual date on which Jesus had been born was of little importance as long as they could nominally pin something onto a festival so that converts wouldn’t feel hard done by if they joined up.

Just like Confused.com tried to borrow the credibility of Youtube bloggers sitting at home with their webcams to attract customers to their brand, the early church co-opted the popular elements of the cultures it encountered to attract converts to their religion. ‘You don’t need to give up the fun parts of your present culture,’ they angled, ‘you can keep those bits and still join us.’

Christmas was, in short, a marketing ploy. And a rather cynical one.

This leads me to two conclusions. The first is that atheists should have no problem celebrating Christmas if they want to, despite the assertions to the contrary by some Christians. Christmas was created to avoid early European Christians getting jealous of their heathen peers by re-branding almost all the details of various pre-existing pagan festivals to be nominally Christian. So I see no reason why modern heathens shouldn’t celebrate their part in the holiday’s historical formation by acknowledging the normal traditions of the Christmas tree (Roman), gift-giving (Roman), Santa (Norse), feasting etc.

The other conclusion is that the typical annual outcry over the perceived rise of commercialisation subverting the real message of Christmas is unfounded. Considering that the concept of Christmas was little more than a marketing strategy in the first place, it seems rather fitting that its name should be employed by modern marketeers to shift their goods at this time of year.

Looking back at my original analogy now seems rather unfair. Christmas, for all its pseudo-historical shortcomings, is still founded on a rather lovely ancient tradition of feasting, enjoyment and the giving of gifts to others. The Confused.com marketing campaign is an artless and vacuous attempt to fool viewers into forming a particular, and probably incorrect, image of a bland corporation by creating some of the most intensely irritating thirty second pieces of film in recent memory.

Regardless of your beliefs, the Christmas period is one where we can remind ourselves to do all the selfless things we should be doing all year round. We can spend time with our families and reconnect with friends, give and receive gifts of wildly varying quality and enjoy the warmth of a season that, at least for a couple of days, encourages people to feel goodwill to all.

Just remember that not that long ago, it would have been Odin putting things in your stockings.

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