This is point of inquiry for Monday, December 7th, 2015.
Hello and welcome to Point of Inquiry. A production of the Center for Inquiry. I’m your host, Lindsay Beyerstein. And my guest today is David Kyle Johnson, author of the new book The Myths That Stole Christmas. Sometimes Christians try to make atheists feel guilty for embracing Santa in tree while skipping midnight mass. Hear them talk. Reindeer and mistletoe are mere distractions from the real reason for the season, namely Jesus. But as Kyle’s research shows, it’s actually Christianity. That’s the Johnny come lately to Solstice celebrations. So grab your plane, read Starbucks Cup and put your feet up. History shows that the holiday season has always been a time for drinking, singing, carrying on and hooking up.
Kyle, welcome to the program. Thanks for having me, Lindsey.
You’re an atheist philosophy professor. What inspired you to write a book about Christmas, Paul?
Well, for one thing, one of the things that inspired me to write a book about Christmas was the misconception that someone who’s an atheist shouldn’t be interested in Christmas or doesn’t have a right to celebrate the holiday. So one of the things I actually argue argument things in the book, but one of the things I actually argue in the book is I kind of defend the notion that it is okay for non Christians to celebrate Christmas and that, in fact, there is a certain there’s something wrong with any group really trying to claim ownership of the holiday and make declarations about the right and the wrong way to celebrate it. And so one of the ways I try to fight through that is by kind of exposing these seven myths that I think it kind of hijacked the holiday and to make people basically kind of believe that there’s a right and wrong way to celebrate it in order to try to debunk those myths and in order to kind of set us free from Christmas and a certain kind of way. Not that that we so not so that we don’t have to celebrate, although we can not celebrate if we don’t want to, but so that we’re more free to kind of celebrate as we see fit.
A lot of Christians claim that Jesus is the reason for the season and the Christmas is always an inherently been a religious holiday and that all the other stuff that we associate, the Santa and the tree and the crops and all tacked on and extraneous. What’s the counterargument to that?
Yeah. So that is the common myth, the idea that Christmas is a religious holiday and onto which secular elements have been tacked on. But that is basically the result mean that’s a myth that is not true and is the result of a propaganda war to make it seem to obscure the opposite fact that actually the reverse is true, that it’s actually been it originated, as it always has been, a primarily secular holiday with religious elements tacked onto it. So historically speaking, it’s just false that it was originally a Christian holiday, that the reason that we celebrate, you know, during December is because that’s when Jesus was born. For one thing, likely that’s not where Jesus was born. But that came to be the belief about when Jesus was born. But even that was not the reason that the reason that we celebrate in December is not because people came to believe that Jesus was born in December. People came to believe that Jesus was born in December because we already were celebrating. In December, we already had. Saturnalia was up was a festival harvest festival, basically at the ancient Roman world that was celebrated in December. Sol Invictus was the sun God back in that times, and his birth date was believed to be December 25th. And when Rome tried to Christianize, I called Constantine, tried to Christianize Rome. One of the things the church had to do was basically try to supplant these already existing celebrations and Christianize them in a certain kind of way. It could not get rid of them and so it instead relabeled them.
So, you know, Christians often see Jesus as the reason for the season. But is it more accurate to say that the season is what we were celebrating initially and Jesus was grafted on later?
Absolutely. One of things I say in the book is what secular is often say is actually the reason for the season is the earth tilt, right? That’s right. That’s the reason that there are seasons. But in a certain kind of way, that’s also true for the holiday season because the celebrations like Saturnalia, the Roman festival, was motivated as a seasonal harvest festival. It was the perfect time to party in the ancient Roman agricultural world. It’s when the harvest was in. So there was no more work to be done. But there’s also the one time of year where they had the most plentiful food. The only time of year when they would have had fresh meat, because that’s when they’re calling the herds basically so they can survive the winter.
So they would have had fresh non salted meat and they had nothing else to do. And they had fresh first grain for alcohol that cost stuff. And so they had an abundance of alcohol. No work to be done. It was the perfect time to party. And that’s what Saturnalia was, was this giant. Feasting. Drinking and sexually oriented party. There was lots of sex that went on during Saturnalia at that time when big office Christmas party.
Yeah, a really big week long office Christmas party. And that’s the way it was celebrated throughout the Middle Ages. Again, Christians didn’t try to get rid of it. They just tried to Christianize it. They put Jesus on it. They said, well, they declared that that’s where Jesus was born was on December 25th. So they could say that all the feasting and all the revelry was done in Jesus’s name.
So they rallied behind Jesus. They totally retcon. Yes, they totally right. Well, they retcon Saturnalia what they did.
They gave a retroactive continuity’s story for Saturnalia that put Jesus in the middle of it in a way, in a way to try to supplant it, basically. But I mean, it did get the name and the. I think it was the eleven hundreds. I think finally it starts to be called Christmas because that’s just an appropriation of the mass that people went to at midnight Christ Mass. But it remained a secular holiday throughout the Middle Ages. That’s the primary way people celebrated. It was in this secular way. So much so. And it remains so secular. Just got more and more secular as the years went on that the Puritans tried to stamp Christmas out because it was a pagan holiday. They recognized it as a pagan holiday.
They saw how it was celebrated. They didn’t like all the debauchery. And so they may literally made it illegal to celebrate the Puritans banned Christmas.
That’s really something.
Yeah, it really is.
There’s this phenomenon going all the way back to the earliest pagan days of social reversal. Can you tell us about what that is and how it’s how it’s evolved through our Christmas rituals?
Yes. So it traces back in this tradition may trace back to other traditions I talk about in other chapters, but it at least traces back to find its origins in all, like 4000 year old traditions of Ficca IDAG muck, where Babylonians and other kind of primitive cultures would do this tradition of of King for a day. So the idea was that, I mean, winter was setting and it was a terrifying time for the ancients because they had no way of knowing whether the spring would ever return. And they just kept getting shorter for all they knew. They were just gonna continue to get shorter until there was no light. Laughter was just darkness. Right. And so they feared that that would happen. And so they thought they had to do something to ensure the return of spring. And basically what they believe was that that’s some version of their God, the son or daughter or whatever God they believed in, would have to fight off the forces of chaos, basically in order to ensure that the spring, the spring would return that spring with spring, spring would be sprung. So they believe that their king basically needed to descend into the underworld in order to help Mourdock or whatever God they believed and fight off the forces of chaos. Well, the way to descend into the underworld, of course, is to die. Well, kings didn’t very much like dying. And so they what they decided to do was appoint someone as king for a day. That person would get their every whim granted basically for a day. At the end of that day, they would be killed so they could descend into the underworld and help fight off the forces of chaos. And, of course, spring of return, everybody would think the ritual was successful. Right. So but this starts this this practice of what I call social inversion, where the rich look after the poor, somebody who’s lowly, a peasant, a prisoner or something, gets to be king for a day. That tradition makes its way into Saturnalia, where people are being sacrificed at the end of the day. But the poor and those who are without basically kind of get looked after by the rich for a day. Everybody has equal access to food. Even the rich people will wait on and serve food to those who are less fortunate. This is declared by Saddam’s Leuthold. Saturnalia gets one of Saturn’s holidays. Saturn was one of the harvest gods. And so he’s basically demanding kind of equal share of the harvest for everyone. And so this this practice of social inversion gets started there and that travels through that state. That’s actually is one of the very few traditions that we have today that actually are ancient. Most of our traditions that we have today are not early, around 100, 200 years old. But that’s one tradition of basically kind of that social inversion is one of the ancient ones, and it makes its way through the Middle Ages in to a tradition around. Well, when the Puritan influence wavers, it goes out a little bit and Christmas starts to make a bit of a comeback. It makes a comeback in a completely secular way. And one of the very popular traditions of the time that harkened back to things that were done in the Middle Ages was called with sailing. And the idea was this. If you were a rich landowner and you obviously had servants as a rich landowner, you would be obligated at Christmas time to open up your house to your servants and your servants. Would they be your hired hands for the field or whatever they were if they worked for you? They could come into your house and they could demand the house’s best food and drink and they would sing songs make. Such demands. They would refuse to leave until they got what they demanded. And did you once you the master produces the best food and drink, then they would be happy. Then they would sing you songs of well wishing and in good cheer. And this helps us finally make sense of that. Extremely weird song.
Bring us some figgy pudding. Bring us some figgy pudding. We won’t leave until we get some. Bring it right here. And then when you finally bring it. Oh, well, we wish you a merry Christmas and a happy new year.
Right. It’s a wassailing saw what people would demand food. And then in return for the food they would give relishing to their masters. In his book The Battle for Christmas, Steven Nissen Bohm likens it to a social safety valve that basically helped solidify social roles because it was the poor ones that were having to beg for the food, but also allowed the poor to let off steam as except Turkey take advantage of their social betters for a day or two. And the social betters could kind of prove that they weren’t so bad because they’re a lot. They’re willing to give them the best food and drink offer that day. And so it kind of helps solidify social roles in the north. And interestingly, I talked about this a couple paragraphs in the book. And in the South, there were certain kind of with sailing like rituals that happened in the antebellum South that allowed slaves to have certain freedom to get certain gifts at Christmas time before slavery was abolished. Often this was abused by Masters of the Way to keep slaves enslaved. I talk a little bit about that in the book, but that is a tradition that existed both in north and South that acted as this kind of social safety valve that kept people, quote unquote, in line. That helped solidify the social roles that existed.
And that worked really well. As long as people in a pre-industrial society we had a lord or plantation master and you had some kind of social relationship with him.
What happened when that all started to break down and we ended up living more in cities and working for factory owners we might never meet?
Right. Yeah. So the short answer to that question is what happened was Christmas was invented. Our modern day Christmas was invented. So what happened was as industrialization set in and the poor were no longer working directly for their master, they wouldn’t even know what the person who employed them look like, much less where they lived.
They still felt that they were deserved a visit, that they could do the visiting, that they wouldn’t get a visit, they would do the visiting they deserved, could get into someone’s house and they deserved the best food and drink of their master’s house. But they didn’t know who their master was, their employer was. And so what happened like in New York is is a very big problem in New York is that bands of poor people, that people who worked in factories and that kind of stuff would band together and roam through the streets of New York with giant noisemakers and trash can lids or whatever they could find to make big horns. And they in basically making all this noise going to the city and they would actually try they would demand entrance into people’s houses, but they didn’t know at all. They would find someone big, rich, how to make these guys have got some good grub. But let’s try to get into there. And of course, they didn’t know who these people were. They don’t want to let them into their house as they often didn’t. If they didn’t let them give into their demands. Things could get really ugly. Things could mean they could start throwing rocks and vandalize the house. And so this was a real worry for rich New Yorkers. They really Christmas time was not a great time for them because they had to worry about people trying to get into their house. And so there is a wonderful poem that comes up from this era that that speaks to this worry.
It’s this poem where there’s this rich landowner in New York who’s falling asleep with his family on Christmas Eve and everything’s nice and quiet. And all of a sudden there’s this giant noise out on the lawn. And so he’s like, are you thinking to myself, oh, no, what’s with sailors? People are going to try to start get in my house. This is not good, right? And so he rushes to the window and throws it open, looks out on the lawn. And to his delight, it’s not with sailors. It’s a or it’s not a bunch of sailors. It’s a single with sailor alone, little Pedaler looking figure called Saint Nicholas. And this is actually where the poem, a visit from St. Nicholas or what we know is the night before Christmas comes from Moore was expressing reservations like where he was he was tapping into, I should say, the rich people’s worries at that time. About what? About what sailors at that time of year. And what he’s trying to do is reinvented. He’s trying to supplant it really and create a new tradition where instead of going out and was sailing and trying to get into other rich people’s houses, what really happened to Christmas is Saint Nick comes and visit your house and he doesn’t take anything like the sailors do. He only comes to gifts. So he opens his pack and he gives presence and then leaves without asking anything in return. He’s trying to do the best, became the holiday.
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So the night before Christmas, we think of Santa as being, you know, extremely traditional, but really, are you saying that it was this this is the genesis. This is the seminal text of Santa as a little man and his reindeer. That’s where it all came from. Yes. In the eighteen hundreds.
And the eighteen hundreds. Right. So the tradition, the St. Nicholas tradition dates back a little bit more than that. And then where that tradition originates dates back even further. I talk about that in great detail in my book. But we often have the inclination to think that what that poem describes is an already existing tradition. It’s just putting in poetic form a tradition that already existed. It is not. It basically invents that tradition by taking the Dutch version of the tradition sort of and really bastardizing it and rearranging it and reinterpreting it in a way that fits what Clark KLEMET more wants. This is actually very common for his group of people called Knickerbockers in New York. Do they fancy themselves Dutch and New York as the city with a lot of Dutch history when it didn’t really have as much does Dutch history as they thought and they certainly weren’t Dutch themselves. So Washington Irving is another Knickerbocker kind of part of Moore’s another, and they kind of invent this pseudo Dutch history for New York. And this is part of that effort. And so Irving Washington Irving actually described St. Nicholas as having a flying sleigh or wagon in his knickerbockers history of New York. So maybe that’s where the flying sleigh comes from. But he is actually most likely borrowing. That’s from Old Norse traditions like Thor for how to find Chariot pulled by two goats, Nasha and Kracker, which is Thunder and lightning, which is in German, his daughter and Blitzen. He’s probably borrowing that from that Old Norse tradition more turns it into eight flying reindeer. And by the way, most people don’t realize he turned Saint Nicholas into a Pedaler. If you look at the poem, he looks nothing like a saint. No saint ever was. Bowlful of jelly with round cheeks and shake like a bofill jelly and was dirty and sooty, and it was covered in fur from his head to his foot. There’s some other traditions that serve as influence for that as well. But he’s an elf. Most people don’t realize he’s not a full-grown person because usually when you see the poem illustrated today, he looks like the Coca-Cola Santa Claus. He is a miniature elf with a miniature sleigh and eight tiny reindeer. That’s how he can fit down the chimney is because he is so small. And that is where the tradition literally is. The majority of the Christian, I should say, is literally invented in that poem. And then it catches on like a fad. And everyone starts thinking that what you do at Christmas time is you trick your children into believing that Santa Claus visited during the middle of night.
So parents read this poem and that, hey, I know what we’ll do. We’ll have a surprise for the kids where we pretend.
And I imagine there was a lot of pressure from kids, right? Well, you know, the other kids, my other friends, their parents do this like they you know, why should they their parents do this? Santa Claus visits their house. Why does doesn’t Santa Claus visit our house? And so the parents end up kind of being roped into the tradition. Right. But it catches on. I mean, it catches on very, very quickly. Within a matter of of 10 or 20 years, pretty much everyone is pretending that Santa Claus comes over their house on Christmas Eve and delivers presents. And this, of course, accomplished exactly what more the Knickerbockers wanted, because now, instead of trying to break into their house in their wassailing ritual, they’re now staying home with their children on Christmas. And that’s what they wanted in the first place.
Why do you think people were ready to give up the wassailing ritual? And frankly, sounds like more fun.
Now, it might be there’s but there’s something else that that and this doesn’t Bob talks about this in his book, The Battle for Christmas. There’s something else that was happening at the time that maybe made that tradition that the St. Nicholas tradition more appealing. He talks about this being a time where a child centered parenting philosophy was was beginning to balloon that before this time, children were seen literally as second class citizens, as kind of on the same social level as the poor. Even the children of rich families were seen as the same that same social level as the poor. But that was changing. And the idea of parenting, and that’s also to do with industrialization before having a child, would be somebody who would help you around the house. A young boy would help you around the farm. The young girl would help you around the house. That’s why they were called maidens or maids. They were literally maids. They would help clean up and cook that stuff. But as industrialization sets in, that doesn’t that makes less sense. And they’re not children are not helpers around the house. And so it becomes the idea that the parent and the families obligation is to not just educate children, but entertain children, provide for their happiness. And this new kind of child centered parenting philosophy. Emerges in this time in that Christmas tradition just feeds right into it, and so they end up kind of reinforcing each other. They arrive at the same time and one kind of reinforces the other. And the more child centered one gets, the more child centered the other gets. And it just kind of is a vicious cycle. And so I think that’s why people eventually abandon them with failing traditions because their kids became more important, basically.
You’ve written a lot about how Santa Claus is definitely not a historical guy who is known as Saint Nicholas. What’s the problem with that view?
Yeah. So there’s a number of problems with that view. One is and we’ve touched on this just a little bit, but let’s go into some more detail. If the explanation of Santa Claus, the American Santa Claus or anywhere you see Santa Claus as an Americanization of a Catholic saint, Saint Nicholas doesn’t make much sense because, as I suggested, no historical saint was dressed in heads, in fur from his head to his foot and was jolly and and sooty and smoked the pipe and did all of that right. If you look at what Saint Nicholas looks like, I mean, he wasn’t an elf either. If you look at the technical for the poem or something else going on, it’s very, very different there. There might be some people suggest that Saint Nicholas was a gift giver and so is Santa Claus. And so there’s that supposed combination or that supposed similarity there. The problem is, is that the historical Saint Nicholas likely wasn’t a gift giver either. The story that picks him as a gift giver is the story. The three daughters where he gives a dowry to a Buddha or three dollars to a widower so he can marry off his daughters. But it turns out that story is was actually Apollonius the story. That story predates Nicholas and Nicholas Moore and belongs to the Pythagorean philosopher, Apollonius. That same story is attributed to him. So that story was borrowed from Apollonius and put on the St. Nicholas Lawrence of the historical St. Nicholas wasn’t actually a gift giver. In fact, most of the stories that we know about St. Nicholas are just more in that way. In fact, the Catholic Church admits itself that they’re all law. All we supposedly know, according to the Catholic Church about Saint Nicholas, is that he was a bishop for Miah in the 4th century.
That’s it. That’s it. No miracle. Everyone else.
No miracles. No nothing. That’s all we like. All we know about him is that there’s all these other stories that are applied to him. But all we know, they admit, is Bishop Meyera 4th century. That’s the. And the reason why is because all of the other stories and miracles that are attested to him can be found in other places that pre-date him there. Poseidon’s miracles. They are old cars, miracles. There’s all these other miracle stories that predate him that just got appropriated. This got adopted or adapted onto St. Nicholas Law.
There’s a part in the book where there’s a colorful incident. I think it was St. Nicholas where he ends up punching another bishop.
Yes. So here’s the thing. I actually argue that St. Nicholas never actually existed at all as a historical person. And this is not I mean, that may seem really, really surprising, but that’s not that novel of a hypothesis because the Jesuits have actually declared not historical. A great number of Catholic saints, including some big ief like Think Valentine and Saint Christopher. My suggestion is the same thing is true for Saint Nicholas. That he is a saintly version of another pagan God called the Cross in opposition to that idea. People suggest that, oh, no, Saint Nicholas was definitely historical. He was at the council Nicaea. There’s this story about him punching out Arius at the council. So at the council, what they were trying to do was solidify Christian doctrine. One of the things they had to decide was what the nature of Christ was and Arius was, what was to become labeled as a heretic. He didn’t think that Jesus was divine. Well, so the story goes. Nicholas got so upset at this that he just backed off. He punched him. And this is supposed to explain why Nicholas is not on the rolls of the Council of Nicaea. He was removed. He was defrocked, basically because he punched someone in the emperor’s presence. And so and it was only a role of the bishops that were there. And so he was defrocked. Now, actually, Nicholas is on a couple of the roles he’s missing for. Most of them are like nine copies of the roles he’s on, three of them he’s missing from the net. So what’s actually explaining is why he’s missing from these other six roles. Were they defrocked him? So they took him off the list?
Well, very saintly behavior.
Yeah, no, it’s not very friendly behavior at all. Although if you were to watch Kirk Cameron’s version of Christmas history, it’s supposed to be the mobile effect ever. He’s got a depiction of him just beating the hell out of areas. It’s horrible. But the problem with this is that is not the most likely explanation. That story about Saint Nicholas acting that way at the Council of Nicaea does not date back to the council. It actually is relatively recent in the last 500 years or so. That story first emerge. What it most likely is, is that story emerged as an explanation for why Nicholas was missing from so many of the roles, most of the roles that still exist. What is more likely that this happened at the time of the Agent Church is that those roles did exist. But once St. Nicholas was invented, the first mention of them is about 440. But one hundred years after his supposed death and then the first biography of is like 700. It’s a non forced biography and it’s not reliable at all. 440 is to think that it’s all. Stories, but once belief about Saint Nicholas becomes popular and the idea that he was a bishop or Miren, the fourth century is popular. The monks who are preserving those roles, so we know who’s there because they of course, they would wear out. So they preserved writings by copying them down. Monks basically realized, wait a minute, Saint Nicholas was a bishop in the 4th Century Council. Nicaea happened the 4th century. Saint Nicholas should have been there. I don’t see him on the role, but he was there and they had him on. All right. That kind of stuff happened quite often in the Middle Ages, where monks copying your manuscripts would add what they add revisions for things that they needed that they thought needed revised. And this would’ve just been another one of the many, many examples of just such an addition. And so that’s my contention, is that St. Nicholas never actually historically existed. What he is, is a saintly version of an old God called the class. Who was this old nature fertility God that was usually half man, half goat. People would dress up dressed up as him with furs and horns and that kind of stuff. And ultimately, what happened was they sent to death, God and Clough’s. Let’s do it. This God’s name was that is short for Nicholas in America. Your name’s Nicholas. Your nickname is Nick. But in Germany for nicknames, Nicholas, you go by clouts. Nick laughs the latter half of your name. So if you were to St. Wildman. God, I was fertility God. But I’m talking about you would call him St. Nicholas. And in fact, if you look at the history of where St. Nicholas first starts appearing, he’s visiting people’s houses. And the fact that he’s visiting people houses, he’s actually borrowing that law from Odin, Odin without a house visitor who visited with characters like you and Burster who would bring gifts and that kind of stuff. That law gets transferred over to Nicholas, just like so many other stories get transferred over to Nicholas.
Where does the Krampus fit in? Right.
So that’s where I’m almost there. Right. So here’s where it comes in. What nitwit Nicholas would show up? He would have this helper in tow. And it was this old Wildeman helper that was this half man, half goat demonic looking figure that he was his helper and he would dispense the punishments. And if you had been bad, he would lead. He would lead the wild man in chains behind him. If he’d been bad, he might drop the chains and let the wild man chase you down, stuff you in his sack and haul you back to hell. Or maybe he’ll just whip you with his birch rod. And so this tradition of Nicholas showing up with this wild man takes on different forms in different places in Germany. He’s Hommes Trump. No, no, no. I’m sorry. As Kintz Lubetkin Rupert’s in there as well. There’s haunch drop, but in Austria, it’s crumps. And that’s the figure that you’re asking about. And that’s the figure that has become more and more popular in the last five, six, seven years or so. I’ve been seeing it pop up more and more and more. Where in 2009, he made a single appearance on The Colbert Report. But this year, there are two major Hollywood films about Krampus coming out, and his role is the same. He will he is Santer’s or Saint Nicholas’s punisher. And if you’ve been bad, he will beat the hell out of you or even drag you back to help himself. This tradition is still popular. In fact, it’s even getting even more popular in Austria today, where if you were to go to Austria around December 6th, they would have entire parade, didn’t have crops lost and entire parades were young. Men will dress from head to foot, totally covered in full and fur, horribly, horrendously wonderful but scary masks with giant horns coming out of them. And they would parade through the streets carrying fire behind them, symbolic of the fires of hell and basically scare the hell out of everybody. And people love it. It is ridiculously wonderful.
Has researching all these different facets and options of Christmas changed the way that you celebrate the holiday?
Yeah, a little bit. I talk in the book about some of the economic effects of gifts, and so I have tried to start giving gifts in a slightly different way. And then I also one of the followers of crop is one of the things that happens at the Compas tradition is that Protestants don’t like Saint Nicholas, but they still like the idea of a gift giver. And so they emerge, croppies and Saint Nicholas into one figure that becomes kind of a durry dirty Sudhi version. In fact, Santa Claus is just one of those characters. That’s why he’s just as far from his head in sport as because he’s part grampa’s. But in Pennsylvania, they have a gift giver that the Pennsylvania Germans like called Bells Nickel. And he is a dirty version of Santa Claus. He actually the precursor to Santa Claus. And close to home here. There’s a place that has this. They preserve some of those old German Pennsylvania traditions and they have a guy that dresses up as bells nickel every year and does a visit to the schoolhouse. We’ve gone for the last five or six years every year, 30 Santa.
I like it. That’s all the time we have for today. Thank you so much for coming on the show and merry Christmas.
Merry Christmas to you live. Thanks a bunch.
And thanks to all our loyal listeners. Want to inquire, we’ll be taking a brief hiatus for the holidays, but we look forward to bringing you fresh content in mid-January. Whatever it is, you’re celebrating the solstice. We wish you all the best. And you’ll hear from us again in the New Year.