Tis the Season for Cynicism

Posted By Pamela on Dec 20, 2007 | 9 comments

picture-2.pngIt’s nearly Christmas.
Everyday my email is getting blasted with messages from Amazon, Pottery Barn and Restoration Hardware reminding me exactly how long I have to order if I want gifts to arrive by Christmas. The neighborhood houses have grown luminous fur (whoever came up with the idea of icicle lights needs to be shot), and blow up Christmas decorations are doing bad things to my normally pretty historic district (I love this comic). Everywhere I look, there are signs of a secularized Christmas. One of the people I work with is so fed up with it that he won’t touch anything – not even free food! – that is associated with the holiday season.

As someone who still needs to write Christmas cards, finish Christmas shopping, and clean the house in preparation for visiting family, I channeled my Christmas-Joy induced cynicism into an afternoon of listening to skeptical podcasts.

This act was totally inspired by news of the Green Bay City Hall having a display of the Nativity on their roof, but denying pastafarians their own Flying Spaghetti Monster on high and a Festivas Pole was denied as well. I know that it is wrong for a government body to display any celebration of religion outside of a historic context (I’m okay with displaying the 10 Commandments and other historic laws such as the Magna Carta). At the same time, I’d much rather people demanded the removal of such items then demanding the FSP is displayed. (Yes, this is purely emotional.)

It is really hard not to be cynical. Christmas is not a holiday in the New Testament (Easter is). Hanukkah is a minor Jewish holiday (Passover, Rosh Hashanah, and Yom Kippur are all more important). Somehow, however, December has become the most expensive major holiday of the year. There is a cultural expectation of decorations, gift giving, card giving, donating to charity. From where? In part it is from the Catholic Saint Nicholas of Turkey who provided doweries for three poor girls to keep them out of poverty and generally bestowed generous gifts on the poor. His Saint’s Day is December 6. In part it is also from pagan celebrations involving Odin and Winter Solstice on December 21ish. Somehow, at sometime in the past, all the holidays got smashed together.

It doesn’t surprise me that many people in the skeptics movement aren’t content with just inflicting evolution on unsuspecting New Earth Creationalists (and I will join them in that battle against ignorance any day), but instead want to stomp out religion all together. Still, there is a line between saying, “Hey – clean up your religion! Its trying to consume and rebrand everything in sight!” and saying, “You are stupid if you believe in God.” Really. These are two different things.

In having modern discussions of religion, it is important to be able to sort out what are cultural traditions, what are religious celebrations and remembrances, and what are modern sillinesses that our children will laugh at us about.

It’s in the sorting, and the mis-sorting in our nation – a nation with a constitutional separation of church and state – that problems arise and cynicism abounds. It is easy for the Christians to lay claim to the whole holiday shebang, from the tree to the dude in the red hat to Good Ol’ Frosty himself. It is also easy for the atheists to let the Christians lay claim to the whole thing and use it as an opportunity to claim religious oppression.

The thing is, our modern Christmas is not a purely Christian Holiday and there is a lot of rich cultural tradition and silliness that could be enjoyed if we weren’t all so busy being busy and repressed.

Santa Claus and giving gifts to children is a Western Tradition, rooted in Northern European pagan traditions, much like Halloween. The old gods were largely tossed, but the fun traditions were kept. At this point, I think Sanata falls safely in the land of “not religious to all but a small fraction, but be aware.” Christmas trees also fall into this category.

At the same time, the tradition of donating to the needy is rooted in Catholic Saints (the above mentioned St Nicolas of Turkey). Do not, oh publicly funded employers far and wide, send your employees little cards urging them to donate in this holiday season. Urge them to donate before the end of the 2007 tax season is upon us. I’m all about reminding people to donate before December 31. I’m throughly pissed when non-Christians urge giving for non-Christian causes because it’s the holidays.

The Nativity Scene and Minora are also religious symbols with very specific meaning that should not be treated lightly, and should definitely not be made into cartoons or inflatable yard ornaments, and should not be placed in publically funded spaces like town halls, public schools, or court houses. I am at a loss for how it is that Walmart can sell so many kitchy representations of the baby Jesus coming into this world. Whatever happened to the “Do not make idols” clause? Does Hallmark have such good lawyers that they got a papal exemption? In this case, I want to hope that it is largely cultural Christians who are buying into the plastic blow up wisemen trend.

There are the many modern sillinesses, and not all of them are religiously offensive – they are just people enjoying pop culture. Snoopy on his house wrapped in Christmas lights with Charlie and the Gang singing carols, for instance. That scene is one of my favorites. Light up moving yard reindeer seem to be appropo of nothing, yet… there is one across the street watching me blog. These things are purely American. Accept what our pop culture has done, move on, and buy your Velvet Elvis at the holy shrine of Sears, Roebuck and Company as you stock up on College Mascot glass ornaments. These aren’t religous icons. These items, along with the Flying Spaghetti Monster, Festivas Pole, and other trinkets of Americana belong at the mall, and in front of the bank downtown were they can make the young at heart giggle.

It is in our holidays that we have a special opportunity to take stock of how the core parts of our religions have evolved. Religious tradition is a fluid thing, and just as Christmas has evolved radially in the past 100 years, how Christianity is lived has changed in the past 2000 years. There are certain core truths that remain, celebrations that should be remembered, and prayers that remain sacred, but the tradition has in some cases been usurped by Macy’s and Martha Stewart.

When you give a gift: Remember you are celebrating Odin.

When you give a donation: Remember you are acting with St Nicholas as your role model.

When you put up the Nativity Scene: Remember keenly what you memorialize.

And when you top your tree with the Flying Spaghetti Monster, giggle mightily and know that I so wish I had one too.


  1. I just wanted to say that you are absolutely my hero.

  2. Dear Ms Gay,

    You seem like a really cool person who’s interested in space, science, and cynicism (always healthy). You probably would be really cool to meet in person. Maybe that day will happen, but not any time soon.

    Right now I’m in the middle of a “war”–no not Iraq. My war is with the particle physicists. Honestly, I don’t have a qualm with them, but I’m putting forward a new model that curdles their milk. Basically, my new model accepts all the experiment stuff they’ve come up with & all the observational stuff all you space-people have come up with, yet is totally incompatible with the old theories used to describe things, from CPT-Violation on.

    The war is raging on my Scientific American blog site: http://science-community.sciam.com/thread.jspa?threadID=300005599

    I invite you to check it out. I expected the particle guys to be mad because I’m also advocating to shut down their biggest projects. I don’t expect the space-folks to be as threatened. Think about it: with the particle folks shut down, the money that would have gone to them will likely go to you.

    I need a little support in this “war.” Although the full model is on Amazon, you can download the half-model for free off of either hasanuddin.net or hasanuddin.org (but I’m not sure how, I still have to talk with my webdesigner) Exact info on how to download a free copy of the model is contained in comments section of the first blog, in response to the 8th comment.

  3. Thanks for sharing your thoughts on the holidays, Pamela! I wish I had a FSM tree-topper, too, and I don’t even have a tree!

  4. Just thought I’d add that while on a tour of the Roman Ruins, I was told that when the Empire fell the Holy Roman Empire attempted to establish Christmas on Dec 25th to help convert the populace by substituting it for the feast of Sol Invictus, “which was on December 25, and which had supplanted Saturnalia…There is a theory that Christians in the fourth century assigned December 25 (the Winter Solstice on the Julian calendar) as Christ’s birthday (and thus Christmas) because pagans already observed this day as a holiday. This theory is much disputed, as the dates of Saturnalia are not coincident with Christmas. A more refined argument is that Christmas was set on the feast of Sol Invictus…which had supplanted Saturnalia.”-wikipedia

    Regardless of who wins the scholarly argument, the Christmas connection to the giant ORGY that was Saturnalia is pretty awesome (week long feast celebrating Saturn, God of Chaos). So whenever I celebrate Christmas now, I always think: GIANT ORGY! Which is far more fun than nativity scenes and puts me right in the spirit of things. That, and the Garfield Christmas Special. I defy anyone to watch that and fight off the warm fuzzies successfully.

  5. Reminds of a girl in my class who also dislikes the Christmas holidays, for the same reason. As for me, I really have nothing to say, holidays, festivals, etc. don’t seem to intrigue me as much. Apart from being money-harvesting seasons for the sellers, or otherwise, I’m literally bored of holidays and holiday decorations. The only thing I like about holidays is a day or so off from school.

  6. Much of what you say is true. You may remember, from the 50s or so, Stan Freberg’s “Green Christmas” – which I remember got little airtime, due to pressure from merchants. (The “Green” of the title had absolutely nothing to do with today’s quasi-religious green movement.)

    Regardless of its origins, Christmas is a big day in the Christian calendar. (The name, obviously, means “Christ-Mass”.) I think it really got a move forward – in England, at least – after Dickens’ “Christmas Carol”.

    When the Puritans came here, they left the “godless festivities” of British Christmas behind.

    In the 1860s, Thomas Nast developed the first public Santa Claus image. (He also developed the political parties’ donkey and elephant.) About 1920, Santa got today’s look.

    For a long time, many people observed Christmas the way college students observe any other holiday: with drinking, carousing and carrying on. That was one of the things the Puritans were happy to leave behind. (Assuming there was any such thing as a “happy Puritan”.)

    It was in the 1800s that we turned Christmas into a family- and religion-centered holiday. It was made a legal holiday in 1836 and 1838 (Alabama, Louisiana, and Arkansas – note that they’re all Southern states. Northerners still considered Christmas a little suspect).

    I suspect that one reason it’s been so grossly overcommercialized is that much of the country has lost touch with their religious roots.

    Some out there may think of Odin when giving gifts, but not me. We’ve taken all those earlier customs and made them our own.

    I noticed an interesting tidbit about that “constitutional separation of church and state” (a phrase that appears nowhere in the Constitution, and in fact nowhere in any of the Founding Fathers’ writings, except in one letter of Thomas Jefferson’s): the candidates in the current discussions (you really can’t call them “debates”) are embracing religion to a level unseen before. It may be that that’s because two of them are quite religious, but I don’t think so. I think it’s because of the usual Democrats’ way of grabbing on to anything the public is attached to and trying to make it their own.

  7. my hero too. Since I don’t like any presidential candidate, can we get you to run?

  8. Merry Christmas, Pam. Hope you have a great one. I enjoy your smorgisblog, for content and vairety.

  9. In addition to the usual religious and social reasons for celebrating, as a university professor, I enjoy this time as semester break. We don’t buy our Christmas tree until fall grades are turned in.

    It’s a time of reflection and renewal. One semester is over. A fresh new one looms on the horizon.

    Pamela, I’ve enjoyed your podcasts and blogs. I’ve learned so much. I like that you aren’t afraid to get into technical detail. I truly appreciated your blogging about religious belief and being a scientist not being contradictory. You’re teaching more than you realize. Thank you.

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