The mainstream conception of western cultural significance is often shaped by the number of customs and beliefs that we inherited from the Greeks, as well as the Romans.
We have been taught about a world where Roman Christianity and Greek Philosophy constructed the basis of our current society. However, this way of looking at what shapes our traditions, our folklore, and our general perception of ourselves as a culture has made us unaware of the idea that “western culture” has been shaped by many other traditions; these were either borrowed or stolen from other cultures with richer folklore than the pale traditions carried with western puritanism.
It has driven us away from the idea that perhaps “western culture” might not even exist beyond a euphemism for “unrecognized culture”.
One might make the case that this pale culture is still rich. One might then exemplify this case by naming a bunch of celebrations and customs that define this Americanized idea of culture: take Saint Patrick’s Day, Valentine’s Day, Halloween, or Christmas.
One might be surprised to see that all these traditions are, in fact, borrowed. Therefore, now that snow is falling, as well as that the smells like cinnamon and eggnog permeate the air, it is timely to say that Christmas is the epitome of a custom that doesn’t belong to “the west”, but has been shaped by centuries of cultural interchange and suppression.
To understand how we got to our current celebration of Christmas, and the ugly-sweater-parties that precede the event, we need to know how this celebration looked before there was any mention of Christ in the manger.
The truth is that there is no definitive answer, since the celebrations surrounding the days of current Christmas were local rituals honouring agriculture and the winter solstice.
These rituals were mostly part of the folklore of many pagan groups and tribes, thereby making it difficult to trace the origins of Christmas back to a particular celebration.
Nonetheless, we do have an idea of what Proto-Christmas might have looked like in most of Europe and Asia thanks to the rise of Rome as an empire.
Saturnalia was the most important and extended Roman celebration; the people of Rome honoured Saturn, the god of agriculture, with city-wide festivities that extended for a week, ending in Sigillaria, when people gathered to have big banquets and give each other little figurines, or Signillaria.
During the week-long celebration, animals were publicly sacrificed at the temple of Saturn and served to the attendees; schools and jobs stopped to the point where the Roman Slaves were given temporary freedom to be part of the celebrations. It is said that, during Sigillaria, some masters even served their slaves.
Even if Saturnalia is still the most common example of pagan proto-Christmas, the effect of the solstice was felt through all northern countries, marking it also a pagan celebration in the Celtic regions, and the celebration of Jul in Scandinavia.
With the expansion of the Romans, which soon became the Roman Empire, many of these other traditions were either incorporated into or eradicated in favour of Saturnalia.
Thus, when the Empire made Christianity the main religion of Rome, the celebrations were now accommodated to have Christian roots. This is especially important, as in no place does the Bible mention the exact date for the “birth” of Jesus Christ, but, since it was “immoral” to allow these pagan rituals to proliferate, the name of Saturn was traded for that of baby Jesus.
What comes next is the story of the evolution of the ritual and the suppression of others under the surveillance of the Church. However, what today’s traditionalists call “the magic of Christmas” is the magic of other cultures that don’t resemble traditional Christian beliefs in any way, shape, or form.
In the end, instead of writing about how the “west” stole Christmas, we must understand that true “western culture” is rooted in recognizing that there are no such things as traditional values. Instead, there should be an acknowledgement of the fact that the customs that are now celebrated in such a North American fashion exist thanks to cultural diversity and evolution.
One can’t be oblivious to the fact that other cultures exist with different customs, and one can’t try to suppress this multicultural folklore because, the moment we start suppressing this folkloric interchange and we stop acknowledging the evolution of culture for the sake of conservatism, we will begin to witness the demise of “western culture” as a whole.
Without other cultures, the western traditions that make many feel so proud wouldn’t have been able to permeate through history.
By Miguel Cano