A few months ago as our shopping aisles began to fill with festive cheer in the form of chocolate bears (wrapped in the ancient allure of gold), minces pies, marzipan and Christmas pudding, and the supermarkets freezers were packed with giant frozen turkeys, Kirk Cameron, 1980s television star of the sitcom Growing Pains, and now Evangelical Christian, released his film Kirk Cameron Saving Christmas.
In his many promotional releases Kirk Cameron is at pains to tell us how Christmas is being hijacked by myriad mythical evildoers out to destroy Christmas. Cameron’s pain has nothing on the pain inflicted on the rational viewer.
At the heart of Cameron’s farcical argument is that Christmas as it is celebrated in contemporary America is all about Christ – all of it, including the roast Turkey, shopping, Father Christmas and hot chocolate.
In Cameron’s view the cosmic forces that caused the birth of Christ, his subjection to state murder, his resurrection and his ascent to heaven, did so in order that his followers around the world could eat a huge lunch cooked by women, dance, uphold archaic gender stereotypes and buy a vast amount of presents at the local strip mall.
Cameron is evidently under the impression that Jesus was a Republican.
He is not alone in his novel interpretation of ancient scripture. Intellectual heavyweights and noted biblical scholars, well-versed in ancient languages, history and theology, like Bill O’Reilly of that august institution, Fox News, support his thesis.
Christmas, the divinely ordained white Christmas, is, it seems, being hijacked by an alliance of sinister forces including Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, secularism, atheism and, probably, Satanism, communism and affirmative action too. This is the sort of view that is so farcical that the only response required is a slight lift of Jon Stewart’s always articulate left eyebrow.
But an interesting aspect of the paranoia festering at the fevered outer reaches of the Republican imagination is the way in which a religious festival, rooted in Ancient Rome and more recently tied to a messianic off-shoot of Middle-Eastern Judaism, tries to fix Christmas as a divinely ordained festival of American consumerism. Jesus, it seems, lived in poverty, ministered to the poor, scorned the rich and chased the money changers out of the temple so that today we could get into more debt in the mall.
In fact the entire Christmas celebration is a hijack. Roman Christians hijacked pre-existing forms of pagan celebrations across Europe, and especially the Roman festival of Saturnalia that was celebrated on December 25, to invent Christmas.
Early Christians did not celebrate the birth of Christ as the anniversaries of the deaths of saints were widely held to be more significant dates in the religious calendar. Pretty much all of the rituals and symbols associated with Christmas today have their roots in pagan practices or more contemporary forms of consumerism.
And if we take a look at the food associated with Christmas in America it quickly becomes clear that today’s Christmas is a rather multi-cultural affair that has – much like, say, New York, San Francisco or any other of the large American cities loathed by the American right – developed from the expropriation and adoption of influences from around the world.
The mince pies, so popular in England and its former colonies, were bought back to Europe from the Middle East during the Crusades along with dried fruits and various spices including cinnamon, cloves and nutmeg, which invigorated the palette of Medieval Europe and remain popular Christmas spices today.
At first the mince pies prepared in Europe were very similar to those in the Middle East and combined chopped or minced meat with dried fruit. The mixing of fruit with meat dishes is still a common culinary practice in the Middle East today.
The removal of the meat from the European version, leaving them as a delicacy made only of dried fruit, was a result of political machinations rather than any question of taste. During the Civil War in England, Puritanism was the rule of the day and anti-Catholic sentiment was at an all-time high. Any association with anything Catholic, real or imagined, was abhorred. The mince pie was abolished on the grounds that it was a Catholic indulgence. When things finally eased up and mince pies returned to the menu they were a fruit-only affair.
The Christmas ham has its roots in the pagan feasts that centred around a wild boar with an apple, a fruit first brought to Europe from Kazakhstan by Alexander the Great, in its mouth. By the early 19th century pigs, first domesticated in the Tigris River Valley in contemporary Turkey and Iraq, had replaced the wild boar in much of Europe.
The original Christmas feast in Europe included a goose, or for the rich a swan, along with the ham. But as the famous seventeenth century rhyme records with such perspicuity, the English elites, gathering their capital for the coming assault on Africa, India and the Americas, had other plans:
The law locks up the man or woman
Who steals the goose off the common
But leaves the greater villain loose
Who steals the common from the goose.
The law demands that we atone
When we take things we do not own
But leaves the lords and ladies fine
Who take things that are yours and mine.
The poor and wretched don’t escape
If they conspire the law to break;
This must be so but they endure
Those who conspire to make the law.
The law locks up the man or woman
Who steals the goose from off the common
And geese will still a common lack
Till they go and steal it back.
One aspect of the old English Christmas menu that didn’t make into today’s American Christmas, but which did leave its mark on some Christmas imagery and on the English language, was venison.
The aristocrats would, naturally, take the good bits of meat for themselves, and their serfs, if they were lucky, would be given the cast-off meat – the organs, ears and feet. This meat, referred to as the deer’s ‘umbles’, was baked into a pie, umble pie, ancestor of today’s expression to ‘eat humble pie’.
The 16th century invasion and occupation of large parts of Central and South America further internationalised the Christmas feast.
The Turkey, first domesticated in what is now Mexico 800 years before Christ, and, like chocolate, brought to Europe on a tide of blood by the Spanish Conquistadors, became the mass-produced alternative to the goose, or the swan, for the working class.
When Dickens published A Christmas Carol in 1843 and had Scrooge give a turkey to the Cratchits, reality began to resemble fiction and the turkey became the dish of choice for the masses. The elites, though, continued to hunt geese, and pheasants, on their now enclosed lands. In the United States the Turkey became central to Christmas when it was beginning to become popular after having been abolished by the Puritans in the 17th century.
Christmas is an ancient pagan festival that mutated into a Christian festival and survived various forms of Christian fundamentalism. It is an ancient joy and one that centres around a feast with the roots of its intimate pleasures extending, via the most appalling colonial violence, into ancient Mexico, Iran and Turkey as well the forests of old Europe.
It is Kirk Cameron and the Republican right, with their lunatic fantasy of an eternally white Christmas under threat from a more diverse America, who are trying to hijack a festival that, when you examine at it closely, looks, in its diversity, a lot more like the America they fear than they could ever admit.
Main Photograph: The American Evangelical Right’s search for the right sort of white Christmas has lead them down the trail of denialism and ignorance – by Colin Smith