The city I live in, Geneva, has many strange aspects. In some ways it’s a city like no other. It is very small, but likes to see itself as very big. Somewhat like that image of a little Pussycat looking at self in the mirror and seeing a lion with a great mane. It is incredibly bourgeois, but loves to feel revolutionary. It calls itself the city of peace, and it is, if you consider a passive aggressive disposition as peaceful.
No surprise then, that it has its own share of special days that no one else in Switzerland celebrates (OK, the others have their own days off)… I’ve already written about the Escalade, which celebrated Geneva’s defense against the Savoyards, who had attacked the city just before Christmas (Gregorian calendar) in 1602. Because protestants refused Christmas (yes, the original “war against Christmas”folk were the same denomination worried to bits about a non-existent war on Christmas in the USA).
Today, Thursday September 9, we have another day called the Jeûne Genevois, a day of fasting. What makes it strange is that it comes right after the-post vacation rush back to work and school. It always feels a bit like driving off in a speedboat and forgetting to untie it from the dock. Suddenly you are faced with a free day, plus the following Friday, because this holiday is scheduled for the second Thursday in September.
For school kids and teachers, the Friday is NOT a free day. So the four-day weekend, while tempting, will merely remain a painful longing. A temptation to overcome and teach us to steel ourselves for greater temptations.
What’s the origin of this holiday? Basically, fasting is quite a common sport and tends to come from religion, as I have written before. It is mostly done as a form of cleansing and atonement. In Europe, fasting was often ordained after major catastrophes, like plagues. (Chatty aside: This is rather amusing since today a small but vociferous section of the population complains bitterly about any measures taken to slow the spread of our current plague, the coronavirus, and is willing to invent and spread all sorts of extraordinary and often contradictory tidbits of fake information to support their claims. In the good old days, one could just blame the Jews and burn up their ghettos, including inhabitants… And not surprisingly, the covid-deniers have developed a strain of anti-Semitism, notably in France with the “Qui” question, Germany with a vegan cook turned demagogue and a far right wing reveling in denial, and in the USA with the Q lunacy …. plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose).
Anyway… Switzerland did establish a confederate fasting day in 1794 during the French Revolution, and reaffirmed it in 1832, but it fell on a Sunday. Geneva decided to go its own way (passive aggressively) and just to be complicated made it the Thursday following the first Sunday in September.
But Wikipedia tells us that the Genevan fast goes back to the night of Saint Bartholomew and the terrible massacre of Protestant families that began in Paris in 1572. It’s not entirely true. there is evidence that the originator of this day off was in fact Jean Calvin himself. No doubt, however, the Protestants here we’re very upset at the horrifying news from Paris back in 1572. and because it’s Geneva, this particular fasting involves nothing less than eating tarte au pruneaux…. a delicious plum tart. Those plums are ripe at this point, and this might help understand why Protestants were always considered good in business. If you can sell plum tarts for a day of fasting, you can sell refrigerators to the Inuit, and SUV’s to people living in a tiny city.
Few in Geneva know why this day is one of fasting. Even fewer care, I suspect. But the tart remains, after all, the motto of the city is Post tenebras lux. After the darkness, luxury… or is it light? Same thing, perhaps.
When New York Journal illustrator Frederick Remington contacted his boss, William Randolph Hearst, from Cuba in 1897, it was to inform him, that the insurrection against the Spanish colonial overlords was simply nothing to write home about. “You furnish the pictures,” Hearst telegrammed back, famously, I should add, “I’ll furnish the war.” Hearst, who made his fortune with what used to be called “yellow journalism,” went on to hype up a non-conflict, inflaming public opinion with reports on an American citizen imprisoned by the Spanish authorities and of a female rebel being strip-searched. He went on to lay blame for the sinking of the Maine at the doorstep of the Spaniards, and thereby got what he really wanted: yuuuuge circulation numbers plus the bloody Spanish-American war that further pumped his newspaper’s revenues. Wars are money makers.
Hearst hadn’t spread entirely fake news, but it wasn’t real, either.
Things haven’t changed much since then, it seems. The medium can massage the public into believing some patently absurd stuff. Case in point: A “war” that has been raging for some time now, one made up almost entirely of whole cloth. The conflict in question is just one large and noisy front in a mostly bogus “culture war” that became especially heated as soon as Barack Obama became president in 2008. If you are wondering why, really: It was a skin-deep issue.
I’m talking, of course, of the “War on Christmas.” It is one of those ridiculous non-issues that a cohort of flimflammers on Fox News and points right on the media map ramble on about to the derision of late-night hosts and to the amazement of the millions who say merry Christmas and decorate Christmas trees without being hauled off to some atheistic torture chamber to be beaten to a pulp with tomes by Stephen Hawking and Richard Dawkins, with a few volumes of Nietzsche thrown in for good measure.
President Trump of late has been making a great deal of hay out of this fake war, tweeting, notoriously this on Christmas Eve:
Great. So he won a non-existent war. And he is proud of it. And his base jumps up and down and hollers “We won,” and starts throwing insults at non-existent enemies of their Merry Christmas wishes. Booster Mike Huckabee, a leading officer in the cult of fatuous ignorance, went so far as to compare Trump to Churchill, I guess for his verbal gesticulations during this non-conflict. Winston Churchill, why not Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar, George Patton, or even Erwin Rommel…. It’s all for The Base (Al Qaeda in Arabic), and it tends to swallow this kind of agitprop hook, line, and sinker: Obama is taking their guns, was born in Kenya, is a Muslim, millions of illegal voters, microwave ovens spying, child porn rings run out of the basement of a cellar-less pizza parlor, and so on. Let us not dwell too long on this utter bilge coming from this ersatz president.
More seriously, we are truly in an Orwellian mind warp, since the alleged war is in fact non-existent, but focuses the attention of so many people, apparently. On December 25, 2017, the Washington Postreported on Linden, TN, where saying Merry Christmas and writing it on any free surface has been elevated to a deeply religious and revolutionary act. Is this for real? Poor Tennessee. 93 years after the embarrassment of the Scopes trial, it is still wallowing in some self-aggrandizing self-stigmatization, a deeply satisfying feeling of finally being recognized for having always accepted the dirty end of the stick, a notion that is spread mostly by their own chosen and much-hailed leaders.
Trump hopped aboard the War on Xmas boat for political gain, of course. Most people realize that the man’s interest in spiritual issues or religion itself is near zero, though I would be loath to judge from a distance. His entire career smells oddly of materialism, of gain by stealth, of master bamboozler, though he might at heart be very pious. That, at any rate, is what some evangelicals are willing to believe, in order to be able to support him. But New Yorkers know him well, so he turned his
attention to nice people in rural USA (and I mean “nice” without ANY irony, believe me). If Trump has any religious/spiritual impulse, it is probably more Borgia than Cotton Mather. As the Washington Post put it: “During the general election, about 80 percent of evangelicals voted for Trump, even though he rarely attends church and is a cursing, thrice-married former reality television star from Manhattan who has been publicly accused by 13 women of kissing or groping them without their consent.”
Let it be said loud and clear and once and for all: There is no war on Christmas in the USA. In countries that are not under Christian sway, there are restrictions, or prohibitions (Brunei and Somalia come to mind). But in our thriving consumer-democracies, the answer is a clear NO. If people have been saying happy holidays, or season’s greetings, or something other than Merry Christmas, it has been mostly to be more inclusive of those who do not have Christmas in their cultural baggage, and that might even include themselves. Moreover, Happy Holidays is, after all, just a euphemism of sorts, a little like calling the toilet a bathroom, or powder room. Whichever way one looks, Christmas is always there in word and deed, in the form of Christmas trees, or houses decorated with angels and reindeers and (mostly white) Santa Clauses, bumper stickers, shop windows… all patriotically burning up electrical power.
But the fake warriors in this fake war have managed to blow this fake issue out of proportion by repeatedly screaming it into the ether, and as manure will do when thrown at a wall, some will stick. They are doing this for one reason only: To keep up the outrage ratings, which translate into advertising dollars. If you haven’t picked up on this yet, it’s time to get real.
The down side is that they are trying to reframe the separation of church and state as some kind of punishment for religious groups. In the process, these hollering heads have also made religion a highly political issue, when in fact it should be very private, especially in these multicultural days. This, in turn, has leavened the outrage already fermenting in the minds of their captive audience, people who feel permanently threatened by the shifting mores of a world that has exploded many old-fashioned notions of what makes up a society. In the above-mentioned Post article, one man is quoted as saying the following bit of styrofoam wisdom: “The government, I think, is trying to oppress Christianity with some of the policies that they come up with. They’re trying to oppress it, force people out of what they believe in.”
This is simply astounding stuff. And the most astounding is that these same people, who, I am sure are really nice, family folk, with jobs and good intentions, are also willing to believe Trump, who is virtually the caricature of a typical city slicker and con-man, a man who’d have been run out of town on a rail, tarred and feathered, by the grandparents of today’s vociferous evangelicals..
The War on Christmas commandos, from that painfully obnoxious and oafish Hannity, to the latest bobbing dashboard Barbie, la Lahren, have, to an extent, been ululating against the political correctness extremists, whose tendency towards ornery linguistic fastidiousness can quickly become irritating to anyone trying to speak plainly – as a former radio announcer, yes, I managed to offend some to my left … I think that language has power and we should watch what we say occasionally, it can genuinely offend people. But two wrongs do not make a right, on the contrary, they reinforce each other in a very negative manner. This however is another discussion altogether.
Let me just make note of a few things here. First of all: the real attack on Christmas, in particular as we celebrate it, with massive consumerism, rowdiness and very vocal blessings of everyone, even those who are not interested, is not new. In my recent blogpost about the cardoon here in Geneva, I mentioned in passing the fact that the theocratic government of the city under Calvin – one of the founders of evangelical faith, one could say, and a granddaddy of the Puritans who came to those there United States – prohibited Christmas in the city. It was considered idolatry and far to Roman (Catholic), as it indeed was. Calvin and his successors were not the funnest folk anyway, their view of God was that He (definitely male, definitely white) was a rigid, unforgiving sourpuss, who smites and smote anyone of His creations that were not in His good books.
At any rate, the American Puritans in Massachusetts maintained that tradition during the 17th century. They found Christmas celebrations were too rowdy and fun (there we go again), which interfered with their need for gravity and serious reflection on infant damnation. Furthermore they found no real biblical basis for it. And if anyone knew the Bible, it was those Puritans.
As for the South, with all its intense and very extroverted evangelicalism, it continued to be opposed to the celebration of Christmas for ages. Writing about the Presbyterians (Trump’s alleged spiritual home) after the Civil War in the South, historian Ernest Trice Thompson noted that there was “no recognition of either Christmas or Easter in any of the Protestant churches, except the Episcopal and Lutheran. For a full generation after the Civil War the religious journals of the South mentioned Christmas only to observe that there was no reason to believe that Jesus was actually born on December 25; it was not recognized as a day of any religious significance in the Presbyterian Church.”
This opposition continues to this day, as theologian and author Kevin Reed points out in his long and fascinating slog through the history of Christmas and the opposition to it. Part of the reason is the fact that the feast is based on “pagan celebrations held in conjunction with the winter solstice,” Reed writes. “Unable to eradicate the heathen celebration of Saturnalia, the Church of Rome, sometime before 336 A.D., designated a Feast of the Nativity to be observed.” So let us join the Vikings in celebrating Yul!
So allow me to quote his conclusion:
“The Protestant Reformers summoned us back to the scriptural law of worship which allows us to admit only those institutions in worship that possess express scriptural warrant. To take a stand in support of Christmas is a repudiation of this legacy of the Reformation [my emphasis]. It is a retreat from a hard-won point of orthodoxy. A consistent application of Reformed and Presbyterian principles of worship requires the repudiation of Christmas. Answer 109 of the Westminster Larger Catechism forbids “any wise approving, any religious worship not instituted by God himself.”
Fe que no duda es fe muerta
All of this should give food for thought. What is religion? What is spirituality? What does Christmas really mean? Why did the Puritans, Evangelicals, revivalists, in short most Protestant denominations, actually speak out against celebrating Christmas, but today they pretend to love it and want to celebrate it. What’s this with the vapid political boasting à la Trump? Do people think that yelling Merry Christmas will deliver brownie points for a trip to heaven? Does it make a real difference? Is this what faith is all about? Or is it just a bit of publicity hounding?
Those who came to the New World over the centuries came for religious freedom among other things. In Europe, many were genuinely persecuted for their beliefs. French Protestants suffered heavily at the hands of the Catholic League, the Thirty Years War left a trail of devastation in Central Europe akin to that left by World War Two. So the founding fathers instituted the separation of Church and State as a means to protect that freedom. Governments do not get in the way of religion, and religions can keep out of sinful political business. There is no “erosion of religious freedoms,” that’s a total myth. In fact, in the USA, anyone, apparently, can get behind a pulpit and, abandoning self-respect and given a few improv lessons, can seduce people into sending them money for spiritual perks, including a right to rapture. That’s just the business, and the old saying caveat emptor applies. And it applies to any spiritual direction. Just look at men like Pat Robertson, Young Falwell, Osteen, Hagee, Paula White… the list goes on and on, people who earn some really tall paper praising the Lord and passing around the collection bucket.
Alas, freedom of speech does permit anyone else to get behind a microphone or keyboard, or in front of a camera, and point out the contradictions in your thinking about religion, or politics, or even your choice of jeans and Christmas decoration. It’s a fact of life in a democracy. And I agree: It should be done politely, and the snarkiness of our debates these days has become extremely irritating. But as the Unamuno quote I used as a subhead suggests, doubt is sometimes a good way to keep faith alive. If your faith is threatened by someone saying Happy Holidays, or Season’s Greetings, then I’d revise the faith, not start hurling insults at “Democrats” or “Liberals” or “Communists” or “Muslims.” With a little questioning, the USA might have avoided falling into the hands of an extremely transparent con man.