From our December 2000 issue.
Prospects for a Merry Christmas in St. Peter’s Square dimmed a bit at news that Jörg Haider would be bringing the tree. A visit by the Austrian politician infamous for his praise of the Third Reich is bound to recall the Pope’s meetings in the late 80s with Austrian President Kurt Waldheim (veteran of a German army unit that committed atrocities in World War II). This year’s encounter may be even more embarrassing to the Holy See; Haider is not a head of state, nor is he known to be especially religious. Yet there was no diplomatic way for the Vatican to hack out. It accepted the pledge of a tree from the province of Carinthia, which Haider governs, back in 1997–long before his party joined the Austrian government, bringing on sanctions from the rest of the European Union. For the governor, of course, the trip to Rome is a magnificent chance to claim international respectability.
Christmas trees are traditional rallying points for politicians, and not just in Europe. Every December the president of the United States lights the National Christmas Tree on the Ellipse in Washington, Even in this secular age, no one seenrs much bothered by the chief magistrate of the Republic associating himself, however indirectly, with religion. The Tannenbaum’s origins lie in German paganism (as a winter symbol of immortality), but it’s safe to say that most citizens take it as an emblem of Christianity’s inescapable holiday. If I were an American Muslim or Jew, I think I would feel at least slightly estranged by the spectacle.
Historically, though, it’s not Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, or members of any other faith who’ve had the most problem with Christmas. It’s Christians thelnselves. Many early Protestants rejected the holiday not only because it coincided with the ancient Roman feast of Saturnalia–and occasioned gluttony, drunkenness, and debauchery in the best pagan tradition–but because it overshadowed Sunday, the only festival they deemed divinely ordained. Making the Yuletide gay in Calvin’s Geneva could get you fined or imprisoned. Puritan England under Oliver Cromwell outlawed Christmas along with its traditional foods. (I like to imagine the seventeenth-century equivalent of a dope dealer peddling mincemeat pie and plum porridge on a London street corner.) Anti-Christmas sentiment prevailed along with Nonconformism in some of England’s American colonies, including Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Pennsylvania; whereas the southern colonies under Anglican domination kept up the “Popish” tradition. It was only in the late nineteenth century, as immigration made the United States an increasingly Catholic country, that the 25th of December became the truly national observance it is today.
Some Christians are still not reconciled to Christmas. A quick Internet search turns up an array of sites attacking the holiday on the basis of scripture and theology. One I found concludes a generally sober and learned disquisition with this blatant inaccuracy: “Christmas remains a monument of the superstition of the Church of Rome. If anyone doubts this proposition, he may turn on a television and watch the Papal Mass on Christmas Eve; the Pope struts around the altar, chants the prescribed words, and holds up the elements so they may be adored by a fawning multitude.” Now, I doubt that Pope John Paul II has ever strutted anywhere, certainly not in church; but in any case the ailing pontiff won’t be doing so this year. He walks slowly and with an effort painful to watch. No one whose heart isn’t wholly poisoned against him for sectarian or political reasons can fail to admire his fortitude and manifest love for his flock. Notwithstanding the recent contretemps over a Vatican document stating that churches not in communion with Rome are “not Churches in the proper sense”; this pope has presided over unprecedented strides toward Christian unity. (To those who regard the pope as the Antichrist, of course, unity with Rome isn’t anything to be thankful for.)
I remember watching midnight mass at St. Peter’s, on the TV at my grandmother’s house, when I was eleven or twelve years old. I can’t remember being terribly interested. It was only six in the afternoon where we were, which robbed the event of much of its drama. I might have been more excited by the sort of New Year’s Eve party the pope threw last year to usher in the third millennium. There was a rock concert, the first ever in St. Peter’s Square, featuring the clean-cut, conservative singer Claudio Baglioni. Some 120,000 shower up to hear the music, watch the fireworks, and hear John Paul’s greeting, which he delivered from a window in the apostolic palace above the square: “A happy new year to everyone in the light which shines out from Bethlehem upon the whole universe.” More than his words, it was the mere presence of the man, one of the great leaders of the century just ended, that for a brief moment revived Rome’s ancient claim to be the center of the civilized world.