PRODOS SPEAKS WITH JOSEPH KELLARD ABOUT THE TRUE SPIRIT OF CHRISTMAS: JESUS VERSUS SANTA
JOSEPH KELLARD IS A FREELANCE WRITER. TO VIEW HIS ESSAYS AND LETTERS CLICK HERE. TO JOIN HIS EMAIL NEWSLETTER CLICK HERE
Prodos: (INTRO) Today I'd like to talk about Christmas.
What is the TRUE spirit of Christmas? What does Christmas REALLY mean? And perhaps even more importantly: What is it that Christmas SHOULD mean? What SHOULD it be about? Now before you start thinking I'm going to begin preaching 'world harmony' and 'universal love' and other such boring ideas, let me just ask you a couple of questions.
Do you feel concerned about the state of the world? Do you feel guilty or defensive about enjoying Christmas? Are you trapped in that strange dilemma where you feel that on the one hand Christmas has become 'too commercial' - whatever the hell that means. And on the other hand you feel you've got to get presents for everybody. And if only you had three arms, on that third hand at the end of that third arm you know that, actually, you just love receiving gifts! Don't we all! Perhaps you even feel guilty that you're not feeling sufficiently guilty about how you're handling Christmas.
Well your troubles are over today. I have the solution and it's simple. Today on the show we're not going to 'take the mickey out' of Mickey Mouse but we ARE going to take the Christ out of Christmas. A Christ-less Christmas! That's our topic and that's the title of an essay by Objectivist freelance writer Joseph Kellard (link) who's joining us today on line from Long Island New York, welcome to the show Joseph - and a Merry Christ-less Christmas to you!
Joseph Kellard: And the same to you.
Prodos: Joseph, I presume you visit New York City occasionally?
Joseph Kellard: Yes, I was just there this weekend actually and I went to Rockefeller Center to see the Christmas tree.
Prodos: I suppose New Yorkers were all walking around grimly, sorrowfully, with their heads low, feeling guilty in reverence to the Lord in the name of a Christian Christmas. Was that the mood in New York City?
Joseph Kellard: Well I didn't see them. Maybe there were a few people like that. Most of the people I saw were rather mirthful.
Prodos: Quite a jolly atmosphere was it? I would think New York City would look like one gigantic Christmas tree anyway. It's a pretty spectacular city - I've never been there but I've heard so many wonderful things about it.
Joseph Kellard: Yes, it's a great city of course. And right where Rockefeller Center is, with the Christmas tree and the people ice skating and all the decorations and lights, it's very spectacular - it's a great place to be.
Prodos: Have you yourself ever believed in God? Ever been religious?
Joseph Kellard: Yes. I was raised a Catholic but I would say the seeds of my atheism began when I was seven and I was told that Jesus walked across a body of water.
Prodos: Hard to believe was it? You wanted a bit more proof?
Joseph Kellard: Yes, exactly. I went into agnosticism and I didn't actually become a full atheist until I was in my early twenties.
Prodos: Right. And now of course you're a dedicated Objectivist which is the philosophy of Ayn Rand.
Joseph Kellard: That's true.
Prodos: In your article 'A Christ-less Christmas' you say that Christmas predates Christianity!
Joseph Kellard: Yes it does. It started as a pagan ritual known to the Romans as The Saturnalia and, if I remember correctly, they celebrated The Saturnalia sometime between late December and early January.
Prodos: Which is exactly when the Christmas period happens now. But Jesus Christ was not even born on December 25th.
Joseph Kellard: No. That was a date that the Christians adopted from the pagans. I think they celebrated The Saturnalia on the 25th. I think, in the Fourth Century, the Christians adopted that date for Christ's birthday. And actually the Christians thought that birthday celebrations were a pagan ritual.
Prodos: Birthday celebrations? But Christmas is supposed to celebrate Jesus's birthday so what's their view of that?
Joseph Kellard: Well although the early Christians, like I said, did not believe in birthday celebrations I guess they later gave up that idea and started celebrating His birthday.
Prodos: To give listeners an idea of the spirit of the Christians let me quote this bit from your essay. Prior to Christmas, you write:
"they praised the afterlife - not this life - and preached the renunciation of self, body, sex and pleasure. Their heroes were Jesus, who came here to suffer and die, the ascetic saints, and men who only ate sheep's gall and ashes, drank laundry water and used rocks for pillows." Not quite the Christmas spirit we're familiar with today is it Joseph?
Joseph Kellard: No, you could see now, these were very DEDICATED Christians! A lot of them belonged to the monasteries and they were practicing Christianity to its logical extreme; they tried to be as much like Christ as they could.
Prodos: Sounds like Christ wasn't a very happy fellow.
Joseph Kellard: No he doesn't seem to have been. Of course they believed that this world - life on earth - was an imperfect world, and your life on this world was only a prelude to going into Heaven - which was the perfect world.
Prodos: This life was just a way station, an incidental stop on the way to something more important?
Joseph Kellard: Right
Prodos: Another interesting thing that you've pointed out here and may I quote:
"American Puritans regarded Christmas day as a day of MOURNING" (my emphasis) . . . which seems odd to me. I would have thought that even a Christian would want to celebrate the birth of The Lord Jesus who's supposed to be the Son of God who created all the known, unknown and unknowable Universe! Wouldn't you think that would tend to be an occasion for celebration?
Joseph Kellard: That would be, but I guess they adopted the position of the earlier Christians who didn't really believe in celebrating birthdays.
Prodos: They just believed that, full stop. That was it.
Joseph Kellard: Well they didn't consider celebration 'Christian'.
Prodos: Well here you continue:
"American Puritans regarded Christmas day as a day of MOURNING rather than of rejoicing in voluptuous dancing to gods that DISHONORED Jesus" (my emphasis) And you've got a quote here from Cotton Mather, a 17th Century Puritan:
"Can you in your consciousness think that our Holy Savior is honored by mirth? Shall it be said that at the birth of our Savior we take the time to do actions that have much more of Hell than of Heaven in them?"
Prodos: I mean, these guys ARE pretty dedicated, you've got to hand that to them!
Joseph Kellard: Yes, I would say they are. But their position is the logical conclusion of the fundamental ideas of Christianity. So the Puritans were just being more consistent practitioners of Christianity.
Prodos: Across the road from where I live there's a privately run Christian ministry. And they have, on their glass entrance door, a cardboard cut out of Santa Claus. I actually felt yesterday I should warn them - tell them that they might now be risking eternal damnation by having Santa's picture on their entrance.
Joseph Kellard: (laughs)
Prodos: Really! I mean Santa Claus and Jesus are so far removed from each other! I wonder if we could contrast these two gentlemen. What do you consider the most stark contrasts between these two fellows?
Joseph Kellard: I think it would be their ethics because, as the Christians celebrate Christmas today, they tell you that Jesus gives to the poor and that's a fundamental ethic of Christianity: To give to the poor and to sacrifice for the poor. In contrast, Santa Claus tells us that your social class doesn't matter. As long as you are GOOD. As long as you act in a moral way, that you will be rewarded. So the contrast is that Santa's ethics is based on Justice whereas Jesus's ethics is based on altruism, on self-sacrifice. That would be the fundamental distinction between the two.
Prodos: I'm not an expert on Christianity but I believe that it embodies the idea of ORIGINAL SIN. Surely this also contrasts with the idea of reward for virtue. According to Santa, if I've been a bad boy this year I can redeem myself next year - through my own deeds. There's no intrinsic, original sin within me.
Joseph Kellard: Right. Original Sin tells you you're born sinful and you're born evil by your nature as a human being. In fact Christianity turns morality against man since no matter how virtuous a man may be he is always BY NATURE sinful.
Prodos: So there isn't really much hope and not much point to living from the sounds of that. Another strong contrast that I see between Jesus and Santa is their 'sense of life'. We mentioned earlier that Jesus didn't seem to be a very happy fellow. The sense about Jesus is a very heavy one: bearing the cross, being nailed to the cross, dying slowly. On the other hand Santa is very light-hearted and jolly.
Joseph Kellard: Yes, that's true. And you can notice that just from their physical appearance - at least as they're commonly depicted - Jesus is depicted as almost an emaciated human being. Whereas physically Santa is - I know it's not politically correct to say 'fat' but I will say - he's a fat, jolly man and he symbolizes American plenty, American production. Just contrasting their physical beings we can see the difference in their fundamental philosophies.
Prodos: Many years ago when I was one of the directors of a Melbourne construction company (Berne Fleming Civil) I was given the task every year of dressing up and playing Santa Claus to all the children of our employees. It was great fun. I was put on the back of a truck, I stood up ringing a bell, yo-ho-hoing, throwing lollies (sweets) at the kids gathered at the company picnic party, handing out presents and having a laugh, talking with the kids. It's hard to imagine a portrayal of Jesus getting such a rise out of children as Santa Claus does with his bag of presents and happy disposition.
There's a big difference in their appeal to children and to people who look at the world with some innocence. Jesus is not something or someone you look forward to meeting.
Joseph Kellard: No he's not. (All laugh). I would agree with that, although many Christians would contest it. I think it's important to look at the essential characteristics of the two and, like you say it, I'd much rather be with Santa than with Jesus.
Prodos: Hard to imagine sitting on Jesus's knee asking for what you want.
Joseph Kellard: No, you might fall off.
Prodos: Yeah, pretty bony sort of knee. But also I think he'd be looking at you and trying to find out what the hell is wrong with you, what have you done wrong and how he can forgive your sins instead of saying "come on now, have you been a good boy? So what would you like for Christmas."
Prodos: Curiously Joseph you point out in your article that one of the most popular Christmas songs is White Christmas written by Irving Berlin who was in fact an American Jew - not even a Christian!
Joseph Kellard: No he wasn't - and that'll just emphasize the point on how in America Christmas is more of a secular holiday than it is a Christian holiday.
Prodos: Speaking of Irving Berlin, I believe he also wrote the songs for Easter Parade. Now Easter is another supposedly Christian tradition. And what's marvelous about Easter Parade is - by the way have you seen Easter Parade?
Joseph Kellard: No I haven't.
Prodos: You haven't seen Easter Parade!? With Fred Astaire! Oh you've got to watch that one Joseph! Look, check it out and I think you'll be writing another article soon on what Easter is all about. (All laugh).
Joseph Kellard: OK.
Prodos: You can get it on video, it's just great because what this musical does is it turns Easter - which is of course when Christ was crucified - which has to be a pretty sad occasion for anybody. It turns it into a marvelous day of fashion and color, dancing and romancing! Fred Astaire tap dancing along with Judy Garland. It's something that only America could produce.
Joseph Kellard: I guess that America's sense of life is added to the dreariness of Christianity.
Prodos: Well the two can't co-exist in my view.
Joseph Kellard: No they can't. And that's one of the fundamental contradictions in America. That the ethics of altruism which is Jesus cannot exist with the ethics that freedom had to stand on which is rational self-interest.
Prodos: Could you comment on the influence of people like Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Edison on how we view Christmas.
Joseph Kellard: The pagans celebrated with Christmas trees, and on the Christmas trees they used candles. You can imagine the many fires that must have caused. (I don't know if Joseph is pulling my leg here.) One of the great things about Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Edison and their dealings with electricity and light bulbs is that they did away with those fires - at least for the most part - and they created glorious lights of various colors. And that's what we decorate our houses with today and our Christmas trees. Of course light is a metaphor for enlightenment and thought and that's what Christmas is celebrated with. Christmas lights and the gloriousness of ENLIGHTENMENT and THOUGHT.
Prodos: That's great because that means to me that Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Edison have done more for Christmas than Jesus and an army of saints could ever have done.
Joseph Kellard: They certainly made it more pleasurable.
Joseph Kellard: It should be added that Christmas wasn't really celebrated in America until the 1800's. Basically, after the Civil War and the industrialization and mass production of toys and Christmas ornaments. Gift giving became very big at the. This really made Christmas a very popular and celebrated holiday. So it wasn't really until 1870, I think, when Christmas became a national holiday in America. It wasn't until then that Christmas became the popular holiday that it is now. We can thank America and its industrialization for that.
Prodos: OK: THANK YOU AMERICA AND INDUSTRIALIZATION! Consider them thanked - live on The PRODOS Connection!
Prodos: The other thing that's different about Jesus and Santa is that Jesus is supposed to be an actual real life figure whereas Santa Claus is an invented character. Who invented Santa?
Joseph Kellard: I think Santa Claus was invented by Clement Clarke Moore (in 1822). He was also depicted in cartoons by an American cartoonist named Thomas Nast.
Joseph Kellard: It's interesting there's a debate, even among people who are atheist, as to how we should teach Santa Claus to our kids. Should we teach it as a fact until they're old enough to realize that it's actually a myth or should we always let them know that it's just pretend, like the fairy tale books that we read.
Prodos: What do you think?
Joseph Kellard: I would guess that the latter is the best thing to do. Not to let them think that Santa is real in the same way that Christians let you think that God is real.
Prodos: Another thing that's interesting to me about Christmas as we practice it is the actual, physical Christmas present itself. What's wonderful about a Christmas present is that it's a little special event every time. You have your gift, and then you might have it in a box or parcel, then you've got the beautiful gift wrapping paper. So you must untie the string and unwrap the paper, open the box and finally unveil your gift. So it's a miniature ritual in itself every time which is quite lovely. Do you look forward to opening your Christmas presents Joseph?
Joseph Kellard: Oh certainly! (very enthusiastic).
Prodos: How do you see gift giving and getting?
Joseph Kellard: I think the essence and the point of Christmas is to show your appreciation of people that you value whether you love them or they're just a friend or even an acquaintance. The whole point of Christmas is to give to people that you value in some way, and the feeling of giving AND receiving. I don't go by the motto that it is better to give than to receive. I believe in THE TRADER PRINCIPLE. And that means to give AND to receive.
Prodos: I'd like to end with a quote from your article (paraphrased):
"We should seek to make Christmas increasingly secular" . . . in other words non-religious . . . "increasingly materialistic and commercial. And to invoke the truism" . . as you've just mentioned . . . "that it is better to produce AND trade, to give AND receive. And that is Christmas's TRUEST meaning."
(thank you's, farewells, end)
Recorded: Melbourne time: 2am, 20th December 1998
Broadcast: 23rd December 1998 on the 'Philosophically Speaking' segment of The PRODOS Connection on Melbourne radio 97.4 FM.