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Stealing Religious Holidays: Syncretism and Origin

When it comes to religious holidays, many in traditionally Western cultures exhibit some strongly polarized attitudes. This is nowhere clearer than in the United States when debating the issue of secularization of these holidays. However, rather than accept opinions on either side of the issue at mere face value, it may be more beneficial to examine the roots of the holidays themselves. This provides a much-needed context for the arguments, rather than allowing emotional suasion to dictate how such celebrations are viewed.

Consumerism and the American Holiday

The two largest consumer holidays in the United States are Halloween and Christmas. Both retail stores and major manufacturers bank on sales and ever-increasing profit margins that playing on the cultural significance of these events in the Western Christian tradition have yielded in the past century. However, this has led many groups and individuals to rebel against the consumer character granted to these events. Concomitantly, there has been an uproar made over traditional greetings, such as “Merry Christmas”, because they are viewed as disrespectful of other cultural traditions, exclusionist to other populations within the nation, and culturally elitist.

Cultural Roots and Respect

Rather than poise for an attack on either one of these stances, it may be more beneficial to briefly explore the roots of the traditions in question. Early Christianity was frankly syncretic. What that means is that it openly adopted other ideologies and traditions into the core body of original rhetoric. This was done for a variety of reasons. In some cases, it was done to encourage conversion to the overall tradition without alienating populations of prospective Christians.

Halloween was originally practiced by many pre-Christian European cultures as the end of the year. Prior to the introduction of the Julian or Gregorian calendars, seasons dictated the way in which time was marked. The autumnal equinox was a time when flocks were culled, crops harvested, and an awareness of mortality were central themes. Similarly, Yule or the Winter Solstice celebrated the beginning of a return to light and active life.

When we purchase Halloween treats and decorations or wish a random stranger who may follow another creed “Merry Christmas”, we aren’t indicating disrespect for either established cultural patterns and holy days or any other system of belief. We are honoring the original spirits of a human understanding about environment and culture. At their core these holidays celebrate light, life, the transience of mortality, and a return to action from the enforced stillness of both spirit and body. In their most ancient incarnations, they are about human connection, which is always something worth honoring, no matter how you choose to do it.

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