Between debates over the skin color of Jesus and Santa Claus to renewed "War on Christmas" allegations, this Christmas has seen more than it's fair share of controversy.
To set the record straight, I sat with renowned author and scholar Reza Aslan, whose latest book Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth sparked controversy earlier this year when Fox News host Lauren Green repeatedly questioned his credentials to write on the life of Jesus.
PolicyMic (PM): Megyn Kelly recently came under fire for saying that Jesus is white, and Max Fisher went to you to set the record straight. Your answer was pretty interesting. You said that she's technically right, since Christianity can be whatever a worshipful community wants it to be.
Reza Aslan (RA): I would say that we have the whole gambit of Jesus's here in the United States because we are such a diverse nation. The way one tends to view Jesus is so deeply intertwined with one's culture and ethnicity. That is what is great about America: We have this array of cultures from poor Latin American communities who view Jesus as a liberationist to very wealthy white suburban communities who believe Jesus wants them to be materially successful, ala the prosperity gospel.
PM: What about the nativity story that is re-enacted by children across the world ahead of Christmas? Is this the real story of his birth? How historically accurate is it
RA: That has absolutely no factual basis in history. But so what? It is a story that is meant to impart a theological truth, not a historical one. Its purpose is to say something about who Jesus is without suggesting something about his historical birth.
First of all, the census that Luke cites as the reason why Jesus' mother and father have to travel to Nazareth from Bethlehem did not occur in the Galilee where both Bethlehem and Nazareth are — nor did it ever require subject people’s to uproot themselves to their forefather's birthplace. What Luke is describing is simply factually incorrect.
What's more, the story of Jesus fleeing the massacre of Herod is pure legend. There was no massacre of Herod — Herod did not massacre every first born child in Israel. That story simply did not happen.
Matthew presents his story of Jesus fleeing to Egypt because he wants to present Jesus as the new Moses. Luke writes his story of Jesus' birth in Bethlehem because he wants to present him as the new David. They never intended these stories to be read literally.
The point that I am trying to make is that the facts of these stories are irrelevant. It's the theological truth that is being conveyed by them that matters. So yes, have your nativity scenes and sing your songs about Bethlehem, but understand that it's a theological truth not a historical fact that you are celebrating.
PM: Was Jesus actually born on December 25? Why is this the date that
RA: No. The reason it is celebrated on December 25 is because that is the day of the Roman winter solstice. What Christianity has done is absorb and take over pagan holidays. This is the day when the Romans celebrated the Brumalia. This was a winter solstice holiday that some say celebrated Bacchus (or, Dionysus), the God of Wine, and it basically involved a lot of wine and partying!
PM: Kelly has also insisted that Santa Claus is white. Any thoughts on his origins, or what he would look like?
RA: First of all, (chuckles), Santa Claus is not a real person. I suppose if you want to trace the original Santa Claus to St. Nicholas, then he would be a Greek living in modern day Turkey. I guess based on that, he would resemble someone from Central Asia!
But the point I want to make is that white is not a skin color. A Greek living in modern day Turkey may or may not be considered white. But Megan Kelly would definitely not call him white; she'd call him Middle Eastern - brown. What she really means when she says Santa and Jesus are white, is that they are "me." It is a statement of ownership rather than a statement on skin color. White is not just a skin color; it is a socio-economic identity marker.
PM: So, when did the story of Santa Claus and reindeer get factored into
RA: I don't know (chuckles)! It's so funny, I mean Christmas is one of those weird holidays where there is so much syncretism and everything gets connected in this funny way where things are just added to it.
PM: Let's talk about the War on Christmas. If it is actually happening, who do you think is winning?
RA: Well I don't think there is any war on Christmas, but I do think there is a war on traditionalism. This war is called progress, something that has always been happening. When you hear this nonsense from Fox News that there is a war on Christmas just because somebody said "Happy Holidays" instead of "Merry Christmas," understand that their complaint is not about Christmas. They are afraid that they are losing control over what they consider to be their country, their nation and their Christmas.
However, things are changing. I mean, not all Americans are white. They don't all feel the same way. Hence people at Fox News feel they are under attack. I think even people who watch Fox News are beginning to think that the debate is getting really silly at this point.
PM: When did the commercial side of Christmas become a big thing, and do you think that it is outweighing the spiritual aspect of it?
RA: This is the most despicably commercial holiday ever. If you can think of a worse way to celebrate Jesus, let me know! I mean honestly, I can't think of a more horrific and ironic celebration of the life and teachings of Jesus than Christmas.
PM: Any other comments?
RA: Yeah. MERRY BRUMALIA!