Friday, December 21, 2012

Gary Gygax on Christmas and Christianity

A note from Gary Gygax in the IFW Monthly of February 1969. A topical historical curiosity, yes, but what does it tell us about who Gary was back then? First of all, he strongly self-identified as a Christian, an important counterpoint to the fundamentalist backlash against his later fantasy-themed games. Gary approached Christianity as a system with rules, which he researched and explored through a strict historical lens. If his readings differed from mainstream conventions, he was never one to bow to popular opinion. Sometimes he took things too seriously, sacrificing fun for accuracy. He was never shy about sharing his ideas and defending his position in public, but respectfully acknowledges the existence of dissenting views. These are all qualities we see reflected in his subsequent career as a game designer.

Speaking as someone who is not particularly religious, but nonetheless celebrates Christmas with a tree, gift-giving and feasting, I also find in Gary's words here a welcome reminder that Christmas and Christianity are not as tightly coupled as one might think. Happy holidays!

* Gygax and his family were then practicing Jehovah's Witnesses, and the views he described here are characteristic of that belief system.


  1. Thank you for sharing this with us, Jon.

    Mr. Gygax was such an intelligent man. I wish he would have written more about his opinions of non-related gaming topics.

  2. Hi Jon, what email can I reach you at?

  3. Allow me to comment if it's OK, not being a regular or anything. It actually sounds as if Mr. Gygax was a Jehovah's Witness, for they alone in the entire 'Christian' world would refuse to celebrate any holidays. It is also a common rationale of the JW that everything outside of the Bible is borrowed from the pagan world (notwithstanding the Bible itself, naturally), probably not just something Gygax himself concluded - if, in fact, he was coming at it from the JW tradition. Strangely, accusing the Christian faith of stealing from pagan sources is something that goes way back, and is often more common among Christians justifying the rejection of this or that tradition or practice or even belief. Biggest problem with 'they stole Christmas from pagans', of course, was if that were the case, then where are all the comparable Christian holidays around the two equinoxes or around the Summer Solstice - probably the biggest pagan celebration of them all? Borrow some trappings? Yep. But that's probably about it.

    Also, FWIW, the fundamentalist backlash often gets the blame on many gaming sites, but anyone from that time will remember their backlash helped D&D (what teen couldn't resist sticking a finger in the eye of a crusty old preacher?). What hurt was that everyone else jumped on D&D too: the media, child behavior experts, psychologists, educators, even popular culture media (the infamous Mazes and Monsters TV movie). Just a couple thoughts and observations.

    1. I did note in the post (the last sentence) that Gygax was a Jehovah's Witness and that these views are typical of their beliefs. Certainly Gygax was not an academic scholar of religion, and his take-down of Christmas would not stand up to any serious scrutiny. There are more rigorous forms of this argument, though.

      Also, the epilogue of Playing at the World does indeed agree that the fundamentalist backlash was essential to the popularization of D&D.

    2. I've actually read conflicting stories about Gygax being a Jehovah's Witness, at least at that time. I've also heard he later converted to practicing Christianity. But I've heard others say he was Christian all along. Based on what you posted, I'm inclined to go with JW early, later comes the actual dive into Christianity proper, or at least orthodox.

    3. "if that were the case, then where are all the comparable Christian holidays around the two equinoxes or around the Summer Solstice "

      There's a lot of temporal discrepancy because of differences in which calendars have been used over the past two thousand years, but there's a Christian holiday near the spring equinox (Easter) and the summer solstice (Nativity of St. John the Baptist).

    4. Not on the scale of either Christmas or Easter, which is only near, but not on, the spring equinox. By that reasoning, any holiday at all anywhere after February and before May could be argued such. That's the problem with the theory. It's only partially true. Sure, the church allowed folks to borrow customs and traditions, but it also had its own internal reasoning as well for the various holiday dates. The popular 'they stole it from the pagans' has its roots in both Protestant reactions against the traditions of the Catholic Church, and later critiques of the faith tradition as a whole. But in all things, beyond 'they borrowed certain customs', the evidence begins to diminish quickly, because there actually was more to it than simply stealing from the surrounding religions.

  4. I regularly corresponded with Gary on his listserv in the late 90's up until a year or so before his death. At the time I think he said he was a 7th Day Adventist in his religious beliefs and held the anti-gaming views of the fundies in contempt, while agreeing with some of their political aims.

  5. "Sacrificed fun for accuracy"

    Sounds like 95% of all DM's everywhere (with a 5% chance of rolling a natural 20, of course).