Yes. I celebrate it. Do you find it strange that a self-proclaimed atheist would publicly announce that she celebrates a holiday that is pronounced by the main stream as religious in nature?
I struggled with it when I was first discovering my lack of belief in the supernatural. Although my childhood was filled with Christmases, I never really knew WHY we celebrated. We just did. We put up a tree every year. We exchanged gifts. We sang carols. We had a grand feast with the whole family, and sometimes even friends and relations. It was a magical time of year, and I was loathe to lose that all because of some hype about it being a Christian holiday.
The great thing about the modern times we live in – information is at my fingertips. Between the library and Google, a gal can find just about anything. My search began when I was in college. I’ll admit, I was torn between being desperate to hold onto a childhood tradition and striking out on my own with new traditions based on my new-found distaste for deities and fairy tales. At one point, I remember being so disgusted with the whole Christmas affair that I swore I would never celebrate it again. Between consumerism and the rifts the holiday season causes between people… I was ready to throw in the towel.
Thankfully, I persevered. I dug a little deeper. I researched religions and traditions that existed before, during, and after the supposed birth of Jesus. I read my Bible. Yes. You read that correctly. I read it. Some sections I even read more than one version of because it was so confounding and vague. I read essays and books depicting both sides of the argument. I talked to people I knew about what Christmas meant to them. I even suffered through annual Christmas plays at the church my husband’s family all attend.
So why do I still celebrate Christmas if I’ve done all this studying? Why would I still persist in keeping alive a holiday with such pious undertones?
My answer: Christmas is not solely a Christian holiday.
I hear the flames crackling. The stone throwers are aiming their best throwing arm toward my windows. The trolls are salivating, waiting for their chance to swoop in and rip me limb from limb for my audacity. Nevertheless, I’ll stick to my guns here. Christmas is a conglomeration of holidays from several different belief systems. It is a mutant of good cheer for people from all walks of life, not just for those who would hold to the literal translation of the word.
It all started back before that pesky Jesus guy ever took his first mythical breath of our Earthly atmosphere. The winter solstice was an event that anyone could witness. It was when the dark days of the northern climate began to reverse themselves – when the light returned to the world. It clearly marked a transition from death and cold to life and warmth. Many pagan traditions sprang up around this time of year, including the celebration of a new calendar year.
The most pronounced of celebrations around this time before Christ was ever thought of was that of Saturnalia. This was an ancient Greek festival beginning on December 17 of the Julian calendar giving honor to their agricultural deity, Saturn. It covered several days of feasts, festivities, gift giving, poetry exchanging, gambling, dancing, and a social egalitarianism that brought slaves nearly to equal status of their masters. The holiday was a festival of light, with candles aplenty to light the way toward knowledge, truth, and the winter solstice.
Later, when the Romans took over, Saturnalia included Sol Invictus (Birthday of the Unconquerable Sun) on December 25th of the Julian calendar. Even after the Saturnalia holiday was taken off of official calendars of the time, Romans continued to celebrate it for centuries, until it’s festivities were eventually absorbed by Christians in the middle of the 4th century AD. Scholars think that Saturnalia is the origin of gift giving, gingerbread men, and caroling.
Another holiday tradition, that of Santa Claus, is an amalgamation of many similar traditions, though most scholars agree that the original was Saint Nicholas. He was a 4th century bishop in Turkey, who routinely appeared in his red bishop’s garb to inquire about the behavior of children before generously giving them small gifts. His feast on December 6th was later changed to Christmas Eve in the 17th century, to coincide with Christmas. Our modern day Santa in the United States comes from a reformation in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s, where Santa acquired a more secular attire. By the 1920’s, Santa was a standardized figure thanks to the advertising industry. In this case, Santa started out as a Catholic symbol and became a secular one. I find that fascinating, because it parallels what is happening with the entire Christmas tradition.
Yule, like Saturnalia, was an indigenous celebration that happened in December. This 12 day festival started on the winter solstice. It was a time filled with feasting, drinking, and sacrifice. Traditional foods included the Yule goat, Yule boar (Christmas ham, anyone?), and Yule log (a culinary confection filled with layers of cake and filling, covered in brown bark frosting and dusted with powdered sugar as if under a fresh snow). Many a Yule toast was made to Odin, a major god in Norse mythology. In the 900’s, a Norse King named Haakon the Good converted to Christianity and decided to celebrate Christmas during the same days as his people celebrated Yule. He even passed a law that forced anyone celebrating Christmas under his reign to have ale with their meals as long as the ale and holiday lasted. Drinking and shennanigans! Who could pass that up?
Nowadays, the words Yule and Christmas are considered to be one and the same, although we no longer sacrifice animals and use their blood to paint those who need blessings from Odin and the other Norse gods. Although, unrelated and gross as it is, there are still many who routinely imbibe the blood and body of a 2000 year old corpse. How cannibalism and necrophilia are any better than animal sacrifice is a complete mystery to me. Anyway, onward…
Even something as simple as the holly plant, Ilex aquifolium, has pre-Christian origins. In ancient heraldry, holly signified truth. References have been found as far back as 750 BCE alluding to the wearing of holly wreaths on the heads of druids and other important figures. Druids brought holly boughs into their homes to shelter elves and faeries who joined mortals during Yuletide. An old Teutonic custom dictated the bringing in of evergreen and holly branches to be used as havens for sylvan spirits from the cold winter weather. People hung wishes written on parchment from holly branches.
Ancient Romans associated holly with their Sun god, Saturn. They gave boughs of holly to family and friends during the Saturnalia as a symbol of summer’s fertility. Roman naturalist Pliny the Elder wrote that when holly was planted near a house or a farm, it repelled poison and protected against lightning and sorcery. The prevalence of holly lore before Christianity only made it easier for the old religions to convert. Missionaries claimed that holly sprang up under Jesus’ feet as he walked, and that the red berries were a symbol of his blood instead of a symbol of fertility. It wasn’t such a leap to go from associating the plant with one god to associating it with another, especially since the ideas were so similar in nature.
Something fun, but unrelated to Christmas – did you know that before Christianity, newborn babies were often sprinkled with Holly water to protect them from evil spirits? Holly water… holy water. It’s amazing how many pagan and secular traditions were adopted by Christianity in order to appeal to the unconverted masses.
Still think everything about Christmas is Christian in origin? If you had lived in colonial times where the population was predominately Puritan, you might think exactly the opposite. In fact, the Puritans were so aghast at the secularism and paganism associated with Christmas that they banned it altogether in 1659. It wasn’t until the mid-1900’s that the Boston area finally began openly celebrating Christmas again. Their argument was that Christmas had no biblical justification, and was a time of wasteful and immoral behavior.
No biblical justification. Think on that for a moment. How many times do you see the word Christmas in the bible? How about Yule, Noel, holly, evergreen, carol, etc? They aren’t there. As a matter of fact, nowhere in the bible does it explicitly state the month of the birth of Christ. A little digging, and anyone can see that it would be folly to think he could have been born in the winter. The roman census would not have been performed in the middle of winter, when weather is cold and roads become impassable or dangerous. Shepherds who slept with their flocks in the fields in the middle of winter instead of seeking shelter for themselves and their flocks would be looked upon as extremely foolhardy. As someone who has raised sheep, I can tell you that most breeds NEED good shelter in the winter.
When looking at everything without the bias of religion, it’s easy to see how Christians were able to adopt and adapt prior traditions from other cultures and belief systems. I can see why many Christians vehemently deny it – how embarrassing to learn that all you do is just reheated leftovers from conquered peoples! Why be embarrassed, though, when the alternate is embracing the varied ancestry of a joyous time of year? It’s not shameful for me to say that I celebrate Christmas, because I see Christmas as a special time of year that has absorbed so many good traditions from so many well-meaning cultures.
The “reason for the season” is axial tilt. People were celebrating the winter solstice as the start of a new year, as a time for revelry, long before Christians came along and claimed (around 400 years late, I might add) that their god-child was born at the exact same time. What a monumental coincidence! And how lucky for the missionaries who were bound and determined to get the best conversion rates!
It wasn’t luck. It was politics. Well, if Christians can steal their special days from pagans, I see no reason why I as a secular person cannot take them back.
Yes, I celebrate Christmas, and I am proud to do so. I have no qualms with the background history of the things I do during the holiday season. I have no guilt over bringing wooden Santa carvings (see idolatry in the bible) into my house and giving them a special place on the mantle. I have no problem lighting candles to ring in the solstice and welcome the light back into my world. I have no issues with teaching my children that even though none of the gods of the holiday season are real, the love and fun of the season are.
This is me embracing the melting pot of Christmas. Merry Christmas! Happy Solstice! Have a wonderful New Year!