The REAL Reason for the Season

A couple of weeks ago, I noticed that one of my Facebook friends had joined the group, “Help keep ‘Christ’ in Christmas.”

I recently saw a you tube video of right-wing commentator, Bill O’Reilly of Fox News, voicing his outrage at the “war on Christmas” taking place at the Washington State capitol building.

I have had several people remind me that “Jesus is the reason for the season.”

And I just saw an online ad for a “We say Merry Christmas” bumper sticker.

freesticker2

All this means that Christmas is a comin’. And conservative Christians and traditionalists are once again feeling threatened.

Are they justified in wanting to keep the Christmas season an exclusively Christian holiday?

Well, yes and no.

As far as I am concerned, Christians have every right to celebrate Christmas as a Christian holiday — in their churches and homes.

But once it steps into the public square, that’s a different matter.

I’m not referring to when someone wishes me, “Merry Christmas.” I think that most people simply use those words as a cultural greeting that is the equivalent to the non-season-specific, “Have a good day” (particularly in the retail setting). However, I would also expect those same people to respond graciously if I were to respond, “Happy Solstice!” For the most part, I just ignore the specifics of the greeting and interpret it as a sentiment of goodwill (or a feeble attempt at customer service in the malls).

father_winter_solstice

Having said that, I do think that there is a certain hubris that underlies this greeting — the assumption that the Christian religion has a special claim on this time of the year. (This is not a new perspective on my part. I thought the same when I was a practicing Christian and a Baptist minister.)

It’s when this assumption breaks into the official public sphere that I get irritated. There are two components of my annoyance.

The first is the belief held by many Christians that Christianity ought to have an official and legal status not afforded to other religious or non-religious groups in our society. It seems to me that such a belief stems from: (1) a misreading of history that concludes that  our country was founded as a Christian nation in some significant manner, (2) a faulty assumption that a majority opinion or belief should automatically translate into special privilege for that belief, and (3) a fear that if society does not officially recognize the Christian version of God, it is doomed.

While I can appreciate that it is difficult for any individual or group to lose a special status it once maintained, equality and truth matter more. The separation of church and state is one of the most fundamental principles for any society to be able to provide equal treatment and justice for all its citizens. Thus, it is simply wrong when a government provides legal or informal privilege to a particular religious group. For me, this means that government publications, meetings, and properties should be free of any reference to religious terms, pictures, signage, or practices. So, I expect my government representatives to send me a card that says, “Season’s Greetings,” not “Merry Christmas.” In fact, I don’t think religious holidays should ever be statutory holidays. Christmas should no more be a legal holiday than Yom Kippur, Ramadan or Beltane.

The second reason I get annoyed at the assumption of a privileged place for Christmas is the failure of most conservative Christians to acknowledge that the Christians stole the holiday and almost all of its accoutrements from pagans.

saturnalia

For starters, the date itself is tied to the Roman solstice celebration of the feast of Sol Incitus (the sun God)  which was on December 25. On this day, Roman pagans celebrated the birthday of “the unconquered sun.” Since this date was already being used as a religious festival celebrating a god’s birth, the leaders of the church decided to co-opt it as a means of spreading the gospel. (If Jesus existed at all, it is most likely he was born in the summer.) I wonder if the pagans ran a “War on Sol Incitus” campaign?

The date on which Christmas is celebrated is just the beginning of the borrowings (read “theft). There are so many, that Skeeter Sanders states in his article, The Pagan Roots of Christmas, “with the notable exception of the Nativity Creche, nearly all the symbols and decorations that we associate today with Christmas…are of Pagan origin.”

Let me list the most obvious:

  • The Christmas tree is often explained as a Christianization of pagan tradition and ritual surrounding the Winter Solstice, which included the use of evergreen boughs, and an adaptation of pagan tree worship.

christmas-tree-main_full

  • Gift-giving and merrymaking derive from the Roman Saturnalia; greenery, lights, and charity from the Roman New Year.
  • Holly was used to honor Saturn, god of agriculture, during their Saturnalia festival held near the time of the winter solstice. The Romans gave one another holly wreaths, carried it in processions, and decked images of Saturn with it.
  • Pagan Scandinavia celebrated a winter festival called Yule, held in the late December to early January period. As Norther Europe was the last part to Christianize, its pagan traditions had a major influence on Christmas. Scandinavians still call Christmas Jul.

chambers_yule_log

  • Mistletoe bears fruit at the time of the Winter Solstice, the birth of the new year, and may have been used in solistial rites in Druidic Britain as a symbol of immortality. In Celtic mythology and in druid rituals, it was considered a remedy for barrenness in animals and an antidote to poison.
  • According to a custom of Christmas cheer, any two people who meet under a hanging of mistletoe are obliged to kiss. The custom is Scandinavian in origin. It was the plant of peace in Scandinavian antiquity. If enemies met by chance beneath it in a forest, they laid down their arms and maintained a truce until the next day. This ancient Scandinavian custom led to the tradition of kissing under the mistletoe.

mistle3

Contemporary Christians often downplay or are merely ignorant of these historical roots. They are also probably unaware that many Christians over the centuries opposed the use of these symbols. Even in America, the Protestant acceptance of Christmas is quite recent. According to Skye Jethani, writing in Christianity Today in 2005 ,

“Few seem to remember that America’s Puritan ancestors were stridently opposed to the celebration of Christmas. They saw no biblical support for the holiday, and believed the festival was a pagan ritual masquerading as Christian. Even as late as 1855, newspapers in New York reported that Methodist, Baptist, and Presbyterian churches would be closed on Christmas Day because ‘they do not accept the day as a Holy One.’ The Puritan disdain for Christmas had such a hold on American culture that by the 1860s only 18 states officially recognized the holiday.”

But, today, Christmas is claimed by conservative Christians, Protestant and Catholic alike, as a national institution.

I wish they would be honest and admit that the Pagans came up with all the good stuff now associated with Christmas and that they simply co-opted the day and the traditions for their own purposes. So, Christians, celebrate Christmas with all the gusto you wish. Just keep it to yourself. Solstice is the REAL reason for the season, and that’s what I am choosing to celebrate. But I’m not asking for a day off of work or waging a campaign to keep the ‘Sol’ in Solstice.

stonehenge-winter-solstice-2003-01

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14 Comments

Filed under Athesim, politics, religion, social commentary

14 responses to “The REAL Reason for the Season

  1. Christine

    I have always wondered why Christmas is a national/legal holiday. This year we get off 3 days – I certainly won’t complain – but I don’t agree with it.

  2. Pingback: What in Santa’s name is going on? « The Former Fundie’s Blog

  3. Debbie R.

    I respect all you wrote but no body practices being a Christian. You either are or you or not. In other words, you did not have a personal experience and revelation of who Jesus Christ is. He is not something to be practiced. Regardless of all that, I am American, have been for forty eight years. I was raised in American and all my life I have celebrated Christmas. Christmas was Christmas when I was a kid and there was never any thing to it. You saw someone and wished them a Merry Christmas. It is an American tradition. It is the way I was taught. We are in American. Yes, I love learning about the other countries tradition but this is America we should be not conformed to the others ways.
    Saying Merry Christmas should not be something that we should even be fighting over. Merry Christmas is spreading the cheer and blessings of the seasons. Merry Christmas is American as apple pie and baseball. It is America and it is me. I put up a Christmas Tree and I do it in honor of who I am. An American and a Christian. I do not practice being a Christian or a minister. I am one. I know my Redeemer lives. One day a time will come when you will bow your knee and confess that Jesus is your Lord and Saviour. I just pray that it will be in this life, willingly. I pray that God gives you another chance for He wishes non to perish. No not one. You may never read these words but I have said my part for I want my children and my children’s children to be raised in the America that I was raised in.

    • Honestly, if you’re so concerned about being “American” about your holidays, you should be wishing people a Happy Soyala or similar Native American holiday as this country was simply stolen from other people. Furthermore, some of the founding fathers may have been Christians, but they established the United States as a place free of religious persecution, another fact that Christians often use to defend themselves but never allow other faiths.

      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Founding_Fathers_of_the_United_States#Religion

  4. Hi, love u’r story u should really rock’em up hey!
    I hope you don’t mind if i steal some of our cool pics.

    Nina 😉

  5. Mike Brown

    “The separation of church and state is one of the most fundamental principles for any society to be able to provide equal treatment and justice for all its citizens.”- I found this assertion quite interesting. By what right do you say this?
    Is this an assumption? Do you just assume that most people agree with you? Or just spouting off what you heard on the T.V.? Are you implying that unless a nation employs this concept that it cannot provide equal treatment and justice for all citizens?
    By the way most nations all over the world do NOT consider this concept valid. Ancient pagan societies most certainly did not. Christians, in most ancient societies were considered anti-social for their refusal to participate in social religious celebrations.
    The reality is that mostly only Western nations have this concept. It stems from the enlightenment and rationalism of 17th and 18th centuries. In that time faith was reinterpreted as a “private”, individualistic practice. Religion in most of the world has a dynamic that is very social and has social ramifications(celebrations are inherently communal). So don’t try and play this “history says” game without playing the whole thing.
    Islam in the middle east doesn’t have this concept. Africa certainly didn’t have this concept, most Asian nations didn’t have this concept, excepting China after the rise of communism.
    By the way it is this commitment to “separation” that the rest of the world i.e. islam, (outside of western nations) looks at our nation as Atheistic and promoting atheism, which it quite does in practice. (if you don’t believe me see how atheism fairs in our country vs any African/ asian country) Atheism is huge here because our state has promoted it aggressively for the last 40 years.

    I’m sorry you’ve lost your faith as a fundamentalist. But you seem to have bought hook line and sinker into the concept of the 17th and 18 rationalistic agenda and don’t even seem to realize it. Your post could have been posted by Volte or Locke. So don’t pretend that you’re some how modern… you’re about 250 years behind “historic” development.
    If you want to be “truly” pagan begin by shedding some of that “rationalistic” and individualist baggage you have and start to really think creatively.

  6. Christian

    I am a Christian and I enjoyed your article. Aside from the fact that the Christmas Holiday has pagan roots, I think that most Christians now have adopted the holiday as a way to honor the birth of Christ. I think that’s good. Who cares if some ancient pagan worshiped a tree….we don’t.

  7. Thanks for putting it down in one place ~ comprehensive and well put. It’s also the season for “real reason” forwards: I’m putting this link on the email equivalent of speed dial

  8. Danny

    Christmas…is just a day set aside for d celebration of our lord jesus christ.i don’t realy follow ur prehistoric origin of the celebration

  9. deveeca

    its soooooooooooooo much beautiful. keep sending more beautiful than this

  10. This is one of the best compilations of the pagan origins of “Christmas” I’ve seen (and I’ve read LOTS and LOTS of them). Small point of correction: it’s “sol invictus,” which translates to “invincible [or “unconquered”] sun”; though it *was* the official sun god of the later Roman empire, that is not the term’s meaning.

    I think Mike’s point about separation of church and state is well made; it certainly is not universal and, as he points out, applies only to relatively recent Western culture.

    Debbie: Your statement that “no body practices being a Christian” simply isn’t true. Many do (only) “practice” it, which may be why there’s so much “unchristian” behavior exhibited by people who consider themselves Christian but don’t really know what it means (and your definition is only one of at least three I’ve seen, which are variously overlapping and mutually exclusive).

    I’m not religious, and I don’t mind being wished a “Merry Christmas” — because I know it’s either well-intended or, as you say, seasonally generic — but I do find “Happy Holidays” or “Seasons Greetings” more generally applicable. I have NEVER sent a “Christmas” card. I enjoy the trappings of the season — “Christmas” trees (P.C. though it may be, “holiday tree” just doesn’t have the same ring), evergreen swags and wreaths, cheerful and/or joyous music in the stores. The “Silver Bells” lyric “In the air, there’s a feeling of Christmas” isn’t about religion; it’s about the change of seasons.

    What *has* become “the reason for the season” seems to be almighty Retail. Why else would there be Christmas (and the incidental Hanukkah and Kwanzaa) inventory in the stores as early as Hallowe’en?

    Personally, I’d like to see the non-religious celebrations either be more specifically secular (call it the “season” or the “holidays” or even talk about the solstice — which is, after all, an astronomical event) or more inclusive of all religions’ events that occur around that time of year. (The City of Palm Springs, California, does a rather neat thing. There is a regular Thursday evening event called VillageFest, which occurs every week except Thanksgiving and, if they fall on it, Christmas Eve/Day. For each of successive three weeks in December, each of Hanukkah, Christmas and Kwanzaa is acknowledged/featured — though subtly, befitting a civic event.)

    Anyway, congrats on a good article!

  11. Well written overview that only missed the whole Santa Clause thing that obviously also has nothing to do with Jesus. I am always amazed at how many Christians simply offer the argument that they have always been ignorant therefore they are happy ignorant and intend to stay that way. I too grew up with Christmas, but unlike one commenter I grew up in a area that was about 50% Jewish and 50% Christian so I was never ignorantly allowed to believe that the Christian holiday of my youth was “American” and I had some right to expect every other American to participate or somehow be Un-american. This ability to tie together Christian, American, Apple Pie and Fourth of July patriotism is just a mix of ignorance and propaganda! Those who fear that truth should do a little research on cognitive dissonance to explain why it is so threatening to them. In the mean time Happy Solstice and may whatever holiday you celebrate religiously and your New Year be filled with Joy.

  12. Mary

    I am pleased to find this even though it was written years ago. Thanks!

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