I’ve been getting a lot of questions lately from Christian and Atheist friends wanting to know how I celebrate Christmas. It started the other day from a girl I went to church with 18 years ago asked me what Christmas and Easter were like for my family. I told her:
We celebrate anytime we have an excuse to get together with family. We won’t rob my daughter of Christmas. We still enjoy the holidays, gift giving/receiving, singing, eating, and spending time with family. We just don’t do it for the same reason. We think of it as an end-of-the-year celebration. We obviously still have religious family members, and we respect their beliefs. They still sing Christmas songs, and we join in, for the most part.
Keep in mind, we can sing a song about “baby Jesus” and just enjoy the music… even if we find the words to be about a myth. We just don’t pray or talk about god. Remember, the Winter Solstice (and virgin birth) is actually used by several religions as the birth story for their god – several pre-date Christianity. Most historians that think Jesus was a real person agree that he was probably born in the Spring, not the winter anyway. So, the date has no real significance for me. But, we can still have fun.
As for Easter, we get together with family for a meal, but that’s it. No real celebration. We do the secular thing – egg hunts, candy, etc.
We say, “Celebrate Reason this Season” – LOL
It made me think however, why should atheists feel “left out” of this holiday. I mean, it’s become far more secular and commercial now than it is “religious”. We talk more about presents, trees, reindeer, Santa Claus, eggnog, cookies, candy canes, etc. than we do about baby Jesus being born to a divinely raped virgin… at least in public circles. So, why should Christians get to hog this holiday? We like it too. It’s the winter solstice. It’s the end of the year celebration time (we lump it in with New Year’s anyway). If you’ve wondered, “What is the history of the Christmas traditions?”… well, here you go.
Many of our modern Christmas traditions began hundreds of years before Christ was born. Some of these traditions date back more than 4000 years. The addition of Christ to the celebration of the winter solstice did not occur until 300 years after Christ died and as late as 1800, some devout Christian sects, like the Puritans, forbade their members from celebrating Christmas because it was considered a pagan holiday. So what is the history behind these traditions?
The Christmas Tree
This is derived from several solstice traditions. The Romans decked their halls with garlands of laurel and placed candles in live trees to decorate for the celebration of Saturnalia. In Scandinavia, they hung apples from evergreen trees at the winder solstice to remind themselves that spring and summer will come again. The evergreen tree was the special plant of their sun god, Baldor.
The practice of exchanging gifts at a winter celebration is also pre-Christian and is from the Roman Saturnalia. They would exchange good-luck gifts called Stenae (lucky fruits). They also would have a big feast just like we do today.
Mistletoe is from an ancient Druid custom at the winter solstice. Mistletoe was considered a divine plant and it symbolized love and peace. The tradition of kissing under the mistletoe is Druid in origin.
The Scandinavian solstice traditions had a lot of influences on our celebration besides the hanging of ornaments on evergreen trees. Their ancient festival was called Yuletide and celebrated the return of the sun. One of their traditions was the Yule log. The log was the center of the trunk of a tree that was dragged to a large fireplace where it was supposed to burn for twelve days. From this comes the twelve days of Christmas.
Even the date of Christmas, December 25, was borrowed from another religion. At the time Christmas was created in AD 320, Mithraism was very popular. The early Christian church had gotten tired of their futile efforts to stop people celebrating the solstice and the birthday of Mithras, the Persian sun god. Mithras’ birthday was December 25. So the pope at the time decided to make Jesus’ official birthday coincide with Mithras’ birthday. No one knows what time of year Jesus was actually born but there is evidence to suggest that it was in midsummer.
Roman pagans first introduced the holiday of Saturnalia, a week long period of lawlessness celebrated between December 17-25. During this period, Roman courts were closed, and Roman law dictated that no one could be punished for damaging property or injuring people during the weeklong celebration. The festival began when Roman authorities chose “an enemy of the Roman people” to represent the “Lord of Misrule.” Each Roman community selected a victim whom they forced to indulge in food and other physical pleasures throughout the week. At the festival’s conclusion, December 25th, Roman authorities believed they were destroying the forces of darkness by brutally murdering this innocent man or woman.
Nicholas was born in Parara, Turkey in 270 CE and later became Bishop of Myra. He died in 345 CE on December 6th. He was only named a saint in the 19th century.
Nicholas was among the most senior bishops who convened the Council of Nicaea in 325 CE and created the New Testament. The text they produced portrayed Jews as “the children of the devil” who sentenced Jesus to death.
In 1087, a group of sailors who idolized Nicholas moved his bones from Turkey to a sanctuary in Bari, Italy. There Nicholas supplanted a female boon-giving deity called The Grandmother, or Pasqua Epiphania, who used to fill the children’s stockings with her gifts. The Grandmother was ousted from her shrine at Bari, which became the center of the Nicholas cult. Members of this group gave each other gifts during a pageant they conducted annually on the anniversary of Nicholas’ death, December 6.
The Nicholas cult spread north until it was adopted by German and Celtic pagans. These groups worshipped a pantheon led by Woden –their chief god and the father of Thor, Balder, and Tiw. Woden had a long, white beard and rode a horse through the heavens one evening each Autumn. When Nicholas merged with Woden, he shed his Mediterranean appearance, grew a beard, mounted a flying horse, rescheduled his flight for December, and donned heavy winter clothing.
In a bid for pagan adherents in Northern Europe, the Catholic Church adopted the Nicholas cult and taught that he did (and they should) distribute gifts on December 25thinstead of December 6th.
In 1809, the novelist Washington Irving (most famous his The Legend of Sleepy Hollow andRip Van Winkle) wrote a satire of Dutch culture entitled Knickerbocker History. The satire refers several times to the white bearded, flying-horse riding Saint Nicholas using his Dutch name, Santa Claus.
Dr. Clement Moore, a professor at Union Seminary, read Knickerbocker History, and in 1822 he published a poem based on the character Santa Claus: “Twas the night before Christmas, when all through the house, not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse. The stockings were hung by the chimney with care, in the hope that Saint Nicholas soon would be there…” Moore innovated by portraying a Santa with eight reindeer who descended through chimneys.
The Bavarian illustrator Thomas Nast almost completed the modern picture of Santa Claus. From 1862 through 1886, based on Moore’s poem, Nast drew more than 2,200 cartoon images of Santa for Harper’s Weekly. Before Nast, Saint Nicholas had been pictured as everything from a stern looking bishop to a gnome-like figure in a frock. Nast also gave Santa a home at the North Pole, his workshop filled with elves, and his list of the good and bad children of the world. All Santa was missing was his red outfit.
In 1931, the Coca Cola Corporation contracted the Swedish commercial artist Haddon Sundblom to create a coke-drinking Santa. Sundblom modeled his Santa on his friend Lou Prentice, chosen for his cheerful, chubby face. The corporation insisted that Santa’s fur-trimmed suit be bright, Coca Cola red. And Santa was born – a blend of Christian crusader, pagan god, and commercial idol.
Conclusion - So, if you are celebrating any of the western traditions of Christmas this year, remember that you are actually enjoying the rituals and activities of several ancient religions whose traditions have been borrowed by the Christians over the years for the celebration of the birth of Christ. Buy presents, enjoy family, eat good food. We can still enjoy a season of good memories and fun ancient traditions, even without god… especially when those traditions didn’t start as Christian traditions anyway.
Happy Holidays! Remember, this season celebrate reason… and don’t let Christians hijack a great secular, pluralistic holiday!
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