There’s been an increasing amount of interest over the years from the more religious parts of our society about celebrating the ‘real’ meaning of Christmas – celebrating the birth of the Christian messiah, Jesus. It’s not uncommon for non-Christians, wanting to partake in the festivities that surround this time of the year, to be confronted with the sentiment that, as non-Christians, it’s not really ‘proper’ for them to join in with the celebrations. But just how strong is the Christian claim to this festival? How much of what we perceive as ‘Christmas’ is overtly Christian in nature and how much is entirely unconnected to religion at all? As secularists, atheists or even Muslim or Hindus, do we have a right to take part or are the complaints by Christians a misguided attempt to claim this time of year for their own?
The significance of mid-winter has been known for as long as people noticed that the movement of the stars and the seasons were intertwined. Pre-historical monuments such as Stonehenge, the Gosek Circle and Newgrange were specifically designed so that on mid-winter, the rising and setting sun would shine down carefully planned tunnels or between significant stones. It was recognised that past this point in the year, the days would begin to grow longer again and that summer was returning. Until the changing of the calendar to the Gregorian system in 1582, the winter solstice occurred on December the 25th. With the depths of winter in full flow, and the prospects of the ‘starvation months’ of January to April approaching, livestock not needed for breeding or other purposes was slaughtered, fruits and vegetables were preserved and wine and beer set to ferment earlier in the year was ready for drinking. This glut of food, not all of it suitable or able to be preserved, needed consuming and the celebration of mid-winter, along with entreaties to various gods to ‘bring back the summer’, led to a festival associated with plenty of food, drink and a community spirit. Many different celebrations originated at this time, most of them unrelated at all:
Dongzhi (East Asia)
Inti Raymi (Incan)
Lenaia (Ancient Greek)
Mummer’s Day (Cornwall)
Sol Invictus (Syrian/Roman)
Of these, one of the most important, due to its prominence in the Roman Empire, was Sol Invictus, the birthday of the unconquered sun.
Rise of Christianity
In the 4th century, the archbishop of Constantinople, John Chysostom, decided to appropriate the popular ancient festival of Sol Invictus and rebrand it as the birthday of the unconquered Son – Jesus Christ. This was part of a practice in early Christianity of, instead of banning or forbidding festivals celebrated by the unconverted, taking their celebrations and rebranding them with a Christian focus. This was done either by bringing in a new festival but using the same date, or by co-opting whatever local divinity was being worshipped and pointing out that Jesus was either better, or actually the same thing. A highly effective tactic, it removed any resentment that would be garnered from denying the people their celebrations whilst at the same time diluting and subverting non-Christian practices.
In addition to this shift towards Christian theology around the mid-winter celebrations, a number of high-profile and powerful monarchs were crowned on this date; Charlemange, Edmund the Martyr and William the Conqueror. Monarchs were very keen to remind everyone about the importance of their rule and as such, celebrations were encouraged.
In Europe in the middle ages, Christmas therefore was just another of the many Saint’s days celebrated in the church calendar, albeit one of the most important; with its ties to mid-winter and a long tradition of feasts. It was a highly communal affair celebrated over the course of 2 weeks or so, with entire villages pooling resources and getting together to take part in localised traditions, all topped with highly religious overtones and plenty pious observances. Epiphany (January 6th) was an important part of this, remembering the visit of the Magi to the baby Jesus and it became a custom for landlords to provide gifts to their tenants at this time; usually items of little worth but of cultural significance like a specific sum of money, or bread baked in a particular manner.
The Reformation brought with it large changes in how the church handled festivals. There was a shift from the importance of Epiphany back to Christmas day; with the gift giver becoming Jesus himself. The decline in favour of the Catholic church led to the abandonment of many Saint’s day observances with the more radical of the Protestant movement declaring such things as ‘Popery’ and the ‘rags of the Beast’. The Puritans banned Christmas altogether during the Interregnum in the UK; the resulting riots and secret adherence testament to the popularity of the festival. This mindset had a long-lasting effect, with parts of the USA not observing Christmas to any large degree until well into the 19th century and Scotland only reinstating Christmas as a public holiday in 1958.
With the new Protestant ideals of anti-Catholicism and the rejection of the perceived idolatry of observing Saint’s days, the Industrial Revolution consolidated the idea that Christmas just another working day. With factory owners unwilling to shut down their production for a day or two and being especially unwilling to pay their workers for a day off, the observances of large public celebrations were becoming increasingly rare. Whilst there might be a nod to the significance of the birth of Christianity’s nominal founder, this wasn’t enough to sanction the loss of productivity.
Then along came Charles Dickens, and his novel ‘A Christmas Carol’. Written as a morality tale against the mean-mindedness of Industrialists, the story embedded itself into the social consciousness of the UK, the USA and beyond. Almost single-handedly (with a few influences from other factors) Dickens’ novel altered the way Christmas was celebrated, from a large, community orientated public festival, to smaller, family focused occasions of togetherness and gift-giving. Phrases such as ‘Merry Christmas’ were coined, the concept of a family meal was popularised and almost everything ‘tradiationa’ we associated with a modern Christmas originated. Dickens’ view of Christmas was highly secular; moving the focus of the day from a religious observance to a convivial family gathering.
Further to this was the traditions brought to the UK by Queen Victoria’s husband, Prince Albert. Christmas trees were already a tradition in most of central and eastern Europe, based on ancient pre-Christian rites of decorating certain trees to honour the gods. When the Royal Family were shown in a newspaper picture gathered around an illuminated Christmas tree, the public emulated the practice. Christmas greeting cards were invented in 1843 and crackers in 1847.
So what is to be made of this? The concepts in a ‘traditional’ Christmas are almost entirely artificial; based mainly on a 1950’s ideal of a Victoria era secular re-imagining of a religious festival that had fallen out of favour. The economic rush to buy Christmas gifts is largely originated in North America in the late 1940’s and 1950’s where, once Thanksgiving was over, parcels needed to be sent to soldiers serving in Europe. Christmas became a time for retailers to sell stock and clear shelves for the new year’s trading. Santa Claus is derived from ‘Sinterklass’ or St. Nicholas; a Middle-Eastern saint with an associated legend regarding saving some women from prostitution. His persona, backstory and dress have evolved somewhat since then, mainly thanks to the concerted effort of commercials. An increasing level of globalisation has tied European and American markets into the economies of countries with no tradition of mid-winter celebrations, notably in India and the far east. Whilst the West shuts down for a day or two, markets in Japan and China plod onwards, making money. Corporations are forced to retain a level of activity for as long as possible, encouraging staff to remain at work until Christmas Eve and be back in on the 26th.
In the USA especially, this erosion of the ‘traditional’ values of Christmas have led to a belief that there is a tangible ‘War on Christmas’, perpetrated by a sinister anti-Christian cabal with a hidden agenda. Originating in the 1950’s by a religious-right organisation called the John Birch Society, an anti-communist, anti-UN scare story was spun, tying in everything from the rise of the Reds, vaccinations, water fluoridation and mysterious government agencies coming to take away your guns. This has been continued by successive generations of right-leaning commentators, decrying the rise of the phrase ‘Happy Holidays’ instead of ‘Merry Christmas’ (ignoring the etymological origins of the word ‘holiday’) and encouraging observances of religious iconography that never existed, even in pre-Reformation festivals. Perhaps the ultimate example of this is the ‘red list’ produced by the American Family Association (a highly religious ‘pro-family- organisation labelled as a hate group by several human rights organisations). Each year they compile three lists of companies; a green list of those who observe ‘proper’ Christmas terminology, an amber list of those wavering and a red list of those who the AFA feel are not subscribing to the Christian ideals they specify. This red list is sent out to their subscribers with the intention that a boycott is instigated. Any claims that the AFA receives ‘donations’ from companies seeking reassignment on the list is, of course, merely speculation.
A final point to make here is the myth of Xmas. Some well-intentioned but mis-informed Christians like to object to the use of the contraction ‘Xmas’ and equate the ‘X’ with an unknown; essentially complaining about the anonymising of the terminology. The ‘X’, however, is the Greek letter chi, or χ, and was an ancient Christian term of reference to Christ. Use of χmas pre-dates even the use of the term ‘Christmas’ to refer to the properly semantic ‘Christ’s Mass’.
The Reason for the Season?
Christmas as portrayed today is merely the latest step in the evolution of a festival that’s been celebrated by almost all humanity for as long as we’ve realised that the seasons change over time. A lot of the traditions associated with it are relatively recent and some of the most loved or the rest have pre-Christian pagan associations with no discernable correlation with the Christian nativity story. Demands of retention for certain attributes and not others is both illogical and highly arbitrary and ignores the fact that Christmas is the sole survivor of many Christian holy days that most people no longer observe at all. It makes as much sense for an atheist or a Hindu to celebrate Christmas in its modern format as it does for a Christian not to celebrate Candlemas or Michelmas.
The oft decried ‘commercialisation’ of the Christmas period neglects to acknowledge that for a lot of retailers, Christmas is vital to the continued profitability of their business – it adds a boost to their year’s income, allows bonuses to be paid to staff and clear stock out for the new season. Without this final rush, economies would suffer.
The spirit of Christmas; good cheer, family togetherness, acceptance and generosity would be far better if it were retained all year round and not concentrated in a brief annual period. That misguided religious people seek to deny this to certain aspects of society, based on a false impression of what this time of year represents, or demand the observance of arbitrary concepts with no logical basis, is the true ‘war on Christmas’.
The next time someone asks why, as a non-Christian, you celebrate Christmas, the real question should be ‘why not?’ Jesus is not the ‘reason for the season’ but merely the latest in band-wagoneers hitching a ride on perhaps one of humanities oldest and best loved celebrations.