I had a bit of an unusual upbringing, religion-wise. My parents were both lapsed Catholics by way of 70’s-era hippie-inspired Buddhism, with a generous helping of mid-90’s Wicca to further complicate the mix. I was raised in a household that celebrated God, the Goddess, saints, fairies, reincarnation, Greek mythology, the full moon, Hanukkah, transcendental meditation, Sufi dancing, and Christmas. We learned a lot about all religions, without ever really ascribing to any particular one ourselves.
It may sound confusing, but in all honesty it was freeing. Throughout my childhood, I was able to experience elements of all global religions without the pressure to worship anything at all. Religious belief was more of a scholarly pursuit to me, and I was able to hand-pick the elements of religion I felt personally drawn to, and reject the ones I didn’t.
What resulted is a lifelong fascination with religion. The winter holiday season is an especially compelling topic for me, partially because I love Christmas but also because holiday-wise, Christmas is one of the most complex in terms of its religious roots. Whenever a conservative pundit cries “War on Christmas” I have to laugh, because so much of what we consider to be “Christmas” is, in fact, not very Christian at all.
The most ancient and perhaps most important precursor to Christmas is, of course, the winter Solstice–the longest night of the year, before the earth slowly tilts back toward the sun. Most human cultures have celebrated midwinter in some form or another–Shab-e Yalda, Toji, and Dong-Zhi are just a few of the non-Western traditions surrounding the Solstice.
For the ancient Romans, this midwinter festival was called Saturnalia, named for the god Saturn. Saturnalia was celebrated by feasts, the giving of gifts, and symbolic role-reversals. 700 years after Saturnalia was first celebrated, on December 25th, the Emperor Aurelian consecrated the temple of Sol Invictus, creating a holiday called Dies Natalis Solis Invicti – the Birthday of the Sun – officially elevating the Sun to the highest position among the gods.
It wasn’t til around 350 AD that Pope Julius I officially declared December 25th to mark the birth of Christ. There was no evidence that was the actual day of birth; to the contrary, the gospel of Luke, says: And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. Shepherds usually watch their flock by night during lambing season, which is the spring. Hmmmm….
As early Christians moved into Northern Europe and introduced the story of Christ to the native Germanic and Celtic peoples, the practices of Christmas were influenced by the practices of those peoples for their winter solstice holidays. Traditions like the Yule log, mistletoe, tree decorating, and evergreen wreaths were soon absorbed or combined with existing Christian beliefs.
One anecdote tells of Germanic tribes who worshipped coniferous trees in winter, believing that their ever-green leaves spoke of a supernatural holiness. Saint Boniface supposedly came upon one such ritual, and wanting to evangelize to the locals, directed their attention to a spruce tree, whose triangular shape more closely resembled the Holy Trinity. Some say this is the origin of our modern-day Christmas tree!
Very Merry Gentleman (and Ladies)
Modern-day Christmas is very subdued compared to Medieval celebrations of the holiday (even if you enjoy your eggnog!). After a month-long period of fasting and penitence, the 12 Days of Christmas were a truly festive time of feasting and revelry, lasting from Christmas Eve until Epiphany. One tradition involved drunks (often dressed as the opposite gender) running down the streets and banging on doors, demanding to be fed lest they loot the house. This two-week bender was so despicable to some that the Puritans attempted to have Christmas banned altogether in 17th century England!
Thanks, Pop Culture
The Puritans thankfully couldn’t keep Christmas at bay forever. But Christmas was primed for a reinvention, and the Victorians happily obliged. So many of the things we associate with Christmas today were popularized by the Victorians: colorful toys, wrapping paper, Christmas cards, and caroling were all part of the new old holiday.
But two seminal works of literature really brought Christmas into the modern era. Clement Clarke Moore’s 1823 poem, A Visit from St. Nicholas, helped transform Santa Claus from a minor 4th century saint (sometimes associated with Odin himself) into the chimney-spelunking, jolly old elf we all know today. Then, Charles Dickens’ 1843 novel A Christmas Carol (reportedly conceived for the author to make a quick buck) redefined the holiday as a sentimental time of family, food, and good-feeling.
And as a more secular version of Christmas gained in popularity the world over, the more prosaic forces of capitalism and pop culture took the reins. From Coca-Cola’s famous reinvention of Santa Claus as a red-suited jocular old man, to Bing Crosby’s war-nostalgia musical White Christmas, to the Hallmark Channel’s derivative holiday movie spam, Christmas in any era can start to feel too commercialized. But in reality, Christmas is a celebration that has its origins in humanity’s earliest cultures, gathering new meanings and rituals through time. And when you strip away all the cultural trappings, this winter festival celebrates what winter festivals have always celebrated: the triumph of light over darkness and the strength of the human spirit.
And that, my friends, is the meaning of Christmas.