I'm an ex-Christian and an atheist. This Christmas I have two overly decorated 9’ tall Christmas trees complete with twinkling lights and one tree is circled by a battery powered toy train. Perched in locations all around my house, dozens and dozens of Nutcrackers of every height and description keep vigil while festive smelling candles taint the air. A thick layer of snow currently blankets the ground outside my window, and holly and ivy decorate my neighbor's porches. It's holiday time at an atheist home!
What? An atheist celebrating Christmas?
Christ's Mass. The Catholic Mass held on the eve before Christ's birth. That's what Christmas means, doesn't it? I mean, isn't an atheist who is celebrating Christmas about as hypocritical as one can get? Aren't we always hearing "Keep Christ in Christmas" and "Jesus is the reason for the season?" Isn't there even an atheistic "War on Christmas?"
Well, I suppose this is all just because of ignorance. Not my ignorance — Christian ignorance. You see, when I was a "True Fundie™," there were several years when I refused to celebrate Christmas, and for good reason too! Regardless of the name that's been glued on to the so-called holy day, the roots of this celebration are deeply pagan.
Long before the arrival of the two now famous Jewish peasant cousins who itinerantly preached on the hillsides of Judea for a couple years, the Norse were celebrating Yule from December 21 through January, honoring the return of the sun and in Germany people were celebrating the god Odin.
"Jo Saturnalia" (pronounced yo) would have been the December greeting in Jesus' neighborhood. With Romans marching all over Palestine, Jesus and his band of merry men would have been quite familiar with this idolatrous holiday honoring Saturn, the god of agriculture.
From the History Channel:
Beginning in the week leading up to the winter solstice and continuing for a full month, Saturnalia was a hedonistic time, when food and drink were plentiful and the normal Roman social order was turned upside down. For a month, slaves would become masters. Peasants were in command of the city. Business and schools were closed so that everyone could join in the fun.
Also around the time of the winter solstice, Romans observed Juvenalia, a feast honoring the children of Rome. In addition, members of the upper classes often celebrated the birthday of Mithra, the god of the unconquerable sun, on December 25. [...] For some Romans, Mithra's birthday was the most sacred day of the year.
Interestingly enough, Mithras was always portrayed as an infant during this festive time.
As a good, Yahweh-fearing Jew, I sincerely doubt Jesus or his cousin would have dared light up a Yule log, or mix a potent batch of eggnog, or whatever the Roman revelers would have used to usher in the traditional holiday season.
Reason for the Season
From the Catholic Encylopedia:
Christmas was not among the earliest festivals of the Church. Irenaeus and Tertullian omit it from their lists of feasts; Origen asserts (in Lev. Hom. viii in Migne, P.G., XII, 495) that in the Scriptures sinners alone, not saints, celebrate their birthday.
According to the Catholic Encyclopedia, sporadic feasts commemorating Jesus' birth began to crop up in various locations beginning in 200 CE, but the dates assigned to the feasts varied widely, and there was no general consensus on when Jesus might have been born, or even if the event was appropriate for Christians to commemorate.
Christmas celebrations spread to Egypt by 432, to England by the end of the sixth century and to Scandinavia by the end of the eighth century. By the Middle Ages, Christmas had, for the most part, supplanted the older pagan celebrations. But, it was still celebrated in the traditionally pagan way, with raucous Mardi Gras-like drunkenness and partying. Of course, that was after the church service.
During the 17th century, Puritan forces took over England and vowed to rid the land of the decadence of Christmas. Christmas was condemned by Oliver Cromwell and forbidden by an Act of Parliament in 1644. The day was to be a fast and a market day; shops were compelled to be open; plum puddings and mince pies condemned as heathen. Even after Charles I took the thrown and re-legalized Christmas, Yuletide was called "Fooltide" by the faithful.
When the pilgrims arrived on the shores of America, Christmas was not one of their holidays, and in Boston, the celebration of December 25 was outlawed. Congress was in session on December 25, 1789, the first Christmas under the new constitution. Christmas wasn't declared a federal holiday until June 26, 1870.
In the 19th century, Americans began to embrace and re-invent Christmas. In 1819 Washington Irving wrote "The Sketchbook of Geoffery Crayon, Gentleman," a series of stories about the celebration of Christmas in an English manor house. Irving's fictitious celebrants enjoyed supposed "ancient customs" that in actuality were fictitious inventions from the mind of the author. No such ancient customs existed prior to Irving's book, but because of the popularity of his stories, his invented Christmas "traditions" took hold.
Also around this time Charles Dickens hit the scene with his classic "A Christmas Carol." These two authors, more than any pope, prelate, or peasant preacher, are responsible for what those living in the west have come to regard as a traditional Christmas celebration.
Just as an added point, even with 2,000 years of evangelism, to this day oriental countries do not celebrate Christmas the same way we do. In Japan, people generally work on Christmas, and Christians may or may not attend church that day or on Christmas Eve. Japanese and Chinese more enthusiastically celebrate New Year, which has no Christian connotations whatsoever.
Cel-e-brate, good times... Come on!
For thousands of years, people have been making merry in December, celebrating with joy their lives, their families, and the change of seasons by gathering together with friends against the cold. Regardless of the name of the holiday or whether the general population is celebrating Marduk, Mithras, or Messiah, all the gods are myth anyway, so why should an atheist miss out on the fun?
So, as far as I'm concerned, the next time someone tells me to remember the reason for the season, I'll point to the sun, raise a full mug of spiced wine, and toast to the health of the ignorant well wisher. If that person joins me in the toast, who knows, maybe he or she will finally understand the real meaning of Christmas.
(Also see "Essay on Christmas" by Robert G. Ingersoll & "Before the Son, the Sun was reason enough" by Eric Zorn)
What do you think?