Essay on Christmas

The Works of Robert G. Ingersoll
Dresden Memorial Edition (XII, 369-375)

My family and I regard Christmas as a holiday -- that is to say, a day of rest and pleasure -- a day to get acquainted with each other, a day to recall old memories, and for the cultivation of social amenities. The festival now called Christmas is far older than Christianity. It was known and celebrated for thousands of years before the establishment of what is known as our religion. It is a relic of sun-worship. It is the day on which the sun triumphs over the hosts of darkness, and thousands of years before the New Testament was written, thousands of years before the republic of Rome existed, before one stone of Athens was laid, before the Pharaohs ruled in Egypt, before the religion of Brahma, before Sanskrit was spoken, men and women crawled out of their caves, pushed the matted hair from their eyes, and greeted the triumph of the sun over the powers of the night.

There are many relics of this worship -- among which is the shaving of the priest's head, leaving the spot shaven surrounded by hair, in imitation of the rays of the sun. There is still another relic -- the ministers of our day close their eyes in prayer. When men worshiped the sun -- when they looked at that luminary and implored its assistance -- they shut their eyes as a matter of necessity. Afterward the priests looking at their idols glittering with gems, shut their eyes in flattery, pretending that they could not bear the effulgence of the presence; and to-day, thousands of years after the old ideas have passed away, the modern parson, without knowing the origin of the custom, closes his eyes when he prays.

There are many other relics and souvenirs of the dead worship of the sun, and this festival was adopted by Egyptians, Greeks, Romans, and by Christians. As a matter of fact, Christianity furnished new steam for an old engine, infused a new spirit into an old religion, and, as a matter of course, the old festival remained.

For all of our festivals you will find corresponding pagan festivals. For instance, take the eucharist, the communion, where persons partake of the body and blood of the Deity. This is an exceedingly old custom. Among the ancients they ate cakes made of corn, in honor of Ceres and they called these cakes the flesh of the goddess, and they drank wine in honor of Bacchus, and called this the blood of their god. And so I could go on giving the pagan origin of every Christian ceremony and custom. The probability is that the worship of the sun was once substantially universal, and consequently the festival of Christ was equally wide spread.

As other religions have been produced, the old customs have been adopted and continued, so that the result is, this festival of Christmas is almost world-wide. It is popular because it is a holiday. Overworked people are glad of days that bring rest and recreation and allow them to meet their families and their friends. They are glad of days when they give and receive gifts -- evidences of friendship, of remembrance and love. It is popular because it is really human, and because it is interwoven with our customs, habits, literature, and thought.

For my part I am willing to have two or three a year -- the more holidays the better. Many people have an idea that I am opposed to Sunday. I am perfectly willing to have two a week. All I insist on is that these days shall be for the benefit of the people, and that they shall be kept not in a way to make folks miserable or sad or hungry, but in a way to make people happy, and to add a little to the joy of life. Of course, I am in favor of everybody keeping holidays to suit himself, provided he does not interfere with others, and I am perfectly willing that everybody should go to church on that day, provided he is willing that I should go somewhere else. -- The Tribune, New York, December, 1889.

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