Is There a Christ in Christmas?
As soon as Thanksgiving passes, we in America are inundated with the supposed "war on Christmas" and the religious right's attempts to "keep Christ in Christmas where he belongs". If you choose to look behind the political and religious hype, however, the Christmas celebration has many more layers than the average person may expect. In fact, Christmas began (under another name) as a pagan celebration, was renamed and revamped by the church hundreds of years after the supposed birth of Jesus and became an all-inclusive catch-all of traditions and celebrations world-wide. Looking past the traditional into history, we can understand a rich, multicultural celebration that far exceeds the claims of any one belief and uncover the true meaning behind the traditional winter celebration beloved by many people throughout many cultures and countries around the world.
The Origins of Christmas
Contrary to what a lot of Christians would have you believe, Christmas (the celebration of the birth of Christ) was not solely of Christian (or Christ-like) origins. Before the church officially recognized Christmas as a celebration/feast day in the 4th Century, pagans from around the world were already recognizing special celebrations on or around December 25. Most notably, the Saturnalia celebration took place throughout the Roman Empire between the 17th of December and the 23. Saturnalia was a celebration of the sun god Saturn, and it was celebrated by exchanging gifts, holding feasts and general merrymaking. Christians began celebrating the birth of Christ around the Saturnalia feast long before Christmas was an official, recognized church Holiday - probably with the intention of inclusively converting their Roman pagan neighbors. Christianity has a notable history of taking pagan holidays and turning them into Christian-themed holidays that remarkably coincide with the dates, traditions and ideas of their pagan counterparts, so this Christmas coincidence is hardly the exception to the rule - and in fact, it's a big reason why some Christian denominations don't recognize Christmas as the birth of Christ and refrain from any of the traditional aspects associated with it.
Sol Invictus was another Roman festival that was celebrated traditionally on December 25th. This festival celebrated the rebirth of the sun after the shortest day of the year - the Winter Solstice.
Pagan celebrations around Christmas time were not limited to Rome. The concept of a Yule log comes from the midwinter German holiday, and has its own ancient origins. Winter solstice itself was long revered by many pagan communities world wide - it is the day of the year where the sun is visible for the shortest amount of time and the night is the longest. Winter Solstice celebrations all centered around the idea of birth or rebirth, as the sun would gradually be visible for longer and longer periods once the solstice had passed as winter began to gradually give way to spring.
Christmas Celebrations and Their Origins
The Christmas Tree:
Unbeknownst to a lot of modern Christians today, the Christmas tree was ironically controversial when it first became common practice in Western culture. Although no one is sure of exactly when this tradition started, it can be historically dated back to the 16th century in German communities. The idea of using a tree for a sacred celebration is actually much older, however. Trees were commonly used by Druid communities to commemorate the Winter Solstice. Ironically, the Bible condemns the idea of bringing a tree into the home and decorating it (Jeremiah 10:1-5 specifically condemns the idea of cutting down a tree, bringing it into the home and decorating it with silver and gold as the pagans practiced). As a result of this Bible passage, many Christians in the 1800's forbid the use of Christmas trees, and spoke out against those who chose to display them.
The tradition of hanging Mistletoe actually began under Norse traditions. Norse mythology says that the goddess Frigg overlooked Mistletoe, which allowed her son to be killed by loophole. The result was all of the earth was plunged into a deep, lasting winter. When Frigg's son was brought back to life, Mistletoe was named as a symbol for love - not destruction. Kissing under the Mistletoe is actually a sign of honor to the gods.
Unlike many other Christmas traditions which originated in maybe one other place, Holly joins the celebration from two separate traditions. Originally, the Druids revered Holly as a symbol of protection against the harshness of Winter. Additionally, Holly was used by the Romans in their celebration of Saturn. Saturn was the god of Agriculture and the Harvest, and as a result, many Roman halls were decked with the plant as a token of appreciation and good luck for the upcoming year.
The Phony War on Christmas
For years, the Christian right has been peddling the idea that Christmas is under attack by the secular and liberal left. They claim fallaciously that Christmas is under attack - and that it must be protected at all costs. This "war" is trumpeted by catchy slogans like "keep Christ in Christmas" and it's parroted by political and religious leaders in America.
Sarah Palin's book "Good Tidings and Great Joy: Protecting The Heart of Christmas" argues that Christians in America are currently facing persecution, and their ability and freedom to celebrate the religious traditions of Christmas are being trampled. Palin is not alone in her assertions - even when the things they are railing against prove to be absolutely unfounded - which makes their outrage unnecessary.
A familiar story from 2006 comes to mind, when the Christian right expressed outrage over the supposed changing and secularizing the lyrics of popular Christmas carols performed at a high school in Wisconsin. Although the story was completely groundless, it still received epic levels of criticism and outrage from religious leaders like Jerry Falwell - you know, the guy who blamed 9/11 on the gays and feminists.
The truth is simple. No personal faith is being attacked or taken away. Due to the separation of church and state, it is illegal for one religious iconography to supersede all others - as is the case with nativity scenes and Christian slogans displayed on government property or buildings. According to Palin, that makes all of us who believe in the separation of church and state scrooges.
"“We need to protect the heart of Christmas and not let angry atheists armed with an attorney – a scrooge – tell us that we can’t celebrate traditional faith in America.” - Sarah Palin in an interview with Matt Lauer.
Even Christians disagree with these outrageous attempts by the religious right to implant their religious beliefs in the heart of our government. Christians are more than welcome to celebrate their own faith and beliefs in any manner they choose - as long as those celebrations do not infringe on the rights or freedoms of others who may not share those beliefs. In other words, forcing your beliefs on the general public at large is wrong - no matter what faith that is - and putting Christian symbols in government buildings that show preferential treatment to Christianity (and often to the exclusion of all other religious beliefs) is simply not allowed.
Palin and others of her ilk choose to get offended every time someone wishes them "Happy Holidays" instead of "Merry Christmas". They take it personally that not all people in the world comport with their own personal beliefs and ideals. The war on Christmas exists only in the mind of the religious right - and they're fighting a war against an imaginary enemy.
No matter what you choose to celebrate this Holiday season, I implore you to keep in mind that you (and your beliefs) do not exist in a vacuum. You exist in a world with a large variety of ideas, beliefs, religions and individual personalities. Instead of getting offended when someone does not wish you merry celebration in the manner to which you subscribe, keep in mind that whoever that person is has their own ideas about the holiday season - and the real reason for the season is enjoying family, friends and feasts. Christmas celebrations are just as varied as individual personalities are - and offense only happens by choice.