It’s a holiday week, so I’m only doing one post. Enjoy and Merry Christmas.
A while ago… ages ago, really, I wrote an article entitled, “Yule: The Root of Your Christmas Tree”. This was so early in my career as a thinking person that it appeared in a newsletter that was printed on actual paper and distributed as a hard copy to people who held it, physically, in their hands. At the time, I thought the title was terribly clever and, while I now own that it might have been slightly less clever than I’d initial thought, the idea behind the title carries weight, perhaps even more now than it did then.
And now, the customary disclosure note, because, once again, I’m dancing right into one of the Big Three.
I was raised Catholic and am now a Buddhist atheist. I’ve never had religious faith, nor have I ever missed it, though I can very much see it’s value in other people’s lives.
Now, for all that, I LOVE Christmas, not as a celebration of one man’s birth, but as the current incarnation of a cultural phenomena that goes back millennia and feeds a very primal need in us, as human beings – to connect with each other during the darkest time of the year.
Before Christmas, there was Saturnalia, a Roman festival of light. Predating Saturnalia were a bevy of pagan festivals and feasts celebrating the winter solstice, among which Yule is the most well-known. The traditions associated with these various pre-Christian festivals colored the Christmas celebrations of early and medieval Christians. In fact, nearly all of the elements that signal Christmastime in the Western world, from fir trees and mistletoe to Santa Claus, have their origins in pagan celebrations from Britain, Rome, Germany and even Turkey.
Now, my point in all this is not to suggest that Christmas should not be celebrated as the acknowledgment of Jesus’s birth. I don’t particularly need you to keep the Christ out of Christmas, so long as you don’t mind if I do. My point, rather, is to suggest that human beings have been celebrating midwinter festivals since we figured out that fire is hot and keeps out the dark.
At it’s most basic, the purpose of these midwinter festivals was to unite the tribe / community so that its members could share in each other’s resources and good will. Far from being a frivolous thing, these celebrations were, in many ways, an effort at getting everyone through the long, dark winters alive.
The uncomfortable fact is that the early Church appropriated elements of many non-Christian midwinter celebrations and brought them all under the banner of a sanctioned Christmas holiday. There were many social, political, economic and even spiritual reasons for this, none of which I’m going to address in a post I’m trying to keep under 600 words as a gift to you, dear reader. However, although Christmas is a decidedly Christian holiday now, it’s slow secularization makes me thing that those pagan, non-Christian origins have great value and are still applicable today.
Ancient pre-Christian principles still operate beneath our current Christian conception of Christmas, and I suspect that Jesus would approve of the message – community, sharing, light in the darkness, survival, love. Human love. I think that’s something we can all – Christian, atheist, Buddhist, Jew, Muslim, Hindu, pagan and everything else – get behind, particularly in this time of year.
So, in that spirit, I wish you all a very Merry Christmas, a marvelous Saturnalia and a peaceful Solstice. May we all be good to each other, protect each other, share our warmth and resources, and wish each other peace. May we all make it happy and whole to the New Year. Cheers.