Actually, Jesus isn’t the reason for the season: why this agnostic celebrates Christmas
It’s mid December as I write this, and if you came to my house today you would find it transformed for Christmas. We have a lovely Noble fir in our living room, hung with shiny ornaments and hundreds of colorful lights, and our house is decorated with evergreen garlands, candles, stockings and statues of Santa. Last weekend my wife and I hosted a holiday party for our friends and relatives with music, gifts, dancing, cocktails, rich food and fancy cookies. It was a blast.
I am proud to admit that I’m a Christmas geek—not sure why, but I just love it. I don’t really decorate or get that excited about any other holiday, but I go all out for Christmas. Which may seem weird, because I’m not a Christian. I’m an avowed agnostic, and as such, I don’t have any particular metaphysical or spiritual reasons for celebrating Christmas. This annoys folks I know, both religious and non-religious, for different reasons. Some non-religious friends of mine don’t like that I’m celebrating and encouraging a religious holiday; they would rather see society abandon old-fashioned superstitious customs. On the other hand, to some religious folks, my secular celebration violates the sanctity of the holiday and I am part of the “War on Christmas”.
This article will attempt to explain why I think they are both wrong, and why I will continue to joyfully celebrate Christmas. At base, my entire position can be reduced to this: Christmas isn’t really a Christian holiday at all, it’s simply the Christian name for the traditional midwinter/solstice celebrations that are common across many cultures and predate Christianity. The rest of this article will be devoted to justifying that position.
Before I jump in though, one quick disclaimer: I’m going to discuss a lot of convoluted, complex historical information, but I’m not a historian. Pretty much every sentence below could fill many books, but I’m going to try to stick to a couple thousand words. By necessity, I’m treating this subject glibly, but also as accurately as I can. If I make any errors, or you have any questions, please let me know in the comments or by email. I’ll do my best to provide more detail or make corrections as needed.
Why Christmas really isn’t a Christian holiday
Christianity emerged in the Roman world, and early Christian practice (early in the sense of 3rd-4th century, when Christianity spread across the Roman empire) seems to be strongly influenced by Roman religions and customs. Romans celebrated two distinct festivals that seem to have inspired many of our modern Christmas traditions. The first was the most important annual festival in Rome, Saturnalia, or the feast of Saturn. This multi-day festival was held during the run-up to the winter solstice in late December and featured partying, food, drinking, gift giving and relaxed social mores (slaves ate at the masters table, etc).
In the late Roman period, the emperor Aurelian created a new festival, Dies Natalas Sol Invictus, or “the Birthday of the Unconquered Sun” (sound familiar?) which was celebrated on December 25th. Aurelian created this new holiday in 274 AD, only 38 years before Constantine wrote the Edict of Milan, which essentially legalized Christianity. After legalization, Christians were free to publicly celebrate their holidays. For this reason, the oldest records of Christians celebrating Christmas date to around this period, and unsurprisingly these accounts of “Christmas” strongly resemble the Roman festivals that dominated society at the time. Contemporary scholars actively debate whether the December 25 date was chosen for Christmas to coincide with Dies Natalas Sol Invictus, or for calendar reasons related to the supposed date of the Annunciation, but that’s not really relevant to my position. Christians clearly borrowed many of their “Christmas traditions” from the Roman holidays, and that’s what interests me.
As Christianity spread through Europe, it encountered Germanic tribes with their own religious customs. This Germanic culture was utterly different than the Romans, but they also celebrated a solstice festival, called Yule or Yuletide, which, according to Scandinavian legend, was “a time of greatest mirth and joy among men”. This festival also occurred at the winter solstice and included feasting, drinking, fires and candles, and animal sacrifice. Many contemporary Christmas traditions trace directly to Germanic pagan customs, including bringing fir trees into houses and lighting them, kissing under mistletoe, hanging wreathes on doors, and of course the Yule-Log.
(Side note: these same Germanic pagans also seem to be the source material for the other major Christian holiday, Easter, which is named after their goddess Eostre. Like Christmas, modern Easter traditions have essentially no basis in the bible, but seem to be rooted in pagan celebrations of the Spring Equinox.)
Based on that history, I think it’s really difficult to argue that the Christmas holiday that we celebrate has much to do with Christianity. If you recall the Christmas party I described above, pretty much everything I mentioned (trees, gifts, lights, food, drinking, dancing, candles, sweets…) comes directly from Roman and Germanic pagan winter solstice traditions. This is true of pretty much all the customs we associate with Christmas. The only explicitly Christian elements of our Christmas traditions are the name, nativity scenes and a few lyrics in popular carols.
What about Santa?
Although most Christians would assert that Jesus is the central figure in the Christmas narrative, for me as a kid, that role was reserved for Santa. Santa Claus is a weird dude and slightly creepy if you think about it: he has an army of elf minions, he breaks into our houses, he’s always at the mall trying to get kids to sit on his lap and tell him their secrets…but where did this mythological figure come from?
There’s nothing about Santa in the bible. The closest connection you can maybe make is to the “wise men”, or Magi, who are mentioned in the Gospel of Matthew bringing gifts to Jesus (by the way, the bible says nothing about them being kings or how many there were). But the bible doesn’t mention a fat man with a beard, in a red and white suit, flying through the sky with reindeer bringing everybody presents. Where did those parts of the legend come from?
The Christian explanation for Santa is pretty straightforward: Santa is just another name for jolly old St. Nick! And they are at least partly correct. The name Santa Claus is derived from Saint Nicholas, an early Christian Bishop of Myra. He clearly inspired some aspects of the Santa legend, but also not really.
We actually know very little about St. Nicholas, he was Greek, he grew up in a wealthy and very religious Christian household in the 3rd century, and he became the bishop of Myra, which today is in Turkey. He attended the First Council of Nicaea called by Constantine, which codified early Christian beliefs, and history records that he was a conservative who argued fiercely against what he considered to be heretical beliefs. Coincidentally, all this occurred during the same period when Christians were first able to publicly celebrate their holidays, as mentioned above.
We don’t really have good evidence for any other details of St. Nick’s life: we don’t know if he was fat and bearded with a belly that shook when he laughed like a bowlful of jelly, we don’t know if he liked children, and we don’t know if he actually dressed like a chilly White Stripes fan.
The legends about St. Nick don’t really take off until about 750 years after he died. As was the custom at the time, men from Italy traveled to Myra in 1087, dug up Nicholas’ grave and took most of his bones back to Bari, Italy. A couple decades later, more Italians showed up and got the rest of bones and took them back to Venice. That’s the legend anyway, but amazingly, analysis confirms that the bones in the two cities are from the same skeleton—so the story is at least partly true. Nicholas is also a really big deal in Russian Orthodox Christianity, and many churches there also claim to possess bits and pieces of his skeleton and teeth.
Throughout the middle ages, a cult developed around Nicholas (he didn’t officially become a saint until the 19th century, or maybe never, sources differ on this point) and he became an important figure in medieval Christianity. And once again, as Christianity spread northward through Europe, it encountered Germanic pagans and appropriated their stories. Much of the popular Santa legend seems directly inspired by the Norse god Odin (or Wodin), who was celebrated during the Yule festival: Odin was bearded, wore fur-lined robes and a pointy hat (although his costume is usually blue and white, which are the colors Santa traditionally wears in Russia), and during the Yule festival Odin flew through the sky in a sleigh pulled by his 8-legged horse, Slepnir, bringing presents to children.
Remarkably, our popular version of Santa also seems to be influenced by legends from far-northern Siberian cultures. These stories tell of trickster shamans who would climb down chimneys with gifts of hallucinogenic, red and white Amanita mushrooms to help starving, freezing people mentally withstand the arctic winters. Apparently these shamans dressed in red and white to imitate the Amanitas and they found the mushrooms by following reindeer who sought them out for food—in particular, some historians suggest that the shamans may have searched for reindeer with red noses, from eating Amanitas.
Some scholars also suggest that the Amanita mushroom is the inspiration for placing brightly decorated presents at the base of a fir tree—Amanitas are ectomycorrhizal mushrooms, which means they grow symbiotically with tree roots and are generally found growing near fir trees. They have been widely sought throughout history for their psychoactive properties, and it’s not much of a stretch to imagine that people would have been excited to find a bright, shiny, red and white ‘present’ at the base of a fir tree.
Based on this history, I think it’s exceedingly hard to argue that Christmas is a Christian holiday or really has much to do with the birth of Jesus at all. Nearly all aspects of our modern Christmas traditions are directly traceable to pre-Christian winter solstice celebrations. These festivals seem to be fairly universal and many elements (gifts, feasting and drinking, lighting houses, etc.) seem to be shared among disparate cultures, both pre and post-Christianity.
I think there are pretty straightforward reasons for this; knowing the winter solstice was critical to pre-modern agrarian cultures, because it provided important information about planting schedules and rationing food over the winter. In cold climates without modern heat and light, winter was a dark, desperate time. It makes sense that the darkest time of the year (the winter solstice) would be marked by bringing things into our homes that remind us of summer: lights, fires and green, living plants.
The solstice is also the ‘beginning of spring’ in the sense that all the days that come after are longer, lighter and, eventually, warmer. So it also makes sense to mark the solstice with celebrations and feasting for the ending of the winter and the beginning of a new year of plenty. These are the traditions that I celebrate on Christmas, and in my opinion they belong to all of humanity regardless of religious affiliation. Christians put their own spin on the holiday, and gave us the modern name for it, and that’s all great. But it’s not really a Christian holiday and it never was.
So, Merry Christmas to all and a happy New Year!
I want to mention one other thing that fascinates me, but doesn’t really fit into the rest of this article. There is an interesting line of research suggesting that the entire story of Jesus is really just a legend to help people mark the winter solstice. Many pre-christian cultures told stories about the “death and rebirth of the sun/son” that occurs at the solstice, and the broad-stroke details of the life of Jesus seem to be allegorical and are mirrored in the stories of many other “solar messiahs” from cultures across the ancient world.
The video below brings together many of the lines of evidence that suggest the Jesus story really just recapitulates ancient legends that personified natural events. I can’t vouch for every fact in this video, and I’m fairly sure it leaves out important details in the interest of telling a better story. Nonetheless, I think it’s really interesting and I wanted to share it.