I love holidays, and Christmas is no exception. Do I believe in Jesus such that I will be celebrating his birth over that time? No. Not at all. I’m an atheist. I’ve even written a book to illustrate that the whole thing really was a mythological tale.
In this context, I want to explain how the origins of Christmas might not be what you might think, and question why we cannot change traditions to form new ones.
But before we discuss Christmas, there is summer to ponder.
Setting the scene
Summer holidays in the UK are relatively long – around six weeks. Do you know why? Because families used to need their children to go and work out in the fields at harvest time, and this elongated break allowed for farmers to use seasonal work effectively.
Or so the legend goes.
Actually, it may be something of a myth, with the reality being that it rather suited the teachers of the private schools of the 18th century, and the middle- and upper-class parents of the pupils. Either way, the school summer holiday is no longer there for the reasons that generated it. Nowadays, children love a good long summer holiday, and so do the travel agents.
The start of the summer is marked by May Day in many cultures, as well as it becoming a labor day in some countries. In the UK, as far back as the 14th century, the celebrations often involved Morris dancing and skipping around a maypole. This became the May bank holiday in 1978, whereby most of the population (like Christmas Day, Boxing Day, and New Year’s Day among others) broadly receive a paid day off.
But people generally don’t go home and dance around a maypole. Or go out and think about the fruits of summer and what the harvests might bring. No, they generally stay at home, have a lie in, and enjoy themselves with family and friends. Or a television. Or read a blog post like this in their lounge pants. Perhaps they go away for a long weekend.
It’s the same for Christmas, too. And the Easter weekend. And…
I don’t believe in myths, but, like those teachers (and I used to be one myself), I enjoy holidays, including Christmas and Easter.
Moving this discussion on, let’s get a little rational here and introduce you to (or reacquaint you with) the genetic fallacy. The genetic fallacy is described as follows:
The genetic fallacy (also known as the fallacy of origins or fallacy of virtue) is a fallacy of irrelevance that is based solely on someone’s or something’s history, origin, or source rather than its current meaning or context. This overlooks any difference to be found in the present situation, typically transferring the positive or negative esteem from the earlier context. In other words, a claim is ignored in favor of attacking or championing its source.
Does this ring a bell of truth?
For the Christian, the birth of Christ is very important to them in their celebration of Christmas. I’m not taking that away from them. It’s not a zero-sum game. My celebration of Christmas does not subtract anything from their meaning.
Although, having said that, I can understand that they might look around and see the overt commercialism of Christmas (that many will also be indulging in, but not all) and feel it has taken something from them. But, really, it hasn’t. You make of things what you will and they can make Christmas truly religious and spiritual, full of theological meaning, for them and their families, friends, and congregations.
If it wasn’t for those pesky pagans…!
Saturnalia was a Roman winter solstice celebration and part of the agricultural calendar that eventually became a week-long celebration. Heck, even slaves didn’t have to work in that time! People decorated their homes with wreaths and other greenery. Gifts were exchanged; feasting, gambling, and socializing were enjoyed; candles were burnt and songs were sung.
In fact, the celebrations were so raucous that the Roman author Pliny built a soundproof room so he could continue to work effectively during this time!
Were all of these people really thinking only about the solstice and agriculture?
I doubt it very much.
I use this example, as many of you might recognize, because of its pertinence to Christmas. The time of celebration for Christmas – around the winter solstice – is no coincidence (after all, Jesus was probably born in spring). The time was co-opted in what was a form of syncretism – a merging not so much of beliefs, but of pagan rituals and chronology, festivities and celebration, into the fold of Christianity. This co-opting of traditions was a way of Christian organized religion, (it eventually became the official religion of the Roman Empire) to convince remaining pagans over to Christianity.
Meaning. My meaning.
I’m an atheist. And that theism I reject also includes the god Saturn. I’m an equal opportunities rejector.
But I do love a good gift – the giving and receiving. And merrymaking. I’m not a gambler, but I like a nice candle. And wreaths are pretty. And, do you know what, I’ll add a roast turkey (okay, meat substitute) and crackers to that, even with their silly jokes and paper crowns (you’ll have to do Christmas in the UK to enjoy that tradition).
I’ve celebrated Diwali and other religious festivals, sometimes in other countries. I don’t need to believe in the religions that birthed those traditions to enjoy them. You could argue it might help. You could also argue it might hinder. Goodness, if I was a really fundamental Christian, I can guarantee that I wouldn’t enjoy Christmas even half as much as I do as an atheist.
You see, I don’t want to enjoy this time because of its relevance to Jesus. I have my own reasons for celebrating and enjoying Christmas.
Things are what they become. Meaning is what you make it. Traditions are as much to be made as received.
I love Christmas: The food, the family, the friends, the tree, the decorations, the merriment, the TV, the songs (yes, the carols and even hymns, too), the endless wishing that it would snow (but it rarely ever does where I live). And in this list is hardly anything overtly Christian.
And, just for the record, I eat Easter eggs, as well. They’re tasty.
“We need to put the Christ back into Christmas!” some declare. Except, for me at any rate, he was never really there.