Merry Christmas to all!
Christmas is one of the happiest times of year. For most of us, Christmas brings back memories of Christmases past, the Christmases of our childhood, when joy reigned and wishes came true. The fragrance of fresh fir, the glow of candles, the tinkle of little Christmas bells, the glitter and glisten of decorations which brighten everything at this time of year, the very colors of green and red and snowy white - how can the heart not smile with joy? And the songs! Yes, they can get tiresome, but I can turn the radio off. It's Christmas, after all! A special time. A happy time.
I am not a Christian, but I enjoy Christmas. I love to do all the things one traditionally does at Christmas: I write to old friends, bake cookies, wander the malls where people are shopping, buy gifts for those I love. I love to sing the old carols. I get out the story "A Bavarian Christmas" and reread it, because the Bavarians (among whom I spent one of my most wonderful Christmases) make such a big production of Christmas. And the story of the inn with no room, the Magi, the shepherds, the angels singing about the baby king - what a beautiful tale! We (my atheist family and I) put up a tree, set up the nativity scene with the baby Jesus, put the three Magi statues on the mantlepiece, put the angel on top of the tree, and Santa and the elves all around, and create the magic of Christmas. It is a wonderful tradition, a beautiful custom.
But I am always amused at this time of year by letters to the editor or newspaper editorials urging us all to return to the "true" or "real" meaning of the coming holiday season. The author is usually a devout Christian and is assuming that the meaning of the celebration is indicated by the "Christ" in its now most common name, "Christmas." The implication is that it is Christ and Christian theology which makes Christmas meaningful.
Nothing could be further from the historical truth. This holiday was celebrated by many pagan peoples of the northern hemisphere long before the Christians adopted it in the third century. It was (and still is) the celebration of the Winter Solstice, when we see the cold grip of winter and darkness begin to ease, as the days begin to lengthen again. The Germanic peoples celebrated it with lights, fires and evergreen trees; the Romans with feasts and gifts.
Long before the Christians took it over, December 25 was celebrated as the birthday of Mithra, a god of virgin birth, whose birth was witnessed by shepherds tending their flocks, and who came to save mankind through initiation by baptism.
What connection does Jesus have to this ancient holiday? None. Christians did not even try to celebrate Jesus' birthday until several centuries into our era. Until the 17th century many protestant Christians refused to celebrate it because of its pagan origins. Even pious Christians acknowledge that Jesus was probably not born in late December.
So, please, Christians, don't keep urging us to return to the "real" meaning of this holiday. You Christians are the ones who have it wrong. You can attach any meaning you like to it; that's your privilege. But we non-Christians are celebrating it in its true meaning: winter is losing its grip; it's time to celebrate with feasting, warmth, light, greenery, singing and friendship.
Merry Christmas to all, and to all, a good night!
Please feel free to copy and submit the above to your local Letters to the Editor column
Update (December 2007): A slightly edited version of this article was published in my local (Roseburg, Oregon) newspaper and generated considerable comment, pro and con. To read the comments, click here.