Religion

The True Meaning of Christmas

Have you ever been accused of getting so wrapped up in the holiday season that you’ve forgotten the “true” meaning of Christmas? Or maybe you weren’t directly accused but unwittingly joined the captive audience of a Christian delivering a soapbox speech about “keeping the Christ in Christmas”. Well, next time this happens, if you’re feeling called to be equally obnoxious, you can assure the concerned party that you’re well aware of the true meaning of the Christmas season, and that Christ is just one in a long line of gods that have been celebrated on or around the winter solstice.

Most historians agree it’s unlikely that Jesus was born in December for reasons ranging from a lack of notable celestial events (a la the north star) to the unlikelihood of shepherds tending to their flocks on a frigid December eve. Winter has been a time for festivities in many cultures long before Christ or Christmas. Most of the celebrations were in honor of pagan gods and goddesses related to nature, agriculture, and the sun. It seems that before science had revealed much about weather patterns or meteorology, the pagans paid special attention to the “sun gods” as a bribe to be sure they came back after winter.

So the theory goes that circa 325 A.D., Jesus’ birthday was assigned to December 25th because it was already a time of celebration, and pagans would more readily convert. Although there is some disagreement about that, it is evident that pagan traditions have been integrated into the modern Christian festivities. Did you deck the halls with boughs of holly this year? Sing a yuletide carol? Eat a big meal? Participate in a gift exchange? If so, ever wonder what the heck it had to do with Jesus? The decorating of evergreen boughs is a pagan tradition that started because the evergreen trees were the only ones that had not lost their leaves in the wintertime. Sure, one could decorate a leafless December maple branch, but it wouldn’t be quite as festive. Yule was celebrated in northern Europe to honor Mithras, the pagan sun god, with the burning of the yule log for 12 hours on the night of the winter solstice. December 25th, in particular, was a day of gift-giving in celebration of the birth of the son of the goddess of nature (Isis). Romans celebrated Saturnalia, which honored Saturn, the god of agriculture with the exchanging of gifts and merrymaking. So, with the exception of the nativity, the Christmas celebration already existed before Jesus’ birthday was assigned to December 25th. The food, the gifts, the merrymaking, the evergreen décor. The only part I’m unclear on is the figgy pudding.

So do we need a god or gods to make the season special?

Christmas needs no deeper meaning than that on the surface of the holiday season. Christmas is when you curl up in front of the fire with a cup of hot cocoa, and feel cozy as you view the freezing snow outside. Christmas is when you find joy in giving – choosing a gift for someone you care about and taking joy in watching him or her open it. Christmas is when family, friends, and loved-ones spend time together laughing, eating, and making memories that last a lifetime. That’s the true meaning of the season. The gods celebrated and honored may vary, but the love, giving, and happiness are consistent. So don’t feel guilty for shopping or eating too much. Reach out to loved ones, enjoy the festivities, make memories – join the time-honored tradition of celebrating each other during the season of the winter solstice.

Merry Christmas!

(originally posted 12/24/06)

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11 Comments

  1. I love the article, but calling Mithra a pagan deity is a bit of an understatement. He was by no means the local nature deity generally associated with the term. Instead he was the most powerful of the Amesha Spenta, the host of heaven, in Zoroastrian religion, second only to Ahura Mazda, making him part of a much older monotheistic faith than Judaism or Christianity. He was so popular that he was adopted by the Greeks and then the Romans as an extremely important deity, who found many followers. There may even be some evidence that Mithra became equated with the warrior god Haldi, head of the Urartian pantheon in Iran/Turkey. Mithra was indeed one of the most widespread and freely worshiped deities of the time period, certainly eclipsing the provincial/ethnic worship of YHWH.

  2. As best as I have been able to determine, figgy pudding (which is actually more like a fruitcake than what Americans consider a pudding) became associated with Christmas sometime in the early 1800s, although recipes for it date back three or four hundred years earlier. It's probably one of the few Christmas traditions that doesn't have pagan roots.

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