The True Meaning of Christmas (and Why I Embrace It as an Atheist)
December 25th is a day of celebration of faith. It is marked as the birthday of the Sun in both Vainakh (Malkh) and Roman (Dies Natalis Solis Invicti) mythologies. Other religious holidays that pass through today include Yule (originally a Pagan religious festival), Pancha Ganapati (a festival to honor Lord Ganesha by Hindus), and of course Christmas.
Christmas is actually a very culturally and spiritually intertwined holiday. While the original purpose of Christmas was to celebrate the birth of Jesus, the day was picked as a way to pull in Pagan converts by conscripting *their* religious celebrations already going on that day. Choosing the day of the “birth of the Unconquerable Sun god” as the day to celebrate the birth of the Son of God was no coincidence. And it proved an effective marketing strategy, even if not an entirely spiritually-focused one. Much of what we do to celebrate Christmas comes from very non-Christian roots as well: Christmas trees come from the Yuletide Pagan tradition. Kissing under Mistletoe was a way to remember Baldur, grandson of Thor in Norse religions. Poinsettias were favored for their religious significance by the Aztecs. Even the giving of lavish gifts – something the “sell all you have to give to the poor” Jesus might have frowned on – comes from the various Pagan holidays originally celebrated this time of year.
Christmas has so much paganism embedded that the Puritans outright banned the holiday in England and America in the 17th century. It wasn’t until 1836 that Alabama became the first US state to make it a legal holiday again, and it took until 1870 for then President Grant to declare it a nationwide holiday.
This is why I always smile a little when someone proclaims that “Jesus is the Reason for the Season.” Historically, this is just about as false as you can get. Jesus is indeed a reason many people choose to focus on and celebrate this time of year, but the reason for the season is actually the winter solstice, and much of what we consider to be the goodwill acts that occurs during this time of year stems from various Pagan and decidedly non-Christian traditions. Thus, Christmas is a holiday that does not belong only to Christians, but to all of humanity regardless of their beliefs or lack thereof. Just as one should not be offended by a generic Happy Holidays, non-Christians should feel free to fully embrace the warmth and goodwill of a Merry Christmas. It belongs to all of us.