The Real Reason for the Season, By David Loehr from austinuu.org
Christmas is really quite a new holiday. In our country, it only caught on after the War Between the States – or as some longtime Southerners know it, the War of Yankee Aggression. And in spite of all the hype about Christmas as a religious holiday, many Christians still don’t accept it as having anything to do with Christianity.
Modern Jehovah’s Witnesses and other fundamentalists still see Christmas as a pagan holiday celebrating the winter solstice. They note that Jesus didn’t tell people to celebrate his birthday in his Sermon on the Mount. In Boston, a fundamentalist religious group has run advertisements in the subway proclaiming that early Christians did not “believe in lies about Santa Claus, flying reindeer, elves and drunken parties.” They don’t mention that early Christians didn’t celebrate Christmas either, didn’t have any idea when Jesus was born, or that Jesus also never counseled people to engage in self-righteous games.
It’s kind of ironic, but almost nothing about Christmas that people really love has anything at all to do with Christianity or Jesus. Yet people have been celebrating at this time of year, the winter solstice, since prehistoric times.
Though really, even the winter solstice is mostly an excuse rather than a reason for the season. In our modern calendar, the solstice occurs on 21 or 22 December, though in the old Julian calendar, it sometimes came on December 25th, and was identified with December 25th as far back as the 3rd century, when the Romans had their week-long Saturnalia and the festivals celebrating the birth of the invincible sun, not Jesus.
As far as we can tell, observations and celebrations of the winter solstice may go back 10,000 years – thousands of years before any of today’s religions had been born. In some ancient mythology, the Great Mother Goddess gave birth to a new sun god on that day. Sun gods are pictured with a glow of light, or halo, around their heads. So most of the paintings of Jesus portray him in the stylized way solar deities are portrayed. The solstice was celebrated in many cultures at this time, and by definition that 25th of December – the day the sun was “reborn” – was the birthday of all sun gods, of whom there were many. If you go to Wikipedia, you can find a list of over 100 solar deities, all of whom are “born” each year on the same date – though most of those gods have long since been forgotten. All gods die, and gods who last a few hundred or thousand years have lasted a very long time, as gods go.
So while over a hundred different religious cults and sets of rituals are known, each one of them was a kind of “cover” story over the real reason for the season, which had nothing to do with all those local and temporary gods.
In another twelve days, we will have the shortest day and longest night of the year. Leaves have died and fallen from a lot of trees; it’s been getting dark earlier and getting light later in the day. If we were living through this for the first time, we might think the world was slowly coming to an end, and the light would just continue disappearing until it was completely gone, and we might engage in some pretty desperate hoping.
But this isn’t the season of hoping the sun will come back, and it hasn’t been for over a hundred centuries. It’s the time of knowing the sun will return – after all, they knew exactly which date to plan their parties around, even thousands of years ago, and Stonehenge was built around 4,000 years ago to frame the sun’s rays precisely at the winter and summer solstices. They didn’t hope, they knew. We know full well that the sun will start returning and days will get longer, and we are safe in the hands of Mother Nature, for she will always give birth to the light again. That’s part of the message of this most optimistic of seasons: this is our home, and it’s a safe place for us.
In the fourth century, the emperor Constantine, whose religion was Mithraism, wanted to combine Mithraism and Christianity. He gave Christians protection from prosecution, but then assigned Mithras’s birthday – December 25th, since Mithras was a sun god – to be celebrated as Jesus” birthday as well, and also assigned Sunday – the day named after the sun god – as the holy day of Christianity. Until then, Christians did not have a holy day. Christian writers in the 2nd and 3rd centuries used to brag about having no holy days, unlike those heretical pagans who were always naming days after their gods – like Sun-day. So officially, Jesus started being born on December 25th in the middle of the fourth century, and we’re still meeting here on Sunday, the holy day of a dozen sun gods whose names we no longer even know. But Christmas didn’t start then, because from the very start, Christians wouldn’t buy it. Even 1700 years ago, they knew it was a pagan holiday about a sun god, so the day just wasn’t an important day for them.
A lot of people are surprised to learn that Christmas wasn’t an important day in modern times, either. But it’s a very recent holiday. In England in the 17th century, the Christian Oliver Cromwell ordered people put in jail if they were caught celebrating Christmas.
And when the Puritans came to America, they would not allow the celebration of Christmas, because they too knew their history. Our Congress was in session on December 25, 1789, the first Christmas under our new constitution. Christmas was a normal workday.
Christmas didn’t start catching on in our country until the last third of the 19th century, and then it had almost nothing to do with Jesus, and everything to do with Santa Claus.
In 1822, a dentist named Clement Moore wrote the poem we know as “The Night Before Christmas.” It’s still a magical poem, and it became immensely popular. That’s the poem we all know, about the visit of old Saint Nicholas flying up onto the rooftop in his sleigh pulled by eight reindeer, slipping down the chimney to bring presents to the children, then as he flew away calling out, “Happy Christmas to all, and to all a good night!” There’s nothing about Jesus or God. Nothing about the winter solstice, either – just jolly old Saint Nicholas, presents, and a wonderful, magical atmosphere. After this poem caught on, the Santa Claus story became very popular.
Then in 1843, Charles Dickens published his Christmas Carol the week before Christmas. The US Congress was still meeting on Christmas. They kept meeting on December 25th as a normal workday until 1856. Meanwhile, the Santa Claus story became more popular, and the idea of Christmas as a special day – a day with family and a big Christmas dinner – caught on over much of the country. Two years after Charles Dickens published his story, in 1836, Alabama was the first state to make Christmas a legal holiday. But from the start, as in ancient times, it was about family, friends, sharing good food together, and celebrating – with a big boost from commercialism, just as in ancient Rome.
Christmas cards were introduced in England in 1843 – the same year Dickens published his Christmas Carol. They were simple lithographed cards that said “Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.”
The first Christmas cards in the U.S. were used by merchants for advertising. So making money from this season has been a part of it since it began, as it was also in ancient Rome. We also owe our modern picture of Santa Claus to a cartoonist and a soft drink company.
Thomas Nast was the political cartoonist and illustrator for Harper’s Weekly from 1859-1886. He was born in 1840, so started his career as our country’s first top-quality political cartoonist at the age of nineteen. He gave us both the Republican elephant and the Democratic donkey. And in 1863, at the age of 23, he drew Santa Claus dressed in a fur-trimmed suit. Up till then, Santa Claus was usually drawn either as an elf or as a tall thin man. (That’s why it hadn’t strained the imagination so much that Santa could get up and down chimneys.) So Thomas Nast gave us the symbols for Santa Claus and two political parties — and it’s still safe to say that more people love Santa than those other two animals combined. In 1870, Christmas became a federal holiday for the first time, and in 1907 Oklahoma was the last state to make it an official holiday. But as late as 1931, nine states still required public schools to remain open on Christmas day, still saw it as a normal work day.
But this new holiday didn’t have much at all to do with Jesus or God, and everything to do with the ancient festivals and giving presents. And the gifts which have become the main point of the season for all children and many adults were traditionally given on Saint Nicholas Day, December 6th, not Christmas.
St. Nicholas was a real person, a wealthy 4th century bishop known for his generosity – though not really a saint. The most famous legend about him tells of a poor man with three daughters. In those days a young woman’s father had to offer prospective husbands a dowry. The larger the dowry, the better the chance that a young woman would find a good husband. Without a dowry, a woman was unlikely to marry – much as it still is in India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and other countries around the Indian continent. This poor man’s daughters, without dowries, were therefore destined to be sold into some kind of slavery.
Mysteriously, on three different occasions, a bag of gold appeared in their home-providing the needed dowries. The bags of gold, tossed through an open window, are said to have landed in stockings or shoes left before the fire to dry. This led to the custom of children hanging stockings or putting out shoes, eagerly awaiting gifts from Saint Nicholas. Sometimes the story is told with gold balls instead of bags of gold. That is why three gold balls are one of the symbols for St. Nicholas. It’s also the origin of the three gold balls that you can still sometimes see hanging outside of pawnshops. St. Nicholas”
Day was celebrated on the anniversary of his death, December 6th, beginning in 13th century France. So the first part of our modern Christmas to become popular was the gift giving associated with St. Nicholas, but not any story about the birth of Jesus.
But combining gift giving with a religious holiday is like combining fireworks with the celebration of our nation’s declaration of independence on the 4th of July. Guess which one will trump the other one?
Some people in this country were giving gifts for St. Nicholas Day, which had become a secular holiday. But by the end of the 19th century, merchants succeeded in getting people to combine St. Nicholas” Day with December 25th, and give the gifts for Christmas, to help focus the shopping season. Earlier, Christmas gifts were almost always made by hand to give to your family and friends. But between about 1880 and 1920 merchants managed to sell us on the idea that they should be bought, and gift-wrapped in fancy paper. In the 1930s, they got President Franklin Roosevelt to move Thanksgiving back from its former date of November 30th, to November 23rd, so there would be a longer Christmas shopping season. A few years later, Congress made Thanksgiving the fourth Thursday in November, and the Christmas shopping season has officially started the day after Thanksgiving since then “though now it seems the Christmas ads start after Halloween.
You notice that so far, Jesus, God and Christianity have hardly been mentioned at all. Our modern Christmas was begun by storytellers, cartoonists and merchants, creating the shopping season that is the most profitable time of the year for them. It features holly, ivy, mistletoe, evergreens, fir trees, and the lights and fires and parties that go back to before Christianity existed, probably to before any religion still alive existed. But also notice that none of these stories talk about the winter solstice, either.
Our favorite Christmas music isn’t religious, either, though our favorite music comes at Christmas. The Number One selling record of all time is still Bing Crosby’s 1942 version of “White Christmas,” and the Number Two selling record of all time is still Gene Autrey’s 1949 recording of “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.”
The single most important picture that established our image of old Santa Claus as the fat guy with the white beard in the red suit with white fur trim wasn’t by the political cartoonist Thomas Nast who started it, but another commercial artist. For 33 years, from 1931 to 1964, the Coca-Cola Company published ads picturing this fat Santa in his red suit and white fur, holding a bottle of Coca-Cola. Then in 1957, Dr. Seuss published his story of the Grinch who stole Christmas, a kind of cartoon version of the Scrooge character. And again, the “Christmas spirit” the Grinch had tried to steal wasn’t about religion, but about parties, celebration, giving presents and having a wonderful time together.
Today, Christmas has become an almost completely secular holiday. That even seems to be becoming the law. In 1999 a US District court ruled that Christmas decorations didn’t violate anybody’s religious beliefs because as they put it, “The Christian holiday has become almost completely secularized.” One of the great ironies of Christmas is that it really isn’t a Christian holiday – or even a religious holiday – at all. It is, as that court said, a secular holiday, just as St. Nicholas Day was and St. Valentine’s Day is.
So all the focus on gifts, merriment, meals with friends, singing, evergreens, mistletoe isn’t distracting from the reason for the season. It is the reason for the season, and has been for thousands of years before any of the world’s religions had been invented.
From all of the ancient and modern histories, whether around Rome or around the U.S., it looks like the real reason for the season was the need to celebrate, to get together with family and friends, to surround ourselves with merriment, and to just come alive. That’s a victory of the human imagination, inventing the brightest holiday in the midst of Nature’s longest nights.
What this season has been about since prehistoric times is coming alive. Early Christians said that the old Roman Saturnalia had parties, drinking, good food, singing, dancing and laughter – as though that were a bad thing. But remember, most of this partying was done with their families and friends. The winter solstice was an excuse for it, just as the 4th of July is an excuse for shooting off fireworks. But the solstice wasn’t the real reason, any more than any holiday is. We love holidays because they give us permission to come alive more theatrically and openly than we can do the rest of the year without being seen as a bit odd.
During 4th of July fireworks displays, all those “Oooohs” and “Aaaaahs” you hear when the fireworks go off aren’t in memory of a bunch of men signing a declaration of independence. They are the delighted gasps of our inner children, thrilled with being alive and being together. And that’s the real reason for the Christmas season, too.
I keep thinking of the wonderful words from theologian Howard Thurman, when he said, “Don’t ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive, and go do it. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.” I had never thought of them as having anything to do with Christmas, and doubt that he meant for them to be. But they are about what this season is really about.
This is the most creative, positive and human of all our holidays. Fifty or a hundred centuries ago, some people were facing another solstice season. The days were short, the nights were long, and it could look like the end of the world. They knew it wasn’t – the world isn’t likely to end unless we boil it away or blow it apart. But once they started lighting fires, somebody got a very creative idea: let’s have a party! Let’s do an in-your-face to Nature, by having our biggest, brightest party right in the middle of Nature’s most dismal days!
There were other facts that made this a perfect time for huge feasts. They often slaughtered many of their cattle at this time, so they wouldn’t have to feed them throughout the winter – so there was a lot of fresh meat available for the feast. And the wine they had made last summer was finally ready to drink. Well, that’s a sign from the gods!
The best parts of nature have always been claimed by the mythmakers of the day for their particular story. In ancient Rome, the official storytellers said what’s going on here is the birth of that invincible sun. A few blocks away in the neighborhoods of Mithraism, they said no, it’s really the birth of Mithras, who was both the sun god and the Son of God. Disciples of Apollo would claim the time for him, and remind you that the only reason the sun even comes up in the morning is because Apollo drags it across the sky behind his golden chariot.
Then after the fourth century, Christian mythmakers said No; it was the celebration of the birth of another Son of God named Jesus that just happened to come on the birthday of Mithras and all the other sun gods. Then they connected it with the earlier story about Joseph and Mary, a wandering star, shepherds and wise men, and the rest of it.
These are all such wonderful stories! They are far more imaginative stories than the truth, which is pretty dull: “Well, the days will start getting longer for six months, then they’ll get shorter for six months, and they’ll probably keep doing that forever, as they’ve been doing on this planet for over four billion years. Now there’s a boring story! Nobody is lining up to see that movie!
Meanwhile, back on earth, a lot of people are getting ready to party. They’ve preparing a menu, inviting friends, deciding on the right gifts for the right people, whether they make them or buy them. They’re picking out fancy wrapping paper, hanging all sorts of things on real or artificial green trees – a lot like people did in ancient Rome, in the communities of Mithraism – the fir tree was Mithra’s sacred tree – and in more times and places than we can count. That’s the real reason for the season: a rare chance to come alive, to celebrate the gift of life by offering gifts to those in life who mean a lot to you, a chance for good food, good friends, and family who, if we can’t quite love having them around for the holidays, can at least tolerate them in good humor, and hope they return the favor.
It’s a time to get out not only our best behaviors, but some of our silliest and most child-like behaviors, too. My god, this is the season when full-grown people talk about flying reindeer, take their children to a million malls to sit on Santa’s lap, then line up and pay good money to see that ballet with mice that dance, and a magical nutcracker who comes to life.
“Comes to life.” That’s it. The real reason for this season has always been coming back to life. Not coming to worship the invincible sun, not coming to Mithras, not coming to Jesus, but coming to life. And all the stories, music, costumes, decorations and parties are like training wheels for us, to help us get back into that habit of being more alive – a habit we seem to slip out of so easily that it’s a good thing we have arranged this annual reminder that more than anything, what the world needs is people who have come alive.