Not too long ago I opened up about my religious beliefs, which are, in short nonexistent. And yet: Christmas is my favourite time of year. I celebrate it with abandon and joy, and I encourage my kids to believe in Santa and to get into the Christmas spirit as well. So how do I reconcile this behaviour with my (lack of) religious beliefs? Am I a complete and utter hypocrite?
The short answer is, I don’t think so. Let me explain why.
First and foremost, the celebration of the winter solstice goes back to the beginnings of humankind and is found in just about every culture worldwide. And partying specifically on December 25 goes back to the ancient Romans, who celebrated the festival of Brumalia in honour of the god Bacchus on the winter solstice which had been established as December 25 by Julius Caesar in his Julian calendar as early as 46 BCE.
December 25 held its importance for the Romans, as the festival of Sol Invictus (“the undefeated sun”) was also celebrated on the date, allowing the pantheistic Romans to worship several solar deities at once. Furthermore, the Emperor Elagabalus introduced the festival of the birth of the undefeated sun (Dies Natalis Solis Invicti) which was also celebrated on December 25, and became an empire-wide holiday during the reign of Aurelian. This celebration came to be associated with Jesus of Nazareth as Christianity gained in popularity in the empire, thereby associating Christ with December 25. At this point I choose not to get into speculation about whether Jesus was an actual historical figure or not; however there would seem to be much recent debate amongst Christian scholars placing his birth during the month of April in about 5 BC.
So to start with, the celebration of a holiday on December 25 has much deeper roots than those in Christianity, and winter solstice festivals would appear to be nearly universal among human cultures. But (unlike my husband, who is willing and ready to drop Christmas from our calendar altogether) I do also love and foster the traditions and ideals of Christmas itself. I love the idea of Santa and I perpetuate belief in him with my children. For me, he represents a benevolent and generous magic and a love of children. The spirit of giving unselfishly and celebrating with our family and loved ones once a year is also a treasured aspect of the season for me.
I love the music of Christmas, and the fact that it is so inclusive: everyone’s encouraged to sing along and join in the caroling! When I think of Christmas I remember joyous evenings with my sisters and parents enjoying special foods like egg nog, cookies and nuts with the shells on. I feel the warmth of the fire and hear it crackling while I remember the anticipation of surprise: what will Santa bring us this year? Will Mom love the present I picked out for her? I remember watching the classic Alistair Sim rendition of Scrooge in A Christmas Carol (recently brilliantly remade by Disney) and the message Dickens sends through the character of Fred (Scrooge’s nephew), who says:
There are many things from which I might have derived good, by which I have not profited, I dare say. Christmas among the rest. But I have always thought of Christmas time as a time for forgiving. A charitable, pleasant time; the only time I know when men and women seem to freely open their shut-up hearts. Therefore, Uncle, though it has never put a scrap of gold or silver in my pocket, I believe that it has done me good, and will do me good; and I say, “God bless it”!
In fact, according to Wikipedia (my favourite source), “Christmas is also celebrated by an increasing number of non-Christians worldwide”, a phenomenon I’ve noticed among many of my friends and neighbours who are Muslim, Hindu, Sikh, Jewish, etc. By far the most common element that seems to make the cultural jump is Santa Claus and the tradition of giving gifts.
When I think Christmas I think of Victorian postcards and Currier and Ives prints, egg nog and candy canes, Santa Claus, turkey dinners, tobogganing and most of all: family. To me, these things can transcend any religious beliefs and foster among us what is best about humanity, regardless of creed.
And that’s why I love Christmas.