Sunday, December 23, 2007

Let's Put the P Back in Xmas

For two millennia, Christianity has had a lock on December 25, denoting this day as “Christmas”, the celebration of Christ’s birthday. And of course many of us non-Christians, atheists included, do partake of the Christmas traditions. But celebrations of December 25 has pagan origins dating from ancient times. For untold centuries, the winter solstice was marked by celebrations of the time when the Sun finally turned the tide in its battle with night, offering the promise of a return to the long, warm days of Spring and Summer. The Romans called the winter solstice “Sol Invictus”- the Undefeated Sun.

The Romans celebrated the anticipation of the return of Spring -and the birthday of the sun god Mithra- with a festival ending on December 25 (then believed to be the year’s shortest day) called Saturnalia, after the god of agriculture. Saturnalia was a joyous occasion filled with lusty pursuits such as feasting, drinking, and fornication. Certainly a somewhat different event than our present-day fairly sedate, religious, and family-oriented Christmas!

So how did this pagan celebration of the winter solstice get translated into a celebration of Christ’s birth? Christ’s birthdate is not mentioned in the Bible, and is thus unknown. So the early Christian church arbitrarily decided to denote December 25 as Christ’s birthday.

This was a very smart, pre-Madison Avenue PR move by the church. Paganism was a major rival of early Christianity, and the winter solstice was a widespread and beloved occasion for celebration. So the church’s choice of December 25 permitted an entrenched old Pagan tradition to continue, but transformed into a new Christian tradition. And it probably seemed quite natural to transform the universal human joy at the return of the life-giving Sun, into joy at the birth of a Son who was the Saviour of humanity. Thus the Christian church managed to turn bawdy Saturnalia into the pious Christ’s mass, Christmas.

But many of the most beloved trappings of our present-day Christmas celebrations come directly from these age-old pagan winter solstice traditions- the spirit of kindness towards friends and strangers, the wassail punch (very similar to the Roman drink calda), kissing under the mistletoe (from ancient Scandinavia), the Advent Wreath (from the pagan fire wheel symbolizing life), and the age-old Celtic Yule log. And of course our traditional Christmas tree is simply a continuation of an ancient pagan tradition of bringing bits of greenery into the house to celebrate the winter solstice.

So let’s take December 25 back from the Christians, and restore it to its wonderful Pagan traditions. For starters, I offer the modest proposal that we remove the X from Xmas, and rename this day Pmas.


sonnyboy said...

But why not abandon Dec 25 completely, which has no scientific significance, and celebrate the winter solstice on the 21st? Of course, many people do this already, so we would simply be joining them. It wouldn't be a specifically atheist holiday, but I don't see any reason why it needs to be such. And even better, by having a big bash on the 21st (as people have been doing for eons) the wind would be taken out of the sails of the 25th, because every one would be spent, hung over, etc except for a few evangelists who can do their wierd things in their nearly abandoned churches.

Devout Atheist said...

Thanks for the comment, sonnyboy- I especially like your image of the evangelists in their practically empty churches, while everyone else is recovering from their recent winter solstice revels. And the extra 4 or 5 days would give everybody enough recovery time to face New Year's Eve!