Let’s stop pretending that Christmas is a Christian holiday. It’s not — at least, not in any meaningful way. Not in the way it’s celebrated in the western world. And, more and more, not in the way it’s celebrated in the rest of the globe.
It’s time for atheists, Jews, Muslims, pagans and other non-Christians to get their Santa on. Christmas is a party, but it’s a party that nearly one in five Americans does not feel invited to. That’s, quite frankly, at odds with our long tradition as the world’s melting pot. Christmas is part of the our shared culture. We should all feel free to participate.
Christmas is about as Christian as Halloween. Really. It’s a collection of ancient pagan traditions that were co-opted by the Church and given a thin veneer of Christianity (which it has since mostly lost) so that people could go on enjoying it without attracting the attention of the Inquisition.
There is no Santa in the Bible, and few Christians would recognize the Fourth-Century Greek saint, Nicholas, as the Jolly Old Elf of Christmas lore. The image of Santa on his reindeer-driven sleigh invokes Odin and his Wild Hunt far more than anything in the Christian tradition (and this makes sense, considering that the modern Santa myth originated in northern Europe).
I won’t dwell on the other beloved “Christmas” traditions, as much has been written about them elsewhere. Suffice it to say that if you’re looking for their origins, you won’t learn much in the Bible.
Christ wasn’t born on Dec. 25 in the year 1 A.D. Neither the year nor the date was recorded precisely. A December birth was settled on long after the events of the Gospels, when early Christian monks mused that Christ must have been executed on the anniversary of the Immaculate Conception, and so they worked forward nine months from Good Friday.
Conveniently, a major Roman pagan cult also celebrated a feast on Dec. 25. Also, European pagans held a winter Solstice celebration in late December: As Christianity spread its evangelists found it expedient keep the holiday in place — with many of the accompanying traditions. And so, we wound up with Christmas trees, yule logs, wreaths, stockings over the fireplace, mistletoe, and other pagan holdovers.
It’s true, some Christians make it a point of attending church on Christmas eve, in observance of the Mass of Christ. And a very few eschew all of the conventional Christmas traditions, choosing instead to spend the day in prayer and reflection of Christ’s life and death. A few modern Christmas traditions retain a fair amount of overtly religious symbolism — the star or angel at the top of the tree, the nativity scene in the churchyard, the more sacred of the Christmas carols.
But they’re little more than ornaments to the secular Christmas tradition.
A Christmas tree with a disco ball on top is still recognizably a Christmas tree. Some of the most beloved Christmas songs mention flying reindeer and animated snowmen, but leave Christ out altogether.
You can have (probably have had) a real, authentic American Christmas experience without going to church, without setting up a creche and without so much as uttering the word “Jesus.”
The truth is, pious Christians ought to be embarrassed for the hollow mockery that the celebration of their lord’s birth has become: a wonton orgy of greed and consumerism, a Saturnalia for spoiled children and a gala for gluttons, conducted with nary a thought to the world’s hungry and downtrodden.
The biblical Christ would have wept had he observed this annual paean to Mammon.