We all know someone who says it – “Jesus is the reason for the season!”. . . I hate to burst the bubble here but that statement is demonstrably inaccurate. If we want to get super technical and snarky, it’s quite literally the Earth’s axial tilt that is responsible for the season; During the Winter solstice, Earth’s polar hemisphere is the furthest from the sun at its maximum 23° 26′. The other glaring flaw in this claim is the simple truth that no one actually knows when Jesus was born! Historians do suggest however that it was most likely NOT anytime in December. The bible refers to shepherds tending to sheep on the night of his birth and that just isn’t cohesive with a wintry Judean night; shepherds generally only tended flock from mid-March to mid-November. And I won’t even go into all the gods — preceding Christ — who were supposedly born on the 25th of December — OK! here’s a few: Horus, Osiris, Attis, Mithra, Krishna, Dionysus, Adonis, Hermes — Suffice it to mention that the Roman Catholic church was not the first to pick that day to celebrate the birth of their savior. Not only did they choose the date but they assimilated all of the Pagan traditions into their own holiday! Study some other religions for 5 minutes and you’ll see how Christianity is not all that original.
Considering the winter solstice, it’s easy to understand why ancient cultures celebrated the season the way they did. Yule pre-dates the Christian holiday by thousands of years. Scandinavian Norsemen and Vikings celebrated the rebirth and hopeful return of the sun and the beginning of a new cycle. The festivities of Yule honored their most powerful god, Odin (who also happened to be the god of ecstasy & intoxicating drink.) Beginning on the day of the solstice, a log would burn continuously for 12 nights of feasting and merriment. Decorated with sprigs of fir & holly, runes or images were then carved into the wood representing unwanted traits that they wished the gods to take away. When the log was extinguished, a piece would be saved to ignite the next year’s log, symbolizing the continuance of life and survival of another year.
Other cultures held similar solstice traditions honoring the sun and it’s cycle of death and rebirth. Ancient Egyptians were among those who celebrated the triumph of life over death; their sun-god, Ra is reborn every year on the winter solstice. Celtic Druids and many Native American cultures also observed the solstice with sun-centered rituals. As early as 2nd century BCE Ancient Romans held their own special kind of solstice bacchanal; a week-long festival known as Saturnalia. (Named in honor of Saturn, the god of agriculture.) The Romans revelled in feasting, drunken debauchery and gift-giving throughout the raucous celebration. During this time all crimes were permitted, including rioting and murder. Even the children were allowed to partake in the drunken orgies.
When I think of holiday cheer, perhaps the first thing that comes to mind is the image of an elegant, sparkly Evergreen tree; the “Christmas tree” as it is so often called. What — Christian — home would be complete without this noble. . . Pagan symbol?! — Gasp! — Yes, this tradition goes way back to the Druids who would decorate the trees with lit candles and apples for fertility. The Vikings believed the evergreen to be the special plant of their sun-god, Balder; they offered food along with various trinkets to entice the tree gods to return. Even the Egyptians brought evergreens and date palm leaves into their homes to honor the rebirth of Ra. Evergreen boughs were incorporated into the Roman Saturnalia as well.
In 1644 the entire Christmas holiday was banned by the Puritans. (Protestant Christians) All forms of our now beloved merrymaking were seen as unholy Pagan rituals. The ban was lifted in 1660 — when Charles II reclaimed the throne — but it took a while for customs like the Christmas tree to become popular. In his 1843 novel, A Christmas Carol, Charles Dickens did not mention nor did he seem to know anything about Christmas trees in English homes. It wasn’t until near the end of the 19th century that the actual “Christmas tree” tradition started popping up in Germany, Denmark, Finland, Austria, Sweden and Norway. By 1900 one in five American households had Christmas trees.
Now, I hope I’m not coming off sounding like a total Scrooge — I really do LOVE the Christmas season! — but I get sorta fed up with all of the religious rhetoric that flies around during this time of year. Skeptics have plenty to celebrate during the holidays. It doesn’t make a smidgen of sense to say that non-believers can’t decorate trees or give gifts because they don’t acknowledge Christ (during a holiday that has NOTHING to do with Jesus other than the fact that ancient holidays were plagiarized by Christians.) Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanza, Solstice, whatever you call it, the holidays are a time for celebrating life and appreciating what you have. We should use this time to love and help each other, not to belittle or judge one another.
I could bitch all day about the commercialization of the holidays but I don’t have the time or the focus — perhaps next year — so here are some fun things to check out. . .
* Christians promote “Coca Cola Santa” for Christmas: http://ivarfjeld.wordpress.com/2011/11/28/christians-promote-coca-cola-santa-for-christmas/
* Liberty Council wants retialers to exploit Jesus: http://www.examiner.com/atheism-in-orlando/liberty-council-wants-retailers-to-exploit-jesus
* This Season’s War Cry: Commercialize Christmas, or Else: http://www.nytimes.com/2005/12/04/opinion/04sun3.html
** Rebecca Watson at Skepticon 3 – “How to ruin Christmas.” http://youtu.be/wkXcbySuSvI