Merry Christmas! Conservatives are now gloating that people can use this phrase again although no one was ever blocked from saying it. Today is the holiday that Christians use to celebrate the birth of Christ despite indications that he was born in the spring after lambs were born. (They’re either four months early or eight months late in their celebration.)
Conservative Christians are also unaware of the holiday’s strong pagan influence. Christians were so eager to proselytize pagans that they used their customs to draw them into the new religion, but there were no Christmas celebrations until the fourth century. In the 16th century, the Protestant Reformation banned the practice for a few hundred years both in England and then America. The Puritans started the “War on Christmas.”
- The choice of December 25 to celebrate the new Christian holiday came from its proximity to the Winter Solstice celebrating the sun god. Before the calendar was changed, Christmas was on the same day as this solstice celebration which falls between December 21 and December 23. It is the date of the longest night and shortest day introducing the rebirth of the Sun. In Old Europe, this date was known as Yule, the old Norse term, Jul, meaning wheel.
- The Yule log was burned on the solstice to honor the sun. Christians changed the tradition to call is a sign of goodwill through the 12 days of Christmas.
- Bells were always used to drive away evil spirits, and mistletoe was a druidic device, hung in the doorway to protect people from thunder and lightning. The traditions remained, but the reason changed to jollity and romance. Holly was the sacred plant of the Roman god Saturn. Laurel or bay leaves were sacred to Apollo, the sun god.
- Greenery, including Christmas trees, was popular in pagan times because it reminded people that vegetation would return in the spring. Holly was the sacred plant of the Roman god Saturn.
- Red and green colors traditionally represent fertility as shown by the green leaves and red berries of holly, mistletoe and wreaths.
- Feasting was popular during pagan times because food was scarce. Excessive eating showed that they had hope for an abundance of food in the new year. The act also came from the ancient Roman Saturnalian celebration between December 17 and 24 to honor the Roman god Saturn.
- Candlelight was used for pagan celebrations honoring the sun. The first use of candles in December came during the Roman Saturnalia festival where tall tapers of wax presented to Saturn and given as gifts. were offered to Saturn as a symbol of his light and also given as a gift to guests. Jews may have absorbed the pagan tradition of candles for Hanukkah, the Festival of Lights.
- Christmas carols come from folk solstice songs. Oliver Cromwell tried to eradicate the songs during his reign in the mid-seventeenth century but failed because people sang them in secret. The Victorian era rediscovered them, and Christians wrote new ones.
- Santa Claus may have come from the pagan god Odin, a tubby old man with a long white beard and flowing cloak. Others trace him to Nicholas, born almost 1800 years ago in a small town in Greece which has been subsumed by Turkey. A devout Christian whose parents died in an epidemic while Nicholas was young, followed Jesus’s teaching to “sell what you own and give the money to the poor.” He used his inheritance to help needy people who suffered from sickness and poverty, a far cry from the greed displayed today that rewards large corporations with billions of dollars. People didn’t exchange gifts at Christmas until Queen Victoria started the practice in 1850.
The Basilica Santa Maria sopra Minerva, “Mary on Top of Minerva,” is an Italian church dating back to 1280 when Christians built it on top of a temple to Minerva, the pagan goddess of wisdom, medicine, and war. A namesake for this goddess is Professor Minerva McGonagall of Hogwarts.
This morning I read a column from conservative Paul Greenberg about the wonderful “Christmas spirit” causing people to do kind things for others. Why don’t Christmas believers follow the teachings of Jesus and perform kind acts throughout the year instead of confining their generosity to a few days between Thanksgiving and Christmas? And stop bashing everyone who doesn’t use the “Christian” terminology or who doesn’t follow their faith?
“Christmas” and Winter Solstice are a time to bring back the light, a time to consider enlightenment instead of darkness. The Age of Enlightenment during the 18th century was a movement to center ideas on reason instead of dogma. It was a time when governments moved toward liberty, tolerance, science, constitutional government, and separation of church and state. The American Revolution was founded on freedom and questioning of religious orthodoxy, an opposite philosophy to the conservatives’ anti-science, anti-reason, anti-freedom anti-tolerant, anti-constitutional beliefs in the 21st century.
The motto of the Enlightenment was “Sapere aude – Dare to know.” Founding fathers such as Benjamin Franklin, James Madison, and Thomas Jefferson helped incorporate these enlightened values into government leadership. It’s time for these ideas to return. We need a new “Age of Enlightenment” to free us from these dark ages.
Happy holidays and dive into the new year by joining the search for a return to enlightenment during the 21st century!