The winter season brings an interesting cultural paradox for me, one I’m always happy to explain. As a Christmas reveler who doesn’t believe in Christ, I am faced with the obligatory “reason for the season” everywhere I turn, even though Jesus Christ wasn’t born on Christmas day until he was several centuries old. The date of December 25th as the birth of Jesus Christ was adopted in the 4th century by Pope Julius I to take advantage of the celebrations already in place throughout Europe. During that time (and since long before) pagan and spiritual customs were observed that predated even the very thought of a New Testament son or Biblical god.
See, the solstice has always been sacred. As the days grow shorter and colder, life tends toward the bleak, particularly in the far north. It’s a terrible time of the year. But the solstice represents a critical turn. From roughly December 21st-on the days get longer and, symbolically at least, warmer. Every culture since the beginning of mankind has celebrated this time.
Christians barely did. The celebration of the resurrection – the Easter celebration – was a far more important holiday, but Pope Julius saw all the revelry occurring around the Saturnalia and wanted in on the action. It was a clever coup. Trying to sell December 25th as the birth of the savior was no easy win, since the Bible hinted toward a Spring birth for the child. At the time, as well, December 25th was already being celebrated in upper class Rome as the birth of the god Mithra. But it turned out to be another brilliant ploy by what would, in time, become the dominant religion of the western world. Over time, the winter celebration of a holy birth became easier and easier to accept because of the pagan rituals already in place. Adopting symbols like the ornamented tree, the mythical powers of the mistletoe, the Saturnalian custom of gift-giving, and the cult of old St. Nick helped propagate the idea even further.
An interesting aside about old St. Nick: The modern version of Santa Claus, a decidedly generous figure whose legend grew from myth and borrowed ritual much like Christ himself, owes much of his modern visage to the marketing genius of Coca-Cola. As the idea of Santa Claus grew from cartoon depictions and children’s stories from the 19th-century, Coke decided to feature the bearded fat man in “bright Coca-Cola red” as an ad symbol for Christmas. Much of his staying power in the modern era is owed to the commercial necessity to sale cold beverages during cold seasons.
If Christmas is anything today, it is commercial. The bright-red Santa, the flocking to malls, the decorations in retail stores – often displayed as early as September – and the constant pressure to buy, buy, buy! I don’t blame the Christians among us to “remember the reason for the season,” because the love of a divine saving grace is certainly a better thought than the love of rampant capitalistic materialism. Certainly.
But neither reason is the one that I love Christmas. To be perfectly honest, the ritual of renewal isn’t, either. I’m not that spiritual even in the pagan sense. I’m certainly not commercial, either, as the wife and I do very little buying this time of year, instead taking on “rain checks” to be used for a future purchase. It saves a lot of hassle.
So why does this atheist love Christmas?
I love Christmas for all the lights on my street. I love Christmas for the cheerful music and imagery, even if half of it is bent on getting me to buy. I love Christmas for the happy celebrations, whether they be pagan and debaucherous or holy and sublime. I love Christmas because it brings out the best in people despite the commercialism of the event. I love Christmas because I loved it as a child, and I am still a child deep inside.
If Christmas, to you, is the birth of Jesus Christ, I accept that. If Christmas, to you, is the night that St. Nick comes around, I accept that. If it is, to you, a holiday from work, a reason to give gifts, a winter renewal, a royal pain in the ass, or a time to indulge in a ritual of sensual delights, I accept that. Whatever the reason you have for Christmas, have it your way. I accept that.
For me, it is simply the most wonderful time of the year.
And that is the reason for the season, to me. 🙂