When one thinks about it, it may seem a bit strange that a holiday festival so obviously religious in origin that the title of the religion’s founder is in the name of the holiday is observed by so many people who are not religious. Me, for instance.
But then, one does a bit more thinking, and perhaps it isn’t so strange after all. For one thing, North American culture in general seems positively inundated with Christian influence. My family historically has religious influence, even if we aren’t particularly now. And besides — a lot of the Christmas legend has so-called pagan roots anyway, or developed only this century in songs and stories.
Let’s start with some examples. An obvious one: Santa Claus.
The figure of Father Christmas was said to embody good cheer and kindness in the holiday season. Saint Nicholas from Christian hagiography was a giver of gifts. in Dutch, Saint Nicholas is Sinterklaas, which has obvious etymological connections to Santa Claus. In Norse mythology, Odin was said to lead a hunt across the sky on his eight-legged horse at Yule, and children would put out carrots or sugar in their boots by the chimney for the horse to eat. All three — Father Christmas, Saint Nicholas, Odin — shared similar looks as old white-bearded men.
It’s not hard to see how this developed into the Santa Claus we know today in North America, with the sack of toys, the eight flying reindeer, and the stockings by the chimney. Then we got songs like Santa Claus is Coming to Town, and Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, and of course the poem Twas the Night Before Christmas. Every new story that appears just adds to the legends.
But so many of the stories you hear at Christmas are very certainly Christian, I hear you say. The birth of Jesus, Bethlehem, the Star, the Three Wise Men… And yet even these have changed a great deal over time. There’s little evidence as to the date of Jesus’s birth, for instance, and Christmas may have been dated to coincide with Roman religious festivals or the winter solstice in order to replace paganism with Christianity. The gospels disagree on many of the details of Jesus’s birth, including how it relates to Bethlehem. The Gospel of Matthew is the only one to even mention the Magi, and it doesn’t call them Kings or even number them as three — it just says they were from the East. (They did give three gifts, which is where the number may have come from, and the King identity may come from prophecies in Isaiah.)
And many of the traditions held at Christmas are straight out of pagan festivals — Yule and Solstice and the Saturnalia.
It’s actually all really interesting. Wiki any topic related to Christmas — Christmas lights, Christmas ham, Yule log, stockings, reindeer, Santa’s elves — and there’s a wealth of background information regarding where it all came from. And so much of it is so recent. That’s what intrigues me most, I think — this is modern mythmaking at its finest. This is how mythology develops over time. We’re living it, right now.
So yes, Christmas is ostensibly a Christian holiday. But to the modern eye — or at least, my eye — it’s gone far beyond those origins. I listen to Hannukah music along with Christmas music, along with religion-non-specific winter music. The traditions I follow aren’t religious traditions, they’re just family traditions.
And I think there lies the heart of Christmas. It’s the family, it’s the friends. It’s bringing people together, it’s celebrating joy and light and fire and warmth. It’s giving gifts and making donations and generally being nice to everyone — and sure it would be good to do that all year round, but why not have a special emphasis on it once a year? It makes people stop and think about it.
It’s about being with the ones you love, and the feelings you share together.
So when I say “Merry Christmas,” I’m not trying to propogate religious beliefs, I’m not intending to shut out the festivals of other religions. When I say “Merry Christmas,” I’m giving a message of peace on Earth, goodwill towards men (and women).
I’m saying I hope that in this time of darkness and cold, you have the opportunity to be in the light and warmth of the people you love. I hope happiness upon you, laughter and merriment, good food and relaxation. I’m wanting to fill your life with love.