As the solstice holiday draws near, the annual complaints by the religious right about the alleged “War on Christmas” are ramping up in volume, as usual. Every store greeter who says “Season’s Greetings” is bitterly denounced; every municipality that erects a “holiday tree” is reviled with a level of shrillness that used to be reserved for schismatics and heretics. Some religious right figures such as Jerry Falwell are actually encouraging their followers to boycott stores that do not commercialize Christmas enough.
These over-the-top attacks constitute nothing short of a war on religious tolerance. In these people’s eyes, no inclusiveness, no acknowledgment of the existence of belief systems other than their own, is permitted. These Christian bigots would like us to believe that this is “their” day, “their” time of year, reserved to them and no one else to promote their message as they see fit. But the evidence shows that something very different is the case. Not only do they not have sole possession of the holiday season, they did not even invent it. Decorating Christmas trees, burning the Yule log, kissing under the mistletoe, exchanging gifts – all these holiday traditions are not inventions of Christianity, but relics of older, pagan celebrations that the Christian church coopted by deliberately scheduling its most sacred days to coincide with theirs.
For example, the Germanic pagans’ celebration of Yule is the origin of our modern holiday traditions of decorating conifer trees, hanging holly, and kissing under the mistletoe. (These plants, after all, are hardly common in the Middle Eastern culture where Christianity originated, though they are abundant in the northern European cultures where Yule was observed.) The traditional Christmas ham also comes from Yule celebrations, as does the Yule log, still remembered by the name of its true holiday of origin.
Or take the festival of Saturnalia, a major and very popular Roman holiday in honor of the god Saturn that took up several days of December, which were largely given over to public feasting, dancing, and general merry-making, as well as the deliberate subversion of social customs such as the roles of slaves and slave owners. The exchange of gifts was a Saturnalia tradition, and some have suggested that the pilleus, a red felt cap traditionally worn during this holiday, is echoed by today’s association of the red peaked cap with Santa Claus.
Also, shortly after Saturnalia was another Roman holiday, Sol Invictus – the “Feast of the Unconquered Sun”, a winter solstice celebration created to honor any of Rome’s several sun gods. Sol Invictus was set on the date of December 25, after which the days once again begin to grow longer, and even the New Advent Catholic encyclopedia says that this holiday “has a strong claim on the responsibility for our December date”. Early Christians praised God’s wisdom in deliberately timing Jesus’ birth to symbolically coincide with the Sun’s annual rebirth, apparently not realizing that the coincidence originated in political maneuvering by human beings rather than any supernatural event.Though we have come far from our agrarian past, human society still resonates to the ancient agricultural rhythms that once determined the ebb and flow of our lives. Even today, our year is organized around two major poles: one near the winter solstice, shortest day of the year, when the harvest has finally been laid in and there is nothing else to do but feast, make merry and hunker down to await the snows of the new year; the other near the spring equinox, when winter’s perilous grasp finally begins to thaw and there is a rebirth of the land and a new season of planting to look forward to. Modern Christian society designates these days as Christmas and Easter and supposes them to commemorate one-time miraculous events of the more recent past, rather than the timeless and endlessly repeated cycle of nature, but despite the thin veneer of Christianity that has been layered on top of them, the true roots of these days still clearly show through.
Through history, the church has attempted to Christianize not just the solstice season, but other major pagan holidays such as Easter and Halloween, with varying degrees of success. Christians have a long history of taking over pagan holidays and making them their own, interpreting the old symbols in a new context. We can do the same. We can retain the traditions and symbols of Christmas – many of which are indeed beautiful, and have endured for precisely that reason – without retaining the religious window dressing that has become attached to them. Instead, we can reinvent the holiday season as a more explicit celebration of what it has always fundamentally been about: a time to come together in celebration of love and friendship, and to extend a hand of compassion to the less fortunate. The difference is that rather than an unconscious battle of natural selection between memes played out in the medium of human minds, this time we can enter upon the endeavor as a conscious act of memetic engineering, in full awareness of what we are doing and why.