The Reason for the Season

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.

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About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, City of Light, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • Infophile

    As I like to say whenever I hear “The Reason for the Season,” if Christianity were truly the reason for winter, Canada would turn atheistic overnight.

  • Jeromy

    I am hearing Fox News in the background as I type this. They are going from updates on this search for the missing hikers in Oregon to commercials about how the war on christmas can be fought by purchasing a ticket for the movie The Nativity Story. One commercial advertisement for god followed by another. Typical. Pray for the lost men, then gimme your money. Not to worry though, because later today, Fox News is going to have a special on what the people of America should think about christmas. I’m gonna be sure to watch so I know what to think. Too funny. Next thing you know, Fox News will be telling us that it would be a bad thing for Miss USA to drink alcohol and dance. Followed by a Budwiser christmas commercial. Oh, wait, they already did that. God bless beer! God bless crying, shamed women. God bless men stupid enough to hike up mountains in the middle of winter. And god bless Fox News. Jesus H Christ, my sarcasm meter is PEGGED! Sorry everybody. Merry Christmas. I mean, Happy Holidays. I mean, um, now, what is it I am supposed to be thinking again?

    Jeromy Priest

  • Shawn Smith

    … which were largely given over to public feasting, dancing, and general merry-making, …

    What about the drunken orgies? I thought drunken orgies were a part of that. Man, I would be so bummed out if there weren’t drunken orgies, I would need a drink. It’s like finding out the only Santa in the house has a nine-to-five job at WalMart.

  • Alex Weaver

    Actually, drunken orgies sound rather unpleasant, between the diuretic effects of alcohol, the emetic effects of sufficient quantities of alcohol, the random, clumsy fumbling, the slurred and insipid pillow talk, the tendency for the inebriated not to use protection, and the eventual result of waking up next to who-knows-who, with a severe hangover each. x.x

    So remember, kids: always orgy sober. ^.~

  • Alex Weaver

    [preemptivestrike]It’s an expression…[/preemptivestrike]

  • Shawn Smith


    … between the diuretic effects of alcohol, …

    Who cares when they’re drunk?

    … the emetic effects of sufficient quantities of alcohol, …

    Again, who cares if they’re beschlossed?

    … the random, clumsy fumbling, …

    Hey, you could learn moves you never knew about before.

    … the slurred and insipid pillow talk, …

    Who’s going to bother with pillow talk instead of just passing out after having an orgasm when they’re plastered?

    … the tendency for the inebriated not to use protection, …

    Well, humans do need to have babies, and even so, there’s only about a 1% chance of getting pregnant. (That’s just some number I pulled out of my butt.)

    … and the eventual result of waking up next to who-knows-who, …

    Even the ugly need a chance to have sex every now and then. And who knows? You may just find a great new friend. All in all, I don’t see too many downsides.

    … with a severe hangover each. x.x


    Well, although I did experience the emetic effects of too much alcohol, I never had a hangover. I must be lucky, I guess.


  • Alex Weaver

    (It’s actually around 3% on average, with a peak of ~30% in the 2-3 days around ovulation, and a cumulative 85% over the course of a year with no protection and “average” sexual habits. As for the waking up next to, I would be more concerned about “ugly-on-the-inside.”)

    The funny thing is that this is more or less how a lot of people will celebrate Christmas; getting drunk and possibly rubbing against each other. And then some will go drive, which is appalling (I personally think drunk driving should be prosecuted as attempted homicide). Trish and I will be seeing my family for dinner on Christmas Eve and then having dinner with her father and as many of her sisters as we can catch in pit traps and glue to their chairs on Christmas day. Drinking will be minimal; rubbing against each other will most likely occur, but most likely not in connection with dinner. Other than that, there are five or six things we’d love to do if the places where they could be done weren’t all closed. We may watch a movie. I will tickle Joey, try to teach her words, and possibly take bets on what she will eventually do with the bows she grabs off presents (as a side note, I think one thing about gift-giving is that it’s really exciting for the children involved, even if adults would be more satisfied with charity contributions in their name or some such).

    So what are YOU doing? Anyone? ^.^

  • andrea

    I agree with your sentiments on how drunk driving should be prosecuted, Alex. Crucifixtion along the road of drunk drivers would be my additional suggestion. And I do give gifts to the kids in the family. My nephew has just discovered Star Wars, and being his only relative who shares that interest, I’ve made him a Jedi costume and got him one of the fancy lightsabres. On the promise he will be a good and noble Jedi Knight:)

    “I learned more about being a decent human being from comic books than from the Bible.”

  • Hellbound Alleee

    The war on Christmas has always been fought by Christians, against our holiday. They can’t win. No church or government can stop what the holiday really is about. They may suppress our desires for a hundred years, but Christmas–what it really is, beauty, joy, fun, food, sex, and booze–will always win out. The Cromwells be damned.

  • Jeromy

    Thanks for the drunk driving comment. I have lost two relatives and two close friends to alcohol. Needless to say, I do not drink the garbage. If anybody wants to drink, fine by me, just stay off the goddamn road and keep away from me.

    As for the odds of getting pregnant, jeez you guys, really. Don’t you know how the odds really work? A woman gets pregnant in the worst possible circumstances, and as frequently as is inconvenient. I have plenty of children to show for it.

    I have already done what I am going to do for the holidays. I have, in the last three days, placed three children (okay, technically two are adults) and one adult on various aircraft. 9-4=5. Sometimes less is more (as we musicians say). My best to all you jokers.

    And for a great departure line at your holiday party…in the words of the great Dave Allen…”Good night, and may your god go with you.”


  • Joe

    you guys make me want to puke.
    no matter what a christian does, they are automatically a bigot.
    you make it impossible for anyone to live their faith because to do so “excludes” somebody.
    somebody joyfully and proactively living their faith is not a bigot. YOU are the bigots. you have no tolerance for faith. all you want is for people to be brainwashed PC robots.

    the hate comes from the intolerant left.

  • TPK

    Hey Joe: If you absolutely know something is true, why on earth would you need “faith?” And if something is not true, all the “faith” in the world won’t make it so. Or in the immortal words of I forget who, if the truth was determined by the number of believers, the earth would still be flat. Bah Humbug to these Happy Holidays folks, I say Merry Christmas to you.

    My city has erected a pyramid with the Islamic cresent on top, side by side with the manger, Christmas tree and menorah, kind of like flying the Rising Sun flag in December 1941. I think I’ll go down to that pyramid and wish all them a Merry Christmas too.

  • Steve


    Nobody is claiming that a person should not live their faith. All they are saying is that a person should not be offended when somebody else does not live that person’s faith.

    I grew up in a Christian family and celebrate next to young-earth creationists. No matter how much I disagree with them on fundamental levels, they are still family and we still have a blast together. I would never desire to take away the reason that they enjoy the season, just as I would hope they would never desire to take away the reason that I enjoy the season.

    The problem occurs when there is a Christian outcry, when the armies get riled, over people saying innocuous things like Happy Holidays. That’s when I get mad.

  • andrea

    Hate to tell you “Joe” but your faith rejects any idea different than it. It says that everyone is “damned” for eternity if they don’t get it “right”. This by itself is the most hateful idea ever.

    NO one has said you can’t celebrate your faith. You can keep your faith, just don’t force it on everyone else.

  • Alex Weaver

    Correction. We are indeed saying a person should not live in their faith if that faith consists, in whole or in part, of forcing their beliefs on others. Why this bothers Joe is hard to understand, but perhaps easy to see. Those of weak faith have always felt the need to bolster it by surrounding themselves with people who at least superficially agree with their views–whether those people like it or not. They realize on some intrinsic level that this is wrong, and so they project their dysfunctional attitudes onto the people around them, accusing those opposed to their intolerance of being “intolerant,” etc. It’s rather sad, really.

  • A Big Fat Slob

    What a wonderful essay. Thanks for taking the time to draft it.

  • Ebonmuse

    Thanks… er… Mr. Slob. :)

    As for Joe:

    no matter what a christian does, they are automatically a bigot.

    Wrong. Again, you persist in these insulting and unfounded generalizations. I call religious people bigoted when they do bigoted things. Is that so hard to grasp?

    I have no quarrel with religious people who practice their faith in private without seeking to impose it on others. I don’t even object to religious people who want to evangelize and argue the merits of their faith in public (although I reserve the right to disagree with them and explain why I do). The ones I do object to are the obnoxious, bigoted religious-right conservatives who think that their faith gives them the right to force their antiquated notions of behavior on others and act as if the existence of different beliefs is somehow offensive to them.

    YOU are the bigots. you have no tolerance for faith. all you want is for people to be brainwashed PC robots.

    So outspoken atheism is now the “politically correct” viewpoint? I think not. Some advice: I suggest you drop the right-wing talking points. They make no sense and they’re not going to impress anyone on this site.

  • Thursday

    Christmas at the Thursdays:

    1) Get up, light fire;
    2) take dog for a walk;
    3) get naked again, remaining so for rest of day;
    4) eat 1 (one) box of Turtles(tm);
    5) eat Traditional Christmas Lasagna.

    All interspersed with ridiculous amounts of sex. This marks our tenth year of such things.

    Long live Christmas Traditions!

  • Alex Weaver

    Christmas at the Thursdays:

    1) Get up, light fire;
    2) take dog for a walk;
    3) get naked again, remaining so for rest of day;
    4) eat 1 (one) box of Turtles(tm);
    5) eat Traditional Christmas Lasagna.

    All interspersed with ridiculous amounts of sex. This marks our tenth year of such things.

    Die. ;(

  • Ebonmuse

    In case anyone was wondering, Joe is now banned, and deservedly so.

  • Tommykey

    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 the calendar followed by our public schools is based upon a time when many children were needed during the summer to help with the harvesting of crops on the farms.

  • djd

    Since I won’t leave well enough alone:

    What about the drunken orgies?

    Authorities are what our arg’ment lacks – what words might I dredge from the musty stacks? To quote the Bible would bring naught but dread, so let us refer to the Bard instead!

    ‘Faith sir, we were carousing till the
    second cock: and drink, sir, is a great
    provoker of three things.
    Lechery, sir, it provokes, and unprovokes;
    it provokes the desire, but it takes
    away the performance: therefore, much drink
    may be said to be an equivocator with lechery:
    it makes him, and it mars him; it sets
    him on, and it takes him off; it persuades him,
    and disheartens him; makes him stand to, and
    not stand to; in conclusion, equivocates him
    in a sleep, and, giving him the lie, leaves him.

    Macbeth, Act II, scene 3

    (I know my verses’ measure may fall a little short, but what’s more meet than couplets for Shakespearian retort?)

  • Rolf Marvin Bøe Lindgren

    The precise date December 25 was chosen because that was the birthday of Mithra, a Persian god who was very poular among the Romans and bears an uncanny resemblance to Christ.

  • goyo

    I just had a thought. Why didn’t Jesus make the prophecy, “verily I say into you that one day the birth of the son of man will be celebrated throughout the world”?
    That would have been another fulfilled prophecy that the xtians could have pointed to as proof.
    But I guess he didn’t think about it.

  • Arch

    If you are about kindness and treating people with respect, perhaps you should kick off the people who swear and make rude, sarcastic comments about people of faith. You are tolerating incredibly disrespectful things from some people.

  • Ebonmuse

    I’ll determine what is or is not acceptable behavior on my own site, Arch. Your input is not necessary.

  • Steve Bowen

    Just spent an interesting weekend with my youngest daughter. She is rehearsing for a school nativity, has just competed in a radio carol competition and like any nine year old is getting excited about xmas. However she also gave me a “history lesson” about Henry 8 and his cynical reasons for declaring England to be a protestant state on his divorce from Catherine of Aragon. “Religion’s a load of rubbish when you think about it” was her final analysis.

  • Jeanne Mouritsen

    I stumbled upon this website because I’m an insomniac spending the wee hours of Festivus waiting for my Christian family to wake up and dive into the presents. I really enjoyed all the entries, the first time I’ve been able to feel at home with fellow atheists, and I wish you all Happy Holidays and hope to read more here in the future. THANK YOU!!!!!!!!