The True Reason for the Season
The holidays are upon us, bringing with them dreams of hot coco, snow, and warm family gatherings; and realities of watery Swiss Miss, slush, and bitterly drunk family gatherings. The stockings are hung, the fires are lit, and people gather to celebrate everything from Ramadan to Chanukah to Kwanzaa to the Winter Solstice.
And then there’s Christmas.
Every year the skirmishes begin, the religious right claiming secular Americans are demeaning Christmas, secular Americans demanding to know why they should single Christmas out from all other winter festivities. One attacks the word Holiday, the other attacks the word Christmas, and so continues a nasty game of ping-pong that starts December 1st and ends December 26th. Christmas is a battleground.
But it’s been that way for centuries.
Christians say the reason for the season the birth of Jesus Christ, even though there is no record of it in the Bible, and multiple religious figures have placed his birth sometime in early spring. Neo-Pagans claim it as the Winter Solstice, one of the most important pre-Christian holidays, while others claim it is really Saturnalia, a Roman holiday celebrated December 25th and marked by the exchange of gifts. Early Americans co-opted the Dutch figure of Sinter Klaus (himself a co-opted version of a Christian Bishop, who may also have been a co-opted god), and turned him into Santa Clause, who was in turn standardized by the advertising campaigns of the 1920s, and now Christmas is celebrated internationally as a secular holiday, devoid of any religious meaning whatsoever. Christmas trees are pagan, bows of greenery are an ancient Jewish practice, and I’m not even counting things like the poinsettia, a Mexican plant incorporated, as far as I can tell, for the hell of it. What is the reason for the season? Take your pick! Heck, the only thing all the versions have in common is they happen during winter!
And maybe that is where we can begin to unravel the real reason behind Christmas.
Christmas is celebrated during winter. Usually during the shortest day of winter. There is no work because there is no life: nothing to harvest, nothing to grow, nothing to do but sit inside and hope you stored enough food to last the rest of the season. On this longest winter night, ancient people gathered to celebrate a holiday known on the earliest Western calendar as Dies Natalis Solis Invicti.
Loosely translated: “The birthday of the unconquered sun.”
Sol Invictus was the Sun god of the Roman Empire. His symbol was a cross and crown and his followers were given Sunday off as a day of rest. His most devout follower was the Emperor Constantine, the man who converted the Empire to Christianity after seeing a cross on the battlefield and a vision of Jesus, blazing as bright as…the sun.
Jesus has been tied to the sun by accident and design for centuries. From his bright raiment to his halo to his very presence on the earth, all are described in literally glowing terms: “O, how wonderfully acted Providence that on that day on which that Sun was born…Christ should be born” wrote Cyprian.
Across the world, myths proclaiming the death and rebirth of the sun play an integral role in the winter holidays. Whether they happen on midwinter, before midwinter, or right before the “famine months” of January and February, wherever the days grow short and the nights grow cold, humankind gathers to celebrate: Saturnalia, Yule, Modranect, Sadeh, Yalda, Christmas, the Beiwe Festival, the Deygan Festival, the Dongzhi Festival, worship at the pyramids of Chichen Itza, worship at Newgrange in Ireland.
And it is here we find the real meaning of Christmas.
It is winter. It is cold and it is dark and nothing will grow. You light fires to drive out the cold, and lights to drive out the dark, and share food to drive out the hunger. You wait, wait with your family and friends for night to fall, the deepest night, the longest night of the year.
And then you pray…to the sun.
The sun could be Jesus, it could be Sol Invictus, it could be Sunna or Ra or any number of stand-ins–but whatever the name, you know what you’re really praying to.
You pray for the sun to come back.
You pray for winter to end.
Because if it doesn’t…you’re dead.
So when the festival is at its height, when the presents are bought and the chestnuts are roasted and Mass is said and the winter revelers start to drift to bed…go outside.
Look at the night. Feel the chill. And remember the true reason for the season.