“Worship in spirit and in truth (John 4:23).”
“Happy Holidays” has recently become a politically incorrect greeting in the increasingly religiously conservative American culture. We are told the birth of Jesus is the reason for the season, and we should shed any secular observations of the season in favor of embracing the “real” meaning of Christmas.
Celebrating the birth of the great prophet Jesus with an emphasis on the enlightened message he brought to humanity is certainly a useful pursuit. Jesus exemplified the values of equality for all, tolerance, charity and nonviolence. Bravo to those who promote these values as the reason for the season. The traditions we observe every year during the winter season, however, do have a history that extends long before the birth of Jesus. As enlightened individuals, we should respect the rights of all people to embrace the season according to their own beliefs and values. The birth of Jesus is but one of many reasons humans have historically celebrated wintertime holidays, and closed minded folks who would seek to hijack the season for their personal dogmatic beliefs would do well to educate themselves to the multiplicity of traditions that surround this most wonderful time of the year.
Thousands of years ago, before electric lighting illuminated the world even on the darkest of nights and imported food from Chile blessed the market shelves throughout the year, the encroaching winter brought with it the real potential for hardship and poverty. After days of increasing darkness, the winter solstice arrived in the second half of the month of December marking the point where the sun triumphed over darkness. After the Solstice, the days lengthened and the birth of the new sun brought the promise of springtime to our ancestors suffering in cold and darkness. For millennia, humans have rejoiced in the rebirth of the sun each year, celebrating the return of longer days by feasting, exchanging gifts, caroling, giving alms to the poor and decorating their homes with evergreen trees and boughs of mistletoe, holly and fir. Evergreens symbolize the promise of everlasting life that renews each spring after the hardship of winter, and a kiss under the mistletoe is a sacrament to ensure a fertile spring.
In the year 350 C.E., December 25th was declared by papal decree to be the birthday of Jesus Christ. Pope Julius the First did not select the date randomly. December 25th was observed in Rome as the official day of winter solstice. Additionally, the date has long been celebrated as the birthday of the sun god Horus. The god of agriculture, Saturn along with several other Roman deities, claimed the period from solstice to New Year as “Dies Natalis Invicti Solis” or “The Birthday of the Unconquered Sun.” Befitting the season of the sun’s birthday, feasts and merriment and goodwill to all were the order of the day. By selecting December 25th as the birthday of Jesus, the Pope’s decree allowed aspiring pagans to convert to Christianity without disrupting their engrained rituals.
In the centuries that have since passed, the celebration of the season has taken on new aspects that would have both Jesus and Horus rolling over in their graves. At some point, the ritual of gift giving was distorted into consumerism. An act that once symbolized the sharing of earth’s bounty with one’s fellow man has turned into a gluttonous spectacle of indulgence and waste, where the wealthy lavish in spending on themselves, and the poor survey the carnage with a mixture of bitterness and envy. Relations buy useless gifts out of a sense of obligation rather than generosity that remain unused and ultimately end up wasted in a landfill. Pushing and shoving stressed out consumers duke it out in toy stores over the latest Tickle Me Elmo or Cabbage Patch Kid. Meanwhile, the poor and starving kids in the slums of Kenya sniff glue on Christmas Eve to ward off the hunger pangs in their empty bellies so they can sleep.
Jesus would never have purchased gifts for wealthy friends while a single child on earth went without food. Nor would he have indulged in the blatant excess that characterizes the season dedicated to his birth. He would have abhorred the blatant consumption of resources and consequent pollution being perpetrated in his name. Similarly, the pagan ritual of gift giving was intended to share abundance with one’s fellow man and spread the wealth around so nothing was wasted. In the depths of winter when many suffered from want, the tradition served communities well.
A dear departed friend, Guy Johnson, used to tell his family members that if he couldn’t eat it, drink it or smoke it, he didn’t want it. His were sentiments that truly reflected the historical observance of the yuletide season. Eat, drink and be merry with your loved ones and rejoice in the abundance you have received this year by sharing it with those who have not been so fortunate. Donate to your friends’ and relatives’ favorite charities in lieu of consumer goods they don’t want or need and will never use. Plant an evergreen tree, and kiss somebody under the mistletoe.
With your actions give voice to the universal longing for peace on earth, sharing and goodwill towards friends, family, neighbors and all living things. Rejoice. The sun is reborn. Season’s Greetings.