I was waiting in line to buy something at Target, and the friendly checker asked the man ahead of me if he was ready for Christmas. It was a cheerful and innocent question. After all, in December in the United Stated, it does seem like getting ready for Christmas is the number one dominant activity, and it’s the reason that lines in all the stores are long and why you cannot easily find parking.
“No, I don’t celebrate Christmas,” the man responded, and then he went on to explain how much money he saves by not observing “all that silly stuff.” I did overhear enough to hear that he was single, and then he walked on. I wondered if that was the real reason he didn’t observe Christmas. He could have been a Jehovah’s Witness, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, or any of the other dozens of religions and sects which don’t observe the Christian Christmas holidays.
Though I have both fond and depressing memories of the Christmas season growing up, I have worked through all the mish-mash of symbols that have gotten thrown into the Christmas motif, and I regard them as generally uplifting. I have long ago ceased my mindless Christmas card-sending and gift-giving out of some sense of social obligation, but I still immensely enjoy special times with friends and families in what is the darkest time of the year.
Many years ago, I was asked by a local nonprofit to share at a Christmas event the “real meaning” of Christmas. Even after I agreed to do this, I wondered to myself: How can I do that? How can I be sure that I’ve really got it? How will I know whether or not I’m right?
My job was to discover what all the symbols and practices of Christmas mean, and how we might best realize and vivify those meanings during this time. Needless to say, it was a tall task.
I found that the best way to share my research was to be honest, explaining my background, how I went about my research, and what I personally concluded.
I explained how I grew up in a Catholic family, and was taught that Jesus was born on December 25, which is obviously why we celebrate his birthday on that date. So I had to begin my presentation with the man who is at the center of Christmas, Jesus. It turns out that all historians agree that Jesus was not born on December 25, but rather in May or September, probably in the year 6 B.C. by our current reckoning. Not only that, many of the modern symbols and practices of Christmas-time actually pre-dated Jesus, and were celebrations of the Winter Solstice by the people that Christians called “pagans.”
So then I had to stop and define “pagans.” Originally people outside of the strong influence of Roman power were called the pagani, country folk, a term that had no religious overtones in the beginning. Eventually it became a term of derision, meaning non-Christian, for the people who practiced the old religion of Mithraism.
In the time of Jesus, there were many religions and gods and Gods, and they didn’t all get along. Jesus, as everyone knows, was a practicing Jew, and observed the Jewish holy days. After the crucifixion, his followers carried on the message of Jesus the Christ, and they still mostly-observed the Jewish traditions, hence, Judaeo-Christianity.
None of this is new, of course, and these details can be found in any encyclopedia, including such tomes as The Golden Bough, and Manly Hall’s Secret Teachings of All Ages.
So why do we celebrate Jesus’ birth on December 25, when we know that the early Judaeo-Christians didn’t celebrate Jesus’ birthday at all?
Most ancient religion is astronomy-based, and draws great symbolism from the cycle of the earth around the sun. The winter solstice is the day of the least light, from which the days have increasingly more light. The birth of the Sun has long been anthropomorphized into the birth of the Son. Jesus wasn’t the first to be commemorated with the winter solstice. Mithra, born of a virgin mother in a cave, was said to be born on December 25. Nimrod from Babylon was also said to be born on December 25, as was Osiris, Quetzalcoatl, and others.
The new religion of Christianity was still struggling in the 4th century, and its adherents were still being persecuted for their faith when Constantine became the emperor. Constantine also converted to Christianity. In his attempt to unite his kingdom, he made Christianity the official religion, and he Christianized all the so-called pagan commemorations. As a result, the birth of the Sun that was already commemorated by the Mithra-pagans was now going to commemorate the birth of the Son, Jesus.
Some of the symbols that have been adopted into the Christmas season are universal symbols of eternity, life, and light, symbols such as wreaths, evergreens, the tree, lights and candles, the giving of gifts, the virgin birth, and birth in a stable.
Santa Claus was based on a very real Catholic bishop named Nikolas of Myra (modern day Turkey) who gave gifts during the winter and the newly-established Christmas season. He was born in March 15, 270, and actually participated in the First Council of Nicaea in 325, the famous council where early church doctrine was argued and decided. He died on December 6th, 343. This generous bishop was remembered for the gifts he gave, and his image was severely watered-down over the years by Coca-Cola and others who used him in their advertising.
It’s correct that many people have been turned off when they learn of the roots of modern Christmas. Some even find all this depressing. But I am not like the man in line ahead of me at Target. I’ll still observe the Christmas season, and I enjoy the lessons that are buried within all these symbols.
Can I say that today I know the “real meaning” of Christmas? I have come closer to experiencing the universal “magic” of Christmas in my personal life, year by year, and I feel that this is an on-going process, where there are always more nuances to be learned. I never get tired, for example, of watching Capra’s wonderful Christmas movie, “It’s a Wonderful Life,” and watching Jimmy Stewart confront the meaning and purpose of his own life, and the value of true friendship. Though he had nothing to give others that fateful year, it turned out his greatest gift was the service he’d done for so many in the town.
And for this reason, I have long felt that “It’s a Wonderful Life” expresses “the real meaning” of Christmas: slow down, breathe, recognize the higher power, and acknowledge your friends and family who are the real gifts in your life.
Nyerges is the author of several books, including “Enter the Forest,” “How to Survive Anywhere,” and “Whose Child Is This” (about the meaning of the symbols of Christmas). He can be reached at www.ChristopherNyerges.com or Box 41834, Eagle Rock, CA 90041.