I have to admit that Christmas has always been my most favorite time of year. Growing up, I always had a running countdown of the days left until Christmas – in fact, my countdown started even before my mom put up the handmade advent calendar in the shape of a Christmas tree, on which we would hang one bell for each day that passed. On Christmas Eve, my brothers and I would stay up all night, eagerly anticipating Christmas morning – when we could wait no longer, we would rush into our parents’ room and terrorize them until they got up (5 am isn’t early for Christmas, is it?). And yes, even now, I still enjoy the festivity of the season, with all the bright lights and beautiful colors and music, and the overall bustle and thrill of anticipation that seems to run through nearly everyone.
Of course, Christmas these days seems to be carried out to the extreme – people rushing from one place to another, spending too much money, desperately searching for discounts, feeling overwhelmed and stressed with all the parties, performances, traveling, and various obligations we have this time of year. Amidst it all, it is easy to lose sight of the bigger picture and get swept away by the tide of commercialism, consumerism, and decadence, causing many religious observers of the holiday to feel obligated to bring things back into perspective by echoing the well-known phrase: “Jesus is the reason for the season.” Indeed, we wouldn’t even have Christmas if it weren’t for the birth of Jesus…. right…?
My investigation into the history of Christmas began by accident back when I was in college (and still a Christian). My friend and I were musing over the purpose of Christmas trees, since it seemed unlikely evergreens would be that common in Palestine during the time of Jesus. I decided to look it up on the Internet, and immediately saw that indeed, the Christmas tree was of pagan origin. I didn’t feel too good about that, so I stopped any further searching as I didn’t want to know what else might have pagan origins as well! Of course though, over time, my curiosity got the better of me and I did begin to look into the origins of Christmas, which became easier to face as I had begun having doubts about Christianity anyway at that point.
So is Jesus the reason for the season? Well, although it sounds nice and feels good to say, unfortunately, Jesus is not the reason for the season. In reality, Jesus is more of an afterthought, added to the holiday several centuries later. The real reason for the season comes not from one sole source, but from a variety of other religions and traditions, the majority stemming from pre-Christian ancient Roman religious practices. For instance:
Christmas day (Dec. 25th):
In ancient Babylon, this day was a celebration of the son of Isis, during which people would have a feast, throw wild parties, and engage in gluttonous drinking and eating.
Later, in pre-Christian Rome, the holiday, termed Saturnalia, was celebrated in honor of the god Saturn. This was a time of hedonistic debauchery, celebrated with large feasts, drunkenness, and even orgies.
Another pre-Christian Roman religion was that of Mithra, the sun (or “son”) of God (in fact, much of Paul’s teachings about Jesus are exactly the same as the teachings of this religion). December 25th was celebrated as the birthday of Mithra.
In celebration of Saturnalia, some ancient Roman people (known as Mummers) would dress up in costumes and travel from house to house, entertaining people with songs and dances. Incidently, when Christianity came on the scene, caroling was actually banned by the church.
Trees were worshipped by the ancient Druids in Northern Europe, and during the winter, people would often bring evergreen trees (and sometimes decorate the trees) inside to remind themselves of the hope of the new life to come in the springtime. Early Christians abhorred the practice, and believed it to be blasphemy.
Even giving family and loved ones gifts on Christmas has pagan roots – during the celebrations of the god Isis, people would commonly give each other gifts. For Saturnalia, the rich often gave to the poor and less well-off people around them. Gift-giving was also banned by the early church.
The origin of Santa Claus comes from 4th century bishop, St. Nicholas, who was known for giving gifts to others secretly. When the church realized the difficulty of preventing people from celebrating the traditions of the popular culture around them, they allowed gift-giving on the rationale that St. Nicholas, a Christian, had done it. The mythical figure of Santa Claus was modeled after St. Nicholas, and in the 1800s, American cartoonist Thomas Nast began drawing yearly pictures of him (initially in religious robes), which thus began the transformation into the bearded, plump, short man in a red suit that we are familiar with today. Ironically, the only originally Christian Christmas tradition just so happens to be Santa Claus, whom many modern-day Christians now bemoan and even refuse to include in their Christmas celebrations.
Jesus was later added into the well-established tradition of Christmas celebrations about 300 years after his death, as church leaders decided that it was too difficult to fight against the tide of Roman culture, and determined instead that it would be better to add a Christian element to the mix to better attract non-Christian Romans to the religion with the promise of allowing them to retain their popular religious traditions. In reality, however, Biblical historians believe Jesus to have been born sometime in September, nowhere near the date of December 25th.
The Real Reason for the Season
So, the real reason for the Christmas season is exactly what we see today (minus Santa Claus and the actual name, which stems from “Christ-mass”). Overindulgence, gluttony, excess spending and the materialistic emphasis on gift-giving (or rather, gift-getting), wild parties, drunkenness, and debauchery. Excess and frivolty is the reason for the season.
If Christians want to truly celebrate the birth of Jesus, then they should celebrate it in September, but should take care to remember that there should be no caroling, no Christmas trees, or presents (unless you’re Catholic, in which case Santa Claus and gift-giving is allowed as per St. Nicholas).
The fact that so many Christians ignore the history of the development of their OWN religion and religious holidays is astounding. Admittedly, I was once one of them, and in retrospect, I know exactly why I chose to remain blissfully ignorant. The truth will force one to face the reality of one’s beliefs, much of which is based on mere fantasy and fairytales. Logic and fact should therefore be avoided at all costs in order to avoid shattering the fragile glass house constituting one’s beliefs.
In the end, celebrating Christmas for what it truly is – a purely cultural holiday – is certainly not something horrific or satanic. Rather, Christmas is a cultural tradition deeply embedded in Western societies, with a rich and diverse history extending back thousands of years. It is doubtful that modern Westerners worship Christmas trees, Saturn, or Mithra, nor do they sing songs to Roman deities or engage in mass orgies (well, the majority probably doesn’t anyway). On the contrary, it is a wonderful holiday during which people gather together with family, give each other presents as a sign of our appreciation and love for one another, and make unforgettable, warm memories that will stay with us to the end of our lives. Certainly, there is nothing un-Islamic or un-Christian about that.
So, to that end – Merry Christmas everyone!