Updated: Dec 5, 2022
By Janalee Morris
I love the holiday season. Even though it is steeped in religious lore and rampant consumerism, I still celebrate by decorating the house and spoiling my loved ones with presents and too many cookies. But the holidays can also be a very difficult time for some – especially those who have left religion and miss the traditions (if not the supernatural beliefs and dogma that goes with them).
One of the things I don’t love is when I hear people complain that we have forgotten the true meaning of Christmas. And so, I thought I would dive a little deeper into the question – what is the “true” reason for the season?
As you are probably aware, many of the traditions we now associate with Xmas (evergreens, food, lights, gathering with family and friends) originated not with the birth of Jesus, but with various midwinter festivities that existed well before. These festivals took place anytime between November when the harvest was in, to January when the days were noticeably getting longer. Evidence for the celebration of Saturnalia exists at least two hundred years before the lifetime of Jesus. Saturn was the Roman god of agriculture, and so it makes sense that his celebration was in honour of the harvest. Yule, or Jul, was celebrated in northern Europe by Scandinavian peoples. Scholars argue that the word means either “wheel” for the cycle of the year, or “sacrifice” or “feast”, referring to religious sacrifices or winter banquets. Both celebrations were marked by lighting candles and fires, greenery, gifts, and social gatherings. Old Norse celebrations of Yule also included traditions to keep evil spirits away such as sacrifice and candles. Evergreen branches were hung on doors and around windows in the hope that their prickly needles might ward off spirits.
Many holiday traditions did not originate in the nativity story, including the Xmas tree, traditional foods, music, and partying. They have nothing to do with the so-called birth of Christ, and instead were a way for those in power to impose Christianity on their citizens while allowing them to continue their mid-winter traditions.
And why do we celebrate Xmas on December 25th ? The bible does not give any
reference to the date of Jesus’ birth. Only Matthew and Luke provide brief nativity stories. Their accounts are very different from each other, with the exception of the claim of Mary’s virginity and the name of his stepfather, Joseph. From the second to the fourth century, Christians argued for dates in March, April, May, and November as the birth date. In fact, Christmas was not even celebrated by Christians until the fourth century under the rule of Roman emperor Constantine in his zeal to convert the empire to Christianity.
People sometimes ask me why I celebrate Xmas if I am an atheist. There are any
number of reasons: tradition, family, to break up the winter, for the food, for the music, because I love giving gifts, twinkly lights, and because I refuse to let the church co-opt what has been a time of celebration for thousands of years.
Whatever you feel about this time of year, I hope you find time to spend with family and friends. Our annual Winter Solstice Celebration will be on Saturday, December 17th . I hope to see you there!
Collins, M. (2014). Christmas: A History/Christmas in Germany: A Cultural History. Implicit Religion. Vol 17 (2), p244-246.
Forbes, B.D. (2007). Christmas: A Candid History (1st ed.). University of California Press.
Gibney, M. (2019). Christmas Fare. Nutrition Today, 54 (6), 242-244.