“Would you even celebrate Christmas?” asked concerned family members when considering December plans. Though my first publicly, this will actually be my second Christmas as a self-admitted atheist and there have been several as a skeptic.
Surprisingly few of the traditions I cherish most about Christmas have anything to do with in-a-manger Jesus. Time with family, the tree, gifts, egg nog, Will Ferrell’s Elf, fruit cake (I like it, shut up), and egg nog are all Savior-neutral. It is only song lyrics where the nativity holds sway — I still greatly prefer the carols in the hymnal to Santa-themed sing-alongs.
Much like the 2015 red Starbucks cups, the Bible itself is quite silent on the topic of Christmas. In fact, Mark — the earliest-written gospel — doesn’t mention the birth of Jesus at all. What the subsequent gospel writers do claim is historically impossible, having Jesus born during the time of King Herod (who died in 4 B.C.) and also at least ten years later in 6 A.D. (the first census of Quirinius).
It was actually fundamentalist Christians who first educated me about the pagan origins of the modern Christmas celebration. For thousands of years, December 25 hosted the birthday celebrations of both the Roman sun god Sol Invictus and the Rome-adopted Persian god Mithras. When emperor Constantine declared Christianity the official state religion around 313 A.D., an entire empire was reluctantly forced into the doors of the church, bringing favorite pagan practices with them. Heathen feasts became church festivals with little more than a name change… and Christmas was born. (The fir-tree worship of god Ba’al-Berith may have come along for the ride.)
I’ve come to learn that such borrowing, melding, adapting and revision has been integral to the Judaism and Christianity since their earliest beginnings, but that is a topic for another time.
In any case, I intend to spend this Christmas season as I always have — adhering to traditions made meaningful because of those I love who I’ve spent them with.
(Image – Not a nativity scene, but a second-century artful relief depicting December 25-born Roman god Mithras surrounded by animals in a grotto. Courtesy The Tertullian Project.)