This piece was originally published in Freethought Today at FFRF.org
After the beauty of autumn fades, the leaves depart from the trees, and all but the hardiest of flowers die, a celebration brings light and warmth to the darkness and chill of winter. Gathering with friends for feasts and gift giving, a holiday in the dead of winter seems just the thing to bring hope, happiness and a sense of appreciation to an otherwise barren time of year. It’s a time for renewal and optimism as we head into the new year. Lights and colorful decorations brighten the shadows and remind us of all the good we have in our lives.
For thousands of years, humans in the Northern Hemisphere have celebrated the shortest day of the year and the birth of the new solar year. In other words, they celebrated the birth of the sun.
When I was a child, growing up in a Catholic family, we also celebrated a birth — the (alleged) birth of Jesus Christ, the son of God. In southern California, where things rarely freeze over, even in winter, Christmas time was a big deal. It was a time to be reminded how humans were so inherently rotten that God had to plant his seed in the belly of a virgin so that his offspring could be ultimately tortured to death to make up for the sins of humankind. And there are presents and lots of food.
As the pagan yule holiday breaks up the winter with celebration and gratitude, Christ breaks up the celebration with guilt and shame. It’s a time to be grateful that God showed mercy to the hopelessly flawed humans he himself created by orchestrating the birth of his son. Despite the fact that early Christians believed that Christ was actually born on Jan. 6, it seems that the yule holiday was the perfect time to be usurped by Christ. While the priests in church remind us how kind God was to have done this to save our wretched souls from the hell he himself created for us, the disturbing message was hidden in the midst of all the blessings of materialism.
As I sat through the Christmas prayers on a cold, hard wooden bench, my mind kept drifting to Santa Claus, and the candy-filled sock hanging from the mantle. Dreams of enormous amounts of sugar and toys filled my head. The excitement of the lights, songs and Christmas cartoons seemed magical and endless. Until, of course, it was time to stand, kneel or sing, then all the wonderful trappings of the holiday were once again stolen by Christ. In my child’s mind, the tree and all the presents were gone, the special dinner and treats, and even the lights on the house were replaced by the stern words of a man in a silly outfit.
Not until I was an adult did I learn of Christ’s thievery. The true meaning of the holiday came to light in the form of education. I discovered to my delight that Christ didn’t really have much to do with the origins of the holiday. It turns out it was just a convenient way to get the otherwise unbelieving pagans to unwittingly worship a man they had thought was just a man by using the semantics of the words “sun” and “son” to confuse the real reason for celebration. Christians even had the nerve to rename the holiday, effectively hiding its true roots. It was then that I could effectively take back the holiday from the guy who stole it.
Today, I celebrate Christmas the way it was intended. The lights on the house, a fresh cut tree, gifts and a special dinner with friends and family appear to mirror the Christmases of my past, with one thing missing — Christ. Christmas has so much more meaning to me now that it is free from the ridiculous dogma that was such a blight on the beautiful celebration it was intended to be. Looking back on the past year that was, and then looking forward to the year ahead with hope and optimism is the reason for Christmas now. Even though we still call it Christmas, Christ has no influence over it anymore. The holiday is once again a warm spot in the cold of winter. It is a time to be grateful for family and friends, and a time to be proud of the hard work it took all year to bring the feasts and gifts to the table. Christmas is once again a time to celebrate the sun.