Something to Think About

"I found it is the small everyday deeds of ordinary folk that keep the darkness at bay. Small acts of kindness and love."
- J.R.R. Tolkien, The Hobbit

Monday, December 10, 2012

The Atheist at Christmastime

I've been making several Christmas-related posts recently and people may be wondering why an atheist would be interested in celebrating Christmas.  There are several reasons, actually.  One is that I grew up in a Christian household so the traditions I grew up with have to do with Christmas as opposed to another holiday during this season.  Another reason is that I've come to realize that Christmas - despite the "Christ" in the title - is just not exclusive to Christians anymore.  Frankly, a lot of "Christmas" traditions came from things done for other celebrations.

For example, the idea of bringing greenery - evergreen, holly and such -  indoors around the time of the winter solstice is not a coincidence.  It was done by the followers of Ra in ancient Egypt. Ra was their sun god so they celebrated the winter solstice - the day of the year with the shortest amount of daylight - as they knew the daylight hours would increase from that day until the summer solstice. They brought evergreen boughs indoors to decorate as a way of reminding themselves of the warmer months.

Many religious festivals were held in the winter - especially if a culture had a sun god of any nature.  Ancient people did take note of the winter and summer solstices and celebrated them. It is not a surprise that early Christians chose to celebrate the birth of Jesus around this time of year so that people wouldn't miss gathering together at this time.  (Personally, I think it's just a hop, skip and jump from celebrating the sun god to celebrating the son of god but I'll admit I'm just being punny.)

Saturnalia was celebrated by ancient Romans around the time of the winter solstice.  The practice of gift-giving is thought to have come from these ancient celebrations.  The Catholic church forbade the practice as pagan during the Middle Ages but, obviously, they changed their mind at some point.

Gift-giving is not the first Christmas practice that was discouraged due to pagan origins.  Did you know that putting up Christmas trees was considered a pagan - and therefore undesirable - practice in colonial America? In fact, the puritans disliked the idea of celebrating Christmas altogether as they considered it a Catholic practice.  It was outlawed in early Boston.  It wasn't until the late 19th century that Christmas trees were finally commonplace in the United States and holiday celebrations were accepted practice.

Caroling - or wassailing - appears to have pre-Christian roots, as well. Peasants would visit noblemen and sing in exchange for food or drink.

The hanging of wreaths on our doors seems to come from ancient Rome where they did so to celebrate victory.  The advent wreath comes from pre-Christian Germany were people would gather greens and light fires during the winter months as a sign of hope for spring to come.

We get the idea of hanging mistletoe from the Norse, ancient druids and native Americans.

This website is a wealth of information about Christian traditions around the world and the origins of many of the things we do to celebrate the holidays today.

My point is that just like early Christians borrowed some practices from other religions and even the times of year to hold celebrations, non-religious people continue some of the customs we enjoy even if we don't do them for the same reason that some others do.

When challenged on this, I like to point out that the real reason for the actual season is the axial tilt of the earth and doesn't have anything to do with any particular religion. Without the tilt, we wouldn't experience the changing seasons and we wouldn't be celebrating the solstice in any way or for any reason.  And yes.  This answer makes me a smart-ass and I'm alright with that.

Seriously, though, what does decorating a tree in your home or hanging a wreath on your door have to do with a baby being born in a stable in Bethlehem, anyway? (or in a house, depending on which version you prefer)  Absolutely nothing.  These are secular traditions and anyone can participate in them.

Regardless of your personal traditions and no matter what you celebrate this time of year, I hope that you get to spend time with your family and loved ones.  That is the most important part of the season to me and I hope that it is important to you, as well.

Image found here.

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