I’ve always found it puzzling that my Christian friends find it puzzling that I celebrate Christmas even though I’m not a Christian. Or that my Jewish and Muslim friends correct me when I bid them a “Merry Christmas!” Sometimes it seems that the only non-Christian demographic that doesn’t mind being wished good Yuletide wishes is the atheists among us. But, then, if a recent University of British Columbia study is accurate, atheists are already as distrusted as rapists, so we’ll take whatever warm wishes we can get.
Yes, we. I’m an atheist who loves Christmas. And growing up, our Christmas was the sort of pantheist hodge-podge (or “synthesis,” as I’ll explain) that only a family of atheists would come up with, including Jewish gefilte fish during Christmas dinner right after a half-pagan half-Catholic garlic-wafer-honey ritual to ward of demons, a Buddha and a Shiva on the mantle next to the Nativity scene, and so on.
We celebrated at midnight on the 24th, and often spent Christmas day skiing as a family. Because that’s what Christmas was about for us: love, family and snow. One year, on the morning of the 25th, I shared a chairlift with a fundamentalist Christian who said he boycotted Christmas because he considered it a pagan holiday. He claimed Christ was actually born in the spring, not in December. Although I didn’t understand why anyone would pass up such a beautiful holiday for religious reasons, as a matter of purely historical record, he was right.
Until 330 AD, Christ’s birth was celebrated on the eve of January 6th, and even then only parenthetically (since early Christians considered any celebration of birthdays to be a pagan custom) as part of the feast of Theophany. It was moved in 330 AD in an attempt to absorb the Roman pagan festival of Saturnalia and the Sol Invictus festival of December 25th, the birth of the unconquered sun. The Romans believed that the winter solstice lasted three days, and December 25th was the first day with a detectable lengthening of daylight hours.
From Wikipedia re Saturnalia: “The celebrations included a school holiday, the making and giving of small presents (saturnalia et sigillaricia) and a special market (sigillaria). Gambling was allowed for all, even slaves. It was a time to eat, drink, and be merry. The toga was not worn, but rather the synthesis, i.e. colorful, informal “dinner clothes”; and the pileus (freedman’s hat) was worn by everyone.”
The only historical support for December 25th rests on several third-century manuscripts of Hippolytus’ Commentary on Daniel that most scholars of the period believe were changed after the fact. A single manuscript of the same document exists with the date April 2nd for Christ’s birthday, and this date is supported by another third-century work called De Pascha Computus, based on a lost work of Hippolytus, that states Christ was born on Passover (which is never far from April 2nd). There is also a statue of Hippolytus at the Latrean Museum in Rome, made shortly after his death, that is inscribed with Passover dates calculated by Hippolytus. It has “genesis of Jesus Christ” next to April 2nd.
And those sheep in the Nativity scene? Sheep that always ended up in compromising positions on my family mantle, to the feigned outrage of my mom and smiling “I’m not getting involved” look of my dad? Those were sacrificial lambs being prepared for Passover. Even in Palestine sheep rarely grazed in the wintertime.
Most of the wonderful rituals of Christmas are clearly pagan. Like the English language, they are a mix of Latin and Germanic, Saturnalia and Yule. Yule itself came from the Wild Hunt, during which Odin (aka “Long Beard,” and “Yule Figure”) rode his eight-legged flying horse named Sleipnir through the sky.
Children would place their boots, filled with carrots, straw, or sugar, near the chimney for Sleipnir to eat. Odin would then reward those children for their kindness by replacing Sleipnir’s food with gifts or candy. This practice survived in most of continental Europe after the adoption of Christianity and became associated with Saint Nicholas (patron saint of children) as a result of the process of Christianization—St. Nick still fills children’s boots in Europe with candy on December 5th/6th—though the holiday also started as a provocation to the church, with a child dressed up as a bishop, the burning of smelly shoes instead of incense, and rhymes with swear words like ‘kapoentje’ (castrated male chicken—a jab at the bishops) woven into the original Christmas carols.
Saint Nicholas, or Sinterklaas in Dutch, came to North America through New Amsterdam (New York) and turned into Santa Claus. Here, the boot ritual evolved into the hanging of stockings at the fireplace.
Odin was also always associated with the tree, where he hung for nine days, Himself sacrificed to Himself, in order to learn wisdom. Although the leap from a tree to a cross is not large, trees were central to pagan rituals and, as such, this was one area where Christianity resisted much longer before grafting itself onto existing beliefs. The Christmas tree is explicitly prohibited by the Bible. Jeremiah 10:1-5 says “ …Learn not the way of the heathen…  For the customs of the people are vain: for one cutteth a tree out of the forest, the work of the hands of the workman, with the axe.  They deck it with silver and with gold; they fasten it with nails and with hammers, that it move not.”
The Christmas-tree is clearly pagan, but paganism is hardly a monolithic belief, providing a wide variety of interesting tree associations to choose from. The shamans in Siberia used to pick the red-and-white amanita mascurias mushroom and use it for visions. They’d found that if you ate the mushrooms directly, you’d have visions, but you’d also die of toxic shock. If you dried it over the fireplace in a stocking and fed it to a reindeer, on the other hand, the pee that passed through had only the good parts and you could fly through the air until spring, if you wanted. Which was good, since they lived in yurts that, in the winter, they entered through a chimney hole in the ceiling.
Getting high off reindeer pee seems like a great holiday ritual to revive. Perhaps it would balance out some of the corporate-branded consumerism that has consumed Christmas.
But if Santa is Odin, the tree and all Yule celebrations are Germanic-pagan, the gift giving and feast are Roman, and the date has nothing to do with Jesus, why should Christmas be exclusive to Christians? I want in.
Christmas is the best holiday of the year, and if people want to attach a religious significance to it, great. Personally, I always liked Odin, but I’d thought him dead. It wasn’t until I was an adult that I connected him to Santa. And it wasn’t until I became a father that his transition from fierce warrior to jolly grandpa truly made sense. We all age, even the gods.
Christmas is family. It’s love. It’s memory. It’s ritual that becomes beautiful by virtue of those things, whether the memories are of midnight mass or a potentially blasphemous but deeply nostalgic childhood play-struggle over the positioning of the sheep in the Nativity scene on my mantle. So put away the toga and the dogma, and put on the synthesis and the freedman’s hat. Christmas is for everyone, so Merry Christmas to all!