A program of the Center for Inquiry
The following article is from the Secular Humanist Bulletin, Volume 22, Number 4 (Winter 2006/2007).
People often ask me if I, as a humanist, celebrate Christmas and, if so, why. After all, they point out, Christmas is the observance of the birth of Jesus, the Christian savior who is son of God. Don’t I, as a humanist agnostic, feel more than a bit awkward at this time of year?
They seem genuinely surprised, even astonished, when I reply that I feel perfectly comfortable joining in this annual celebration, since there was a Christmas long before there was a Christ.
Humanity has celebrated a winter solstice festival virtually since the dawn of our species. Our primitive forebears rejoiced that the menacing tide of increasingly short days and long nights had at last ceased and that the newly reborn sun would continue to grow more powerful with its promise of renewed life for all on earth. As civilization advanced, so did the nature and sophistication of winter- solstice festivals. The Romans, for example, observed the Saturnalia celebration from December 17 to December 24.
But how, I am frequently asked, did December 25 come to be recognized as the date of Jesus’ birth? Is it clearly designated as such in the Bible? Alas, the answer is no!
Luke writes that the savior was born in Bethlehem while shepherds were “keeping watch over their flock by night.” In that area of the world, this would have occurred from mid-March to mid-November. Shepherds would never have had their flocks out during the cold midwinter.
The earliest Christians did not observe Jesus’ nativity on December 25—or any other date, for that matter. They believed that the celebration of birthdays was a decidedly pagan, secular custom.
Mithra, the Persian god of light and embodiment of the sun, was said to have been born out of a rock on December 25, and that date was recognized as an important festival in the religion of Mithraism. In the third century, the Roman Emperor Aurelian, who had embraced that religion, established December 25 as Dies Invicti Solis—the Day of the Invincible Sun—and Mithraism became the official state religion of Rome. When Christianity supplanted Mithraism in the fourth century, pragmatic Christians chose to transform the Day of the Invincible Sun into the day of the son of God’s birth, since December 25 was so firmly entrenched in the popular mind as a festival date.
Through the centuries, any number of Christian sects, uncomfortable with the pagan origins of Christmas, have sought to ban the holiday. Puritans in early America fined anyone caught celebrating Christmas, and the holiday remained forbidden in much of New England until the mid-nineteenth century. Cromwell’s England actually tried to ban Christmas from that nation by an act of Parliament.
Regardless of its non-Christian genesis, Christmas will always be exalted as the birth of the Christian savior, a truth that brings us back to the matter of why a humanist such as myself has no reservations in joining with my Christian friends to celebrate Christmas. How do I find meaning in this Christian holy day?
For me, this beautiful season is a joyous paean to life and love, a time that reminds us that, beneath the veneer of race, religion, and nationality, we are all members of a universal family. I celebrate Christmas as the victory of light over darkness, not merely the defeat of the winter darkness by the waxing sun, but the triumph every person of good will feels when our innate warmth and compassion rout our tendencies toward selfishness and malice. I celebrate Christmas as the resurgence of that sacred flame that dwells within every woman and man. I celebrate Christmas not so much as the recognition of a divine child’s birth but as the recognition of a divine essence in all of us.
Not celebrate Christmas because I am a humanist? I celebrate it because I am a humanist.
John Dunphy is a writer and bookstore owner. His essay “A Religion for a New Age” was the basis for the Religious Right’s charge that secular humanism was invading public education. This essay was originally published in The (Alton, Illinois) Telegraph on December 24, 1995.