Tuesday, November 29, 2011

On Christmas

The idea that Christ is the true purpose of Christmas gets to be a theme around this time of year and that's fine if that is the central point of the holiday to you. However, that does not mean that the holiday is now and has only ever been about Christ. Nor does it mean that ignoring the various historical influences of a given holiday is automatically disrespectful or disingenuous.

History and forgotten religions are filled with Winter Solstice holidays and traditions. There are two ancient Roman holidays that predate Christianity by centuries. Saturnalia was celebrated in December and featured among other things gift giving and a break from school. Sol Invictus celebrated the virgin birth of the Sun god, Mithras, on December 25th. So popular were those two holidays that 4th Century Christians borrowed from them to create their own holiday, Christmas. It doesn't stop there. Ancient Celtic and Germanic cultures celebrated Winter Solstice holidays that featured mistletoe. It is from Norse mythology that we get the name Yule to describe the holiday, the Yule log, and ham as part of the traditional meal.

In fact we owe a lot of our holidays, dates, and names for things to ancient cultures, traditions, and religions. We rarely give those origins a second thought, let alone feel guilty about simultaneously ignoring those meanings while continuing to utilize the names and traditions.

Easter and its symbols are heavily influenced by an ancient Germanic holiday for the fertility goddess, Ä’ostre. January is named for the Roman god of doorways, Janus. February is named for the Roman holiday of purification. March is for Mars the Roman god of war. April is for the Greek goddess Aphrodite. May is for the Greek fertility goddess Maia. June is for the Roman Goddess Juno. Sunday is named for the Sun and Monday for the Moon, both were worshiped by many ancient cultures. Tuesday is for a Germanic god of war. Wednesday is the Norse god Odin's day. Thursday is the Norse god Thor's day. Friday is for a Germanic goddess. Saturday is named for the Roman god Saturn which brings us back around to Saturnalia and Christmas again.

Christmas is a wonderful holiday with a rich history of influences from past Winter Solstice holidays like Saturnalia, Sol Invictus, and Yule. A great many of us really enjoy the traditions, decorations, gift giving, and gatherings with family and friends. We love the holiday without need or want of the various religions that have shaped it, including Christianity.

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