Recently, someone on my social media feed insisted that everyone should say “Merry Christmas” rather than “Happy Holidays” because, in her words, “This is Our holiday.” Actually, there are over 14 major religious holidays celebrated in December, beginning with Rohatsu (Buddhism), then Hanukkah (Judaism), then the Winter Solstice (Wiccans / Pagans), Mawlid el-Nabi (Islam), and Zarathosht Diso (Zoroastrianism). To wish only “Merry Christmas”—especially to people we do not know—is remarkably narrow-minded.
Many Christians do not realize that Early Christians did not celebrate Jesus’ birth. Hundreds of years after Jesus died, the Emperor Constantine realized that enmity among various religious groups created tension and violence within the Roman Empire. Constantine reasoned that if pagans and Christians celebrated their traditions on the same day, they would become more unified, and prejudice and persecution would subside.
For millennia, pagans have celebrated the return of light at the winter solstice. Some celebrated Saturnalia, a holiday involving gift-giving and partying and honoring Saturn, the god of agriculture. Others equated the winter solstice with the god Mithras, whose birth was celebrated on December 25th. Before he died, Mithras shared a final meal with the sun god, Sol Invictus; after Mithras was resurrected, he ascended to Heaven in a chariot. The central liturgical act of the Mithras cult was a sacramental meal of bread and wine, representing the body and blood of Mithras and a sacrificial bull. Early Christians adopted many of these pagan traditions: They even knelt toward the east and held their services on Sunday, as did Mithras’ followers and other pagan sun cults.
Even though Jesus was most likely born in the spring (shepherds would not herd their sheep in winter), Christian bishops acquiesced to the Emperor Constantine and agreed to celebrate the birth of Jesus during the winter solstice, a poetic pagan holy day: The return of light to the world, the birth of the Sun, became a celebration for the birth of the Son, the “light of the world.”
By the Middle Ages, Christianity had replaced most pagan religions, so Christmas traditions had taken root in many European countries. But most of those celebrations had become drunken, raucous events. Then in the 17th century, Oliver Cromwell and his Puritan forces took over England, vowing to rid their country of decadence—so they cancelled Christmas! Eventually, some of these Puritans sailed to America, bringing their disdain for Christmas to the New World. That’s why Christmas was not a holiday in Early America. The Pilgrims were even more dour and pious than the Puritans, so they didn’t celebrate either. The only settlement to observe Christmas was Jamestown. Boston actually outlawed Christmas and fined five shillings to anyone “exhibiting Christmas spirit.”
Finally in the 19th century, the American author Washington Irving and the English author Charles Dickens wrote stories about Christmas, infusing the holiday with traditions of gathering family together and sharing gifts of food and love, essentially reinventing our ideas of Christmas celebrations.
These are the traditions I enjoy. For me, the “Christmas” season is not about the myth of Jesus’ birth. It’s about community and love, inclusiveness and compassion—it’s about dissolving darkness with light, something we need now more than ever. This holiday season, as we gather with our family and friends, let’s remember the diverse history of this holiday and honor its many traditions—religious and secular—all having one common thread: Each celebrates Light.