Every so often, someone will ask me why as a Pagan, I celebrate Christmas. It’s not an odd question really; not if you consider December 25th to be an actual Christian holiday. Christmas is after all a celebration of the birth of the Christian Savior so why would Pagans choose to participate in this oh so important celebration of another religion; a religion that historically has not been very tolerant of Pagan faiths and celebrations. But is December 25th really a day of solemn religious observance?
No one knows the actual date of the birth of Jesus Christ; not the month, the date or even the year for sure but there has been much study and debate given over to determining the actual date. What the early Christian fathers did know was that the Winter Solstice and Saturnalia were days of important religious observance in many of the pre-Christian religions that still held the hearts of so many people.In many of the religions of the time, it was a day when the Sun God was born/reborn and there were a great many traditions and celebrations related to that event in much of what was then the Roman Empire. Also, it was then as it has always been, the standard operating procedure of religions seeking to convert the masses to adopt sacred and holy days of other religions and turn them to their own purposes. It made perfect sense for them to choose the Solstice to celebrate the birth of the son of their god on the date that was so widely celebrated as the birth of the Pagan sun god. The similarities between the two would not have been lost on them.
When the date December 25th was chosen as the day to celebrate the birth of Christ it was the date of the Winter Solstice by their calendar. You have to remember that the calendar that we use today is not the same one that was in use at that time. Today the Winter Solstice falls on December 21st or 22nd but the Roman Julian calendar was in effect when this decision was made and by that calendar December 25th was the date of the Solstice.
Now, fast forward through history; the calendar was revamped, and the date of the Solstice now lands on December 21st-22nd but Christmas remained fixed on the date December 25th so that it no longer coincides with the Solstice. Christianity had become the dominant religion in many parts of the world and Christmas, December 25th, was celebrated in all of Christendom as Christ Mass or the religious observance of the birth of the Christian Savior.
As time continued to march on something unforeseen by those early Christian fathers happened; many of the symbols that became associated with Christmas began to reflect more of a seasonal theme than a religious one. Mistletoe, holly, evergreen trees and boughs, fur clad jolly elves and snowmen have nothing at all to do with the Christian savior being born in the dry and arid Middle East. Even before Nativity scenes became politically incorrect the majority of the symbols of the season had more to do with nature and yes Northern European Paganism than Christianity.
Now, it’s not exactly fair to say that Christianity stole our symbols of the season; the truth is that in many cases the Christian leaders were dead set against things like Christmas trees but somehow these old symbols and traditions could not be kept from creeping in. They could not keep the age-old symbols of our cultural and perhaps even genetic memory from us.
Today, especially in America it’s only in the churches and in the hearts of truly devout Christians that Christmas as a strictly religious observance still holds sway. Outside of those churches, in the secular world Christmas is a time when family and friends get together and share food and drink and exchange tokens of admiration, affection and love and where children are still encouraged to believe in magick. These best traditions of the season have long ago quit being the realm of Christianity but rather they have become cultural, secular and fun. Non-practicing Christians, non-Christians and many non-religious people enjoy the holiday for all its best qualities without any of the religious overtones or reverence and that’s okay.
(But let’s be honest, it’s also a time of gross consumerism and gluttony, but that’s another topic for another day and besides I’m a big fan of gluttony….well, in moderation. )
So actually the question shouldn’t be why do Pagans celebrate Christmas on December 25th it should be why do Christians continue to celebrate the birth of their Savior on December 25thwhen it is clearly obvious that the religious importance of the day has been overshadowed or even lost in the seasonal festivities and frivolity of the season. It was Solstice after all that the early Christian fathers designated to celebrate the birth of their Savior not the calendar date; perhaps when the calendar changed they thought it was a good time to shed the Pagan association of Solstice but it may now be a good time for them to rethink that decision. Today’s Christians must juggle the festive cultural traditions with the solemn religious aspects of the day in way that must leave at least the truly devout among them terribly conflicted.
Pagans on the other hand can celebrate the rebirth of their Sun God on the Solstice with whatever solemnity and reverence our traditions dictate and then celebrate Christmas on December 25th with our family and friends. In this way our religious observances don’t conflict with the gift giving, feasting and frivolity.
So even though the widespread celebration of Christmas on December 25th is actually the result of Pagan suppression by Christianity in the end it’s my opinion that it is the Pagans who have come out on top; of course, it took a couple of thousand years. Now if we could just get people to call December 25th something else it would be perfect….but hey you can’t have everything.