It’s that time of year again, when Christians start talking about “the true meaning of Christmas,” with the occasional complaint regarding the “war on Christmas.” Apparently saying “happy holidays” is an affront to Christianity, which has some sort of social monopoly over the season… and it is a season, because Christmas crap goes on sale just after Halloween these days.
Some Christians jump to the conclusion that atheists are ruining Christmas. Most atheists don’t care and are happy to take the time off from work. While there’s the occasional atheist who uses this time of year to lash out at the frustrating institution of Christianity, it’s proportionately more often Jews (who make up a population of about 1/10th that of atheists) and fundamentalist Christians who oppose Christmas displays. [Jews often protest nativity scenes, fundies protest the plethora of pagan symbols associated with the season.]
So what is the true meaning of Christmas? The birth of Jesus? Any non-believer will gleefully point out that Christmas is born from pagan holidays, though this isn’t exactly the case. Instead, an early non-Biblical reference to Jesus’ annunciation (the incarnation of Jesus) was given as being on the spring equinox (March 25th), which led scholars to just lazily count nine months forward. The adoption of the local pagan traditions that took place around this time of year came much later.
December 25th is a big one for holidays, mostly because of its association with the solstice. In the northern hemisphere, the “winter solstice” occurs in late December. It is the darkest, coldest day of the year. Many polytheistic faiths have holidays during this time, including the Norse Yuletide celebration of Thor, the birthday of Mithras, Saturnalia and the Dies Natalis Solis Invicti (“the birthday of the unconquered Sun”).
Celebrating Jesus’ birth on December 25th is incredibly arbitrary, and modern scholars are positive the date is inaccurate for several reasons. If you’re a Christian, I recommend you celebrate Real Christmas in the late spring or maybe early summer. May 20th was an early guess by Egyptian scholars. Another guess is March 28th. In either case, there’s no way Joseph would schlep Mary through the desert in the middle of winter if the baby’s legs were practically sticking out already.
As for what you should do if you want to have a strictly Christian Christmas… I am at a loss. You can’t really do the “traditional” stuff, it’s all pagan: no tree, no big feast, no mistletoe, no holly. I guess you could give gifts, since that’s in the story of Jesus’ birth, but a decent Christian avoids the lure of Mammon. And if you do succumb and give gifts to your kids, you can’t have them be from Santa Claus, his demonic elves, or his bewitched flying reindeer.
So what’s the true meaning of Christmas? There’s not much to do around December 25th. You can’t really go outside for long. There’s not much work to do [in a farming culture]. People will do anything to keep themselves busy and happy. You need something to look forward to… because this is also the day with the most suicides. Holidays are society’s anti-depressant. Sure, there are those who OD on the medication, or refuse to take it, but there’s just no helping some people.
The true message of Christmas is: “Don’t kill yourself, and buy something while you’re at it.” Most people are more than happy to celebrate Christmas. In fact, the only two groups I can imagine opposing it would be monotheists and communists (how often do they agree, huh?). Christians ought to be offended that the birth of their object of worship is a sales pitch for selling worthless plastic junk which serves only to distract people. I can’t really think of anything more un-Christlike.
Go ahead, give some gifts, decorate a tree, and wish someone “Merry Christmas” with gusto. And if they sneer and say they’re not Christian, just say, “Neither am I, Scrooge McGrinch. Take your meds!”