Christmas has always been a time of the year with complex layers of meaning and purpose. There are traditions and practices that differ across religious groups and even across geographical groups as people in northern Europe celebrate it differently to those in North America.
Even the basic meaning is not so simple to describe. Christians and church-goers hold tightly to the fact that they celebrate the birth of Jesus. Some go so far as to avoid as many of the secular practices as possible. This means no tree as that pre-dates Christian celebrations, and sometimes no presents. In less extreme environments, there is a fusion of secular and religious practices and iconography that flows both ways. And I use he word fusion quite deliberately. Many churches will have Christmas decorations in their chapel, for instance, and even the most secular of carol singing nights will include many of the Christian ones.
But as I move further away from Christianity and further into Paganism, I myself run into some odd dichotomies.
First of all, I can’t easily extricate the Pagan pieces of Christmas. The history of many of our Christmas traditions in the modern world is murky, but one fact that is clear is that a lot of them originate in places that are cold at this time of year. It’s not cold here – which leads me to the other big fact: a lot of Christmas is based on Yule and in this part of the world that was six months ago.
That leaves the secular pieces. Which means consumerism and commercialism. But they borrow heavily from history. Which takes me back to square one: Christianity and Pagan Yule, only re-interpreted and mangled to suit capitalism.
I found an article the other day that pointed out that the Church did not celebrate the birth of Jesus in the early centuries. It just wasn’t part of the Christian calendar back then. The gospels don’t even tell us when in the year it happened (the only clue is that the sheep were outside at night), so the writers didn’t think it important, either. But Christian theology was going through a phase where the emerging thinking was that Jesus’ ministry was a mystical story. So the Church authorities decided to start celebrating his birthday as a way of reminding people that he had been a real person. Yule and Saturnalia was chosen. And thus we now have Christmas at this time of year.
Typically, the Church has largely forgotten that that happened. But in the west, celebrations of individual birthdays is normal, so doing one for the baby Jesus does not feel odd. Children are often taught this comparison!
But I don’t need to celebrate this anymore. Christmas is being re-shaped for me.