“It was a custom of the Pagans to celebrate on the same 25 December the birthday of the Sun, at which they kindled lights in token of festivity. In these solemnities and revelries the Christians also took part. Accordingly, when the doctors of the Church perceived that the Christians had a leaning to this festival, they took counsel and resolved that the true Nativity should be solemnised on that day.”
~Jacob Bar-Salibi 1166
Being an atheist on Christmas is generally one of the more uncomfortable times of year, when belief in the notion that December 25 is the birthday of Jesus of Nazareth, is celebrated by our almost our entire society with rampant consumerism and the production of untold amounts of waste for our landfills.
I also find it a tad humorous to see how American retailers, for profit pure and simple, have taken a celebration that is remarkably absent from the pages of the Bible and elevated it to a festival such critical social significance.
So, in the spirit of this, the most wonderful time of the year, I thought it important to offer the readers of this column a short history lesson on the true origins of “Christmas,” a story many of you may not have heard.
Christians had in tough in the first few centuries after the supposed birth of their savior. From their tyrannical oppression at the hands of the Roman Emperor Nero to the feeding of true believers to lions in the Coliseum, early Christians were not among the most favored of the peoples of Rome.
In fact, many powerful Romans saw the rise of Christianity as a direct challenge to the authority of the empire. Romans of the period believed the emperor was divine, and that Christians claiming that Jesus was the “King of Kings” were seeking to undermine the emperor’s power.
And while the great imperial persecutions of Christians ended around 311 AD, three centuries of murder, execution and violence towards the followers of Jesus had created a bit of a “public relations” dilemma for their sect.
During the 3rd Century, many Romans had begun to forgo their old gods and had begun to worship Sol Invictus, the “Invincible Sun.” a practice eventually described as “Solar Monotheism”.
While sun worship was not a new concept by any means (the ancient Egyptians worshiped several sun gods), the concept of a singular deity was a relatively new concept for Romans.
Abandoning of the old Roman gods and worship of Sol spread quickly in the empire during the early years of Christianity, so much so that coins began to circulate with image of this sun god through out Rome.
Christians, naturally assuming that the more followers they could attract the less likely the chances of religious persecution, began to seek ways to bring as many Roman pagans as possible into the Christian fold.
The Roman Empire was already well equipped to facilitate the spreading of the gospel of Christ. A intensive road network and a common language linked several continents and allowed missionaries as well as legions to travel far distances to be persuasive.
Yet early Christians were still struggling to gain widespread acceptance of their faith into this new “modern” society.
Enter the idea of Christmas.
December 25th had been a long standing Roman celebration called the “feast of the unconquered sun”.
It was an extremely popular festival celebrating both Sol Invictus, and marking the winter solstice, the first day the Sun reversed its southward retreat into the sky and proved that Sol was indeed “unconquered”.
So when the early Christians tried to convert followers to their religion, it became increasingly evident that it was easier to appeal to them by creating similarities between Jesus Christ and gods like Sol Invictus than to simply brand non-Christians as heretics.
So Christians began to celebrate the birth of their savior during the same time frame as the feast of the unconquered sun.
Though devout pagans would continue to celebrate the winter solstice for centuries to come December 25th had been forever transformed, not because of any relationship whatsoever to historical fact, but because it helped attract devout pagans!
Though the centuries that followed saw Christianity sweep the globe, the pagan roots of some of its most beloved traditions continued cause problems.
Several of the more puritan American colonies actually banned the celebration of Christmas, citing those pagan roots and the complete absence of any ties to December 25 in scripture. Such celebrations, they argued, were sacrilegious.
It wasn’t until the later mass migration of European immigrants to America that the Christmas tradition that we know today began to evolve.
So as you sit down with your friends and family this season, try to remember the genesis of the holiday you are celebrating: a small, persecuted band of ideologues, who believed in the concepts of love, turning the other cheek and helping the unfortunate, directly challenged the authority of the Roman Empire and used a popular pagan holiday as a form of public relations to broaden their base.
While this atheist may disagree with more traditional perspectives on Christmas, I think we all can agree that the beliefs of those early Christians, in love, non-violence, and helping one another . . . coupled with their willingness to stand up and even die for them . . . are far more important than the story they made up to make December 25 something “special.”
So, truly, a Merry Christmas & Happy Holidays to you and yours!
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