How Christ Got into Christmas

By Peter H. Samson, S.T.D.

With the approach of every Christmas, there are two things on which we can count without fail: the hard-sell seems to begin a little earlier every year, and there is the usual outcry against the commercializing of Christmas, a loser's lament if ever there was one. We can understand with some sympathy the desire of the traditional churches to put Christ back into Christmas, but it becomes even more desirable to put Christmas back into December!

With New Year resolution time coming up again, why not consider starting early with this too, and making a couple of resolves which could give us all a more enjoyable season. The first would be to have done with complaining about how commercial Christmas has gotten to be. The second would be to relax our critical faculties a little concerning those miraculous, supernatural happenings in which we cannot believe. These are two obstacles to the full enjoyment of Christmas for a great many thoughtful and sensitive people, yet why should either of them be allowed to spoil this time of the heart that ought to be beyond spoiling either by the money-makers or the myth-makers?

Cashing in on the Christmas spirit during the hinting season (as one of the hucksters has called it) is only the latest of the distortions wrought by the passage of time. We have continued the commercializing of Christmas partly because we have conditioned our children to demand it, and partly because, once past the early reluctance all of us feel, we find ourselves wanting to say something and to give something to those for whom we care -- and also partly because our patchwork, haphazard economic system has long depended on this season.

There is no reason for people who cannot accept the divinity of Christ to let Christian mythology about Christmas disturb them, for this sacred season became Christianized mainly by an accident of history, and is actually as Jewish, and also as Roman, as Zoroastrian, and as downright pagan -- as it is Christian. It is as salutatory for Jews to remember, as it is for Christians to recall, that it was a Jewish baby in the manger.

Christmas once had nothing to do with Christ, but became a celebration of the miraculous birth of a divine Christos by a quite understandable process. Christ got into Christmas not through some churchly conspiracy against rational intelligence, but through a historical changeover of this festive day from an old popular pagan revel into a new popular Christian revel, Christ being a relatively recent insertion.

To see this annual indulgence in gemutlichkeit and improbable goings-on as a holy day corrupted by greedy merchants and advertisers, or as an innocent primitive frolic distorted by the Church in the interests of priests and superstitious peasants, is but to see a small part of the truth. The deeper truth is that for all mankind this is a moment of the turning year, observed around the world and as far back in time as we can discern, when people according to their diverse cultures and beliefs affirmed their hopefulness about life, and expressed their more generous impulses. The important thing for us today is to be able to sense the basic humanism of Christmas beyond the miracle-based dogmatism and the massive gift-pitch that have grown up around it.

Wherever we begin with our scrutiny, we are brought to this fact: If we begin with the celebration itself, we find that there were Christmases long before there was a Christian Christmas. If we begin with Christ, we find that there were equivalent Christs long before there was a Christian Christ.

Christmas is without doubt one of the most ancient festal days on earth, not a mere twenty centuries old, but uncountable ages old, going back and back to the dawn-days of our earliest awareness of the natural world around us. All religions, of course, were in their origin nature religions, expressing man's response to the sky above him, the earth below him, the seasons around him, and how all of these affect his well-being. One of the exciting events of the turning year was always when the sun seemed to stop in its journey and begin its return trip, bringing again the promise of light and warmth to the wintry earth and its peoples. With the winter solstice, the sun appeared to be born anew. In every culture, celebrations developed at this time of the year. Christmas as we know it came straight from the old Romans, who had a marvelous bash they called Saturnalia, culminating on December 25th, the day they believed was the shortest of the year, the birthday of the sun. Being lusty, pagan sun-worshipers, they held a whole week of feasting, with merry-making, fornicating and drunkenness. Their Saturnalia was also a feast of abundance in which brotherhood was emphasized and gifts exchanged. The distinction between slave and freeman was set aside for a few days, and even inverted, though very briefly indeed.

The first Roman emperors converted to Christianity tried to suppress this pagan religion and replace it with Christianity. But they found it easier to tear down the old temples and to smash the old images than to root out of people's minds -- and out of human nature -- the ideas embedded in the old traditions. Saturnalia was taken over by the early Christians throughout the Roman world, adapted to Christian purposes and imprinted with Christian symbolism. The time of the returning sun as the deliverer of the earth from winter became the time of Christ's birth as the savior of the world from sin.

By this process Christ got into Christmas. Pagans found it easy to think of him in the same way as they thought of the life-giving sun. It was no great struggle, either, for the early Church to make up its mind finally that December 25th was the birthday of Jesus. For quite a long time that day had not been marked at all, for the death and resurrection of Jesus were long considered much more important than the event of his birth. No one, in any case, had any notion on what day he actually had been born. However, when Christianity began to spread in the Roman world, the appeal of December 25th became irresistible. It was still widely observed as the birthday of Mithra, the sun god, at the climax of the Saturnalia orgy, and Mithra was Christ's chief rival for the devotion of the people. What more natural than for the rising young religion to appropriate the birthday of the old god for the celebration of its own god's birth? So it came about that the ancient feast day was turned into "Christ's Mass," Christmas.

Who and what was this Christ? "Christ" was the Greek word for what the Jews called the Messiah, the "anointed," the long-awaited deliverer, one who would save the world from its sins and sorrows. But there had been Christs before, many of them and long ago, for the idea of a savior represents one of the more ancient of human yearnings. To take but one example of a cult popular at the time of Jesus, let us look for a moment at the worship of the Persian Zoroaster, who lived about seven hundred years before Jesus, and like him was a human being before he became a god. But later it came to be believed that Zoroaster had been born of a virgin, that his birth had been foretold by prophets who called him "savior," that he had been rescued in infancy from a jealous ruler, that he had astonished the wise men by his youthful wisdom, and that he had performed miracles. How familiar!

This kind of mythology, building up around the memory of one beloved religious leader or another, was quite commonplace in that long ago age, which was even more credulous than our own. It is fascinating to reflect that the time which finally became the birthday of Jesus also happened to be the birth time of Hercules, who was born of a virgin; of Krishna, the incarnate Hindu god who was born of a virgin mother in a cave while shepherds watched their flocks and his parents fled a wicked king; of Bacchus or Dionysos, who was born of a virgin and Zeus; of Tammuz, the god of the Assyrians and the Babylonians, who was born of a virgin and Attis, the Phrygian sun god.

There is no more reason, of course, to believe that Jesus was born on December 25th than to believe that he was born, say, on the Fourth of July. But Christ, the god-man, wrought out of Jesus' memory by people's yearnings for a savior, was another matter altogether than the human Jesus. Christ was a fervent hope, a vision of glory, a myth made in the heart -- and a hope could be born on any day. When better than at the winter solstice, the day on which masses of people were already celebrating the sun god's coming in glory to save the world from cold and darkness -- especially since Christians hoped to persuade these pagans to embrace the religion of the new god?

So it happened that there came to be a dogma in the manger along with the baby Jesus. Almost everything about our Christmas has been added to it in much the same way, by gradual accretion, by the adoption process, as old beliefs were absorbed into new and the customs of one people were borrowed and remodeled to suit the needs of another. The Yule log burning in the hearth, the belief in peace and good will, the green tree bearing tinsel with gifts laid under it, the spirit of kindliness and ho-ho-ho, the mistletoe over the door with its earthly message of fertility -- all of them, like the dogma in the manger, have been picked up at some point and carried along on the long, long journey through the ages of man's immemorial feast of the sun. Those beliefs and customs which endure are those which serve people's needs over the centuries; those that do not satisfy fall away and are forgotten. In every age people take joy in the aspects of Christmas that speak to their hearts, and leave the rest aside. Just so should we keep Christmas according to our own hearts and minds -- in that order of priority.

Now I have been speaking on the assumption that for today's mind of no orthodox faith, the belief in Christ and his miraculous birth is one of the less essential elements in the experience of Christmas. Yet rather than dismissing it altogether, we should remember that, just as the concept of God is a symbol with a variety of meanings for people (and with no meaning for many), so does the idea of Christ hold different levels of meaning -- and each of us in this life has to find his meaning wherever he can.

There are many persons, not in the least creed-bound or orthodox, for whom "Christ" carries a significance in no way miraculous. Although the churches do not often put it thus clearly, Christ can be understood not as some wonder-working superman from the sky, but simply as the ideal element in humanity, expressed through the life and teachings of Jesus of Nazareth, a Jewish carpenter's son, who lived and thought deeply and became so beloved that men made a god of him after he died. If our thinking is sufficiently liberal to be free of literalism, the way is open for us to enjoy Christmas and even its magical and miraculous aspect, for then the Wise Men, the angels, the stars on high, the virgin mother and the babe in the manger become charming symbols of this utterly human spirit which Christmas embodies in its lovely way.

I have remembered for many years a remark by a member of a church which I served as a young minister: "I never could quite understand why all this jollity takes place at this season of the year, in observing the birthday of a man whose teachings the world rejected and whose body it brutally murdered." I had no answer for him at the time other than to agree. But later, with the human compassion that should come with growing older, I have come to see why it is that people are able to celebrate the birthday of a man whom they have never really followed. It could be because human nature in its deepest need simply has to look at the hopeful side of an existence that has so much cruelty and sorrow in it. This quite simply is what Christmas may do for us, reaffirming the best in humanity in face of the worst. It is our deep need to believe in goodness and kindness even though they seem to be denied by a whole world of violence, greed, pettiness, hatred, and the atrocity that war essentially is.

No, Christmas is not merely Jesus' birthday, or even that of Christ or Mithra or Hercules or Krishna, or that of Osiris the sun god of Egypt, more ancient than all of them. It is everybody's birthday, if we think of people as represented by the kindliest and the most generous part of them responding to that selfsame quality in their fellowmen. It is a time when everyone should give and get a birthday present, and for a moment look to the hopeful side of an often grim and inglorious life. With all of its hard-breathing and cynical commercialism, the giving still has a generous impulse behind it. People may not always need the gift as such, but they do always need the affection and kindness that the gift tries to express.

Nothing that you or I can say or do is going to stop the degradation of Christmas in this acquisitive society; nothing we can say will reverse the mythologizing of Christmas, with a headstart of so many centuries before our time. But we can determine in our hearts that for us it shall not be degraded nor mythologized, and that for our children the simple and lovely humanism of it shall live.

 (From Sunrise magazine, December 1970; copyright © 1970 Theosophical University Press)

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