Christmas – Religious, Secular or Pagan?


I don’t know about other parts of the world, but here in the United States we seem to have a difficult time deciding what Christmas is or isn’t, who should or shouldn’t be celebrating it and how this holiday should or shouldn’t be celebrated. As a Catholic convert who was raised without religion by a mother who believed in Jesus but not religion and a father who was an atheist I spent a good portion of my life “trying on” various belief systems before settling on the one that made the most sense to me. As a result of all that research I’ve developed a unique perspective on Christmas that I’m going to share with you now.

First, the religious celebration of Christmas was originally known as Christ’s Mass or the Nativity of the Lord. The date of December 25th was chosen not to subvert any Pagan winter celebrations but because it was a best guess estimate of the date of Jesus’s birth. Some priests studied scripture and decided the Annunciation or Jesus’s conception occurred on March 25th and they then counted forward nine months to establish his birth date as December 25th. But, this didn’t happen right away.

The first celebration of Christ’s birth took place in Egypt on May 20, 200 AD. In other areas of the christian world the feast took place on various dates in April, March, and January. It wasn’t until 336 AD in Rome that the date of December 25th became fixed. I should also mention that the Eastern Orthodox Catholic Church celebrates Christmas on January 7th.

The other important thing to note about the feast of the Nativity of the Lord, which is the official Catholic term for the day, is that originally there was no gift giving, no decorations, no cookies, candy or big family meals attached to the celebration. It was a holy day in which the faithful were expected to attend mass and to pray and meditate on the miracle of God becoming human and walking among us. And that is all. Eventually, this single day event became a season that begins at sundown on Christmas eve and continues until the Epiphany on January 6th. And sometime in the 4th century the church declared the four weeks leading up to Christmas as a period of spiritual preparation called Advent.

Now, many people claim that the church “stole” Christmas from the pagans as a way to dominate and eliminate the pagan cultures of the time. This is not an unwarranted belief, even if it isn’t entirely accurate. The church did and still does believe that their beliefs and doctrines are the surest way to salvation and our soul’s everlasting life with God. However, I think we can all admit that a) most of the methods used by monarchs such as Charlemagne were cruel and decidedly UN-Christian and that b) the church either endorsed or didn’t do enough to stop these barbaric practices. And, honestly, even a passing observation of human nature will confirm that getting every single person on the planet to embrace a single religious belief is an impossible task. Even Jesus knew this would never happen.

So, the enmity between modern day pagans and both Protestant and Catholic Christians is understandable. But, did the church attempt to “steal” the pagan winter festivities or were they simply honoring the birth of their own god?¬†From what we know of the ancient pagans, the Winter solstice which occurs somewhere around December 20th to the 23rd each year was an important day. Why it was important and how it was celebrated varies depending on the region of the world, the time period and the gods that were associated with the solstice. This means most, if not all, of the pagan winter celebrations ended before and did not conflict with the religious feast of the Nativity.

As a secular non-religious holiday Christmas is celebrated with an abundance of gift buying, cookie making, home and business decorating, and Santa Claus. And because it all looks like so much fun, pagans and Christians have adopted these pre-holiday traditions as well. Yes, Christmas trees, wreaths and garlands have pagan origins. But, they’re so pretty who can resist? Even atheists celebrate Christmas because the holiday has become so ingrained in American culture it’s almost impossible to not get caught up in the festivities.

Unless you are Jewish, or Muslim or a member of a recognized religion that rejects Jesus and/or the Christmas holiday. And, I would hope we’ve all matured enough to allow people of different beliefs to practice their traditions in peace.

And this brings me back to the question of who owns Christmas. My answer: nobody. The word Christmas has become the generic term for the season in which people of many differing beliefs celebrate faith, family, and friends. It’s a time to let the people in your life know you love them and are glad they are in your life. It is also a time to remember the less fortunate who can’t afford a decent meal, or presents, or decorations.

As a christian I prefer to keep things simple and focused on the religious origins of the holiday. My Fontanini Nativity set is the most important decoration I put up. I’ve always loved this tradition even before I became a Christian. There’s something about the Nativity story that has always appealed to me. Saint Francis of Assisi is credited with creating and starting this tradition. You can read a short article about it here:

And, while I make charitable contributions all year long, I tend to give more in December. Because as Jesus said, “the poor will always be with you.” I hope you’ll take the time to give what you can as well.

However, I don’t object to non-Christians enjoying the season in their own way and neither should anyone else. Many Christians claim that Jesus “is the reason for the season” and they’re right, but Jesus’s most important lesson was and is LOVE. The second most important commandment is loving your neighbor as yourself, according to Jesus. And somehow, no matter what beliefs people hold, in the end that is what Christmas turns out to be. A time when we all come together in love.

So, let’s stop fighting about who did what when and just enjoy ourselves this Christmas.


Author: dwkavanaugh

I live and write in the Santa Cruz Mountains with my husband, dogs Rosie and Belle.

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