The Christmas Holidays have become a very complex affair for the average secularist. And to be fair, the complexity is not of the secularist’s making.
In the beginning there were two notable pre-Christian year end festivities: the twelve days of feasting centered around the start of the New Year (colloquially “Saturnalia” which while not totally accurate, will do as a name for twelve days of feasting) and the defunct religion of Mithraism is said to have celebrated the birth of Mithra, the son of God, on what is now December 25th. And had done so for many centuries B.C.
The Roman Catholic Church has always maintained that local pagan holidays should be converted to Christian ones, which is why the ancient Day of the Dead rituals in Mexico are now performed as a local Christian festival.
Now, if the information contained in the Gospels is reasonably factual, it is not difficult to deduce that Christmas Day should be celebrated sometime between late April and early June. The problem is, the scripture does not give a specific date, and the Roman Catholic Church clearly needed to find one.
Needing a date, and having a sect already giving thanks to the birth of a son of God, it was easy to assimilate that one. And to take over Yule itself, have the Magi turn up on twelfth night. In this way, all is taken care of and the Pagan festivities have been converted to Christianity.
And if that was all there was to it, there would be no problem. Religious festivals had been converted from one faith to another, and if you were of none of those faiths, then Christmas would cease to have any meaning.
But Commerce (with a capital C) latched on to the money making opportunities that Christmas offered to the bottom line, and turned Christmas into a secular holiday.
As consumers, and secularists, we are fully entitled to join in the partying and drinking and gift exchanging and all the rest of what a commercial holiday is all about. Aren’t we?
Well, in my view, yes and no. That does not sound very helpful, so let me explain. We are entitled to carry on family traditions of sharing and kindness, even in a temporary if somewhat irrational belief in magic. We have no duty to act as consumers fueling the coffers of Commerce.
I see three specific things the secularist can do to enjoy Christmas without getting into theological discomforts of tagging on to a religious holiday in order to indulge oneself.
Santa Claus and the giving of presents to children is NOT a religious festivity. There is absolutely no reason why the secular should refrain from giving kids holiday gifts. Decorating a Christmas tree? Sure – that is part of Yuletide, and the Christians do not own it. Mistletoe? Same thing. Nativity scene? No – that really would be a little inappropriate for a secularist, except perhaps in giving a “live and let live” nod to the local people of faith.
Apart from massive marketing campaigns to convince us otherwise, I see no reason why adults should exchange Christmas gifts on Christmas Day. Sure – of course you can; it is not illegal. But there does not seem to be a compelling argument that you should.
I think a better day would be December 31st. Prior to that date we would each exchange our list of New Year’s resolutions, and then buy each other gifts to help achieve those resolutions. In that way we would take out the indulgent luxury of the current way of celebrating – and turn it into practical communal help for each other. That sounds, to me, to be a fine thing for secularists to do.
And finally twelfth night. What a wonderful opportunity for friends and neighbors to gather, to bring an end to the holiday and make ready for getting through the winter months ahead.
So: Dec 25th for the kids, Dec 31st for the adults and Jan 6th for an end of feasting feast,
The Christians will get back their assumed holy day, and the rest of us will get feasts fit for secularists. A win-win all round, if you ask me.