Well, it’s that time of year again, when Christians begin to whine that atheists are trying to steal Christmas from them. Even Jerry Falwell has been quoted as saying, “There’s been a concerted effort to steal Christmas.” Of course, they are right to be worried, just as a cheating husband or wife is worried that their spouse is having an affair. The thought being, if I did it, then they must be doing it too. After all Christians stole the holiday we now know as Christmas from several different places. Let’s begin with the myth within the myth, Santa Claus.
The legend of Santa Claus is somewhat like that party game where you whisper a sentence to one person and they whisper it to the next person and so on down the line until the last person tells it back to you and it now only has a remote resemblance to the original sentence. The origin begins with an actual person, a Greek bishop named Nicholas who had a reputation for secret gift-giving, such as putting coins in the shoes of those who left them out for him. Or was it Basil of Caesarea, another Greek who was a theologian and monk who was born into wealth and gave all his possessions to underprivileged children? Actually, Santa Claus is a combination of both Basil and Nicholas with a sprinkle of fairy dust to make him, not just generous, but magical.
But Christmas is the day we celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ, our lord and savior, I hear the Christians argue. The legend of Jesus was also appropriated from several places.
But Jesus was the only one of them to be flesh and bone and actually walk on earth, those others were figures from mythology, say the Christians. Let’s assume, for the sake of argument, that Jesus did exist. Do you actually think he’d be thrilled about the way you choose to celebrate his birthday? This was a man who, by all accounts, hated commercialism. His teachings and sermons were all very anti-money. Then there was that little temper tantrum he had in the temple with the money changers As for the other gods being figures from mythology, let’s look at the meaning of the word myth for a moment, shall we? The dictionary defines myth as “a traditional or legendary story, usually concerning some being or hero or event, with or without a determinable basis of fact or a natural explanation, especially one that is concerned with deities or demigods and explains some practice, rite, or phenomenon of nature.” Great Christly Jesus, that sure sounds like the bio of the Christian son of god to me.
Winter festivals have been around far longer than Christianity. For instance Saturnalia was an ancient Roman festival that consisted of a public banquet followed by private gift giving (Christmas dinner and presents) and merriment among other festivities. Then there was Yule, the festival we associate with the Christmas tree. While it’s true that the festival of Yule gave us the decorated and lighted tree, the idea of bringing the tree inside is much older than that. According to the encyclopedia Britannica, “The use of evergreen trees, wreaths, and garlands to symbolize eternal life was a custom of the ancient Egyptians, Chinese, and Hebrews. Tree worship was common among the pagan Europeans and survived their conversion to Christianity in the Scandinavian customs of decorating the house and barn with evergreens at the New Year to scare away the devil and of setting up a tree for the birds during Christmastime.” Oh, let’s not forget Yalda, the winter festival honouring the birth of Mithra, the Persian version of Jesus which celebrates the victory of light and goodness over darkness and evil. (naughty and nice anyone?) The one major thing that these festivals (and many others) have in common is that they all occur at or near the time of the winter solstice.
We humans sure do love to spin a good yarn, the sad part is that we’re so good with the tall tale-telling that we actually believe our own bullshit. If I’m going to buy into a myth every winter, I prefer it to be the story of Sandy Paws, the little kitten who melted the heart of even the cruelest of men by just being as cute as he could be. At least that story is original and isn’t nearly as hard to swallow as all of the others floating around this time of year.