What Are We Celebrating?

Happy Holidays! Today is Christmas Day, a time of joyous celebration throughout the world.

And what are we celebrating? The obvious answer is “the birth of Jesus.” But perhaps we shouldn’t take that answer too literally. After all, there is little or no historical evidence that Jesus was actually born at this time of year. Instead, there is significant circumstantial evidence that he was born during a different season.

So why is this Christian story of birth celebrated in late December? Well, followers of pagan religions have long celebrated natural and agricultural holidays around the time of the Winter Solstice. Saturnalia, for instance, marked the conclusion of the autumn planting season with tributes to Saturn, the Roman god of the soil and of agriculture.

Likewise, Yule (or Yuletide) was a Norse and German holiday that “lasted for 12 days celebrating the rebirth of the sun.” The medieval word Yule still appears in Christmas carols sung today, such as the lyrics in Deck The Halls that declare:

Don we now our gay apparel, Fa la la la la, la la la la. Troll the ancient Yuletide carol, Fa la la la la, la la la la.”

Christmas, the Winter Solstice, Saturnalia, Yule: these holidays all served (or still serve) to remind celebrants that birth, growth, and sustenance would continue through the darkest of days, the coldest of winters, and the bleakest of times. They all integrated the physical and the spiritual elements of that message, and thus late December served (and still serves) as an ideal time of year to celebrate the birth of Jesus.

Today, perhaps, we may also celebrate the wisdom of the ancient Christians in finding common ground with these other religions in the establishment of the Christmas holiday. That spirit of finding common cause lives on today, in pagan traditions like holiday candles, wreaths, and trees. It also thrives in the efforts of Pope Francis to find shared interests with other faiths.

Of course, none of these ideas detracts from today’s theological celebration of the birth of Jesus. Late December is certainly as suitable a time of year as any for devout Christian worshipers to commemorate his birth.

Nevertheless, as we celebrate this day, it may be helpful to keep in mind that we are implicitly honoring an ancient tradition of finding common cause with individuals who hold differing beliefs and perspectives. In the days ahead, as we attempt to reconcile the bitter divisions of contemporary society, that venerable tradition may be worth celebrating as well.