I find that a recurring theme in Christmas specials is a message about the meaning of Christmas: it’s not about the commercialism, but about family, and it’s easy enough for us to get caught up in the tension between the cult of Jesus and the cult of Santa Claus. After an especially enjoyable Christmas spent with my loved ones, I’ve been reminded that the cheesy specials are right.
Christmas is definitely about time spent with loved ones, but what about religion? Faith in the face of science is a challenge. All that survives my objective scrutiny, regardless of one’s beliefs, is this: Christmas is a celebration influenced by the late Roman celebration of Sol Invictus, when the Sun falls to its lowest point in the sky, and then is “resurrected” in its first perceptible northward motion on December 25th, and adapted to advance the often political agenda of the early church in the dying days of the Roman Empire around 380 C.E.
This event has been observed by pagan cultures for millennia with certain recurring themes. A savior rises after 3 days, being born on December 25th of a virgin, announced by a star in the East, and attended by three magi. Without going into detail, these themes all have their roots in the cosmological position of Earth and the Sun as it appears on December 25th.
Now imagine living in prehistory. Chiefs and priests followed the movements of the sun with precision, and everyone had a spiritual dependence on the Sun as their annual savior, who chased away the cold and brought food in the harvest. That seems joyous to me and a better time than any to rejoice with your clan that you are all safe, well, alive, and together.
I like to recognize the pagan roots of Christmas in the winter solstice as a sort of hyperbolic celebration of the “Christmas is about your family” message that I so love. Regardless of how it is celebrated, the winter solstice seems to be important across cultures. This is a celebration that connects so many humans, across cultures, across continents, and, perhaps the most difficult, across time. I find relief from our generationally self-centered and narcissistic society in the ability of Christmas and its progenitors to bind us as one species to the cosmological breathing of Planet Earth, to those who have come before us and will come after us, and to our extended, extended family.