I’m an atheist. I’m OK with that. Christmas is not considered a holiday for atheists, and I’m OK with that too.
December 25th is now considered a day for christians to celebrate the myth of a virgin birth, but the day has not always been their property. The world used to be full of diverse religions, myths, and pagan rituals that were celebrated in December, but as christianity spread, it gobbled up and assimilated the various cultural traditions and transformed them into what many people now celebrate as Christmas. The holidays historically belonged to the pagans, so atheists should feel comfortable enjoying the holidays too. We all have a right to be festive and merry and not feel guilty about contradicting our convictions.
All of the Christmas traditions that I fondly remember from my childhood were once pagan traditions that were borrowed by the church. Time has passed, dogma has spread, but we still celebrate the way pagans did thousands of years ago. That isn’t to say that we should go back to sacrificing bulls or anything, but it does mean that atheists can, without hypocrisy, participate in giving gifts, visit family, share big meals, decorate a tree, and sing carols. You don’t have to a member of a church to join the fun.
December 25th has long been the day that we celebrate the birth of Jesus, but we don’t actually know when (or if) he was born. The Bible does not specify the time of year, and two of the gospels omit the virgin birth entirely. Some scholars have interpreted Matthew’s account of Jesus’ birth as a summer event, but we’ll never know whether it happened at all.
We do know that December 25th was celebrated as Sol Invictus – a day to worship the birthday (rebirth) of different sun gods such as Mithras and Sol (Janus) during the winter solstice. This makes sense, since the winter solstice marks the shortest day of sunlight. Each year the Romans entreated their sun god to return, and each year he did reliably return in the form of longer days. Christians didn’t celebrate December 25th until the 4th century.
Jesus seems to be a combination of several ancient myths of sun gods and vegetation gods, all who were said to have died and resurrected. These Dionysus-Osiris messiahs were shepherds and/or divine children with mortal mothers and/or deities who died and were resurrected and/or associated with wine miracles.
The origin of the candy cane is reported to be a shepherds crook, and even if it were, we could trace the shepherd staff back to Osiris. Take a look… he’s holding a shepherd staff that looks just like a candy cane.
Sol Invictus stemmed from previous winter celebrations, such as Saturnalia, in which Romans decked the halls with evergreen wreaths, went caroling (in the nude), and ate huge feasts.
The three wise men may be a corruption of Egyptian mythology about Orion’s Belt pointing to the star Sothis (today known as Sirius- part of a stellar holy trinity associated with Osiris). When Sothis rose in the east, the Nile would flood; the event was so important that it marked an Egyptian year (called the Sothic cycle). Lending credence to this claim is that the translation of “magi” is “astrologer”, so they were three astrologers who were following a star. It seems like symbolism to me.
Christmas trees originated with an ancient German cult. The trees were used to worship Attis, a virgin-born god who died and came back to life as a pine tree.
Christianity and Santa have little in common, aside from the fact that the jolly old elf is supposedly inspired by a saint, and yet the Santa myth has nearly overtaken the story of the nativity. Even the “saintly” origins of Santa Claus were stolen from German myths of Odin flying around on a magic horse called Sleipnir for whom the children left offerings (of milk and cookies, perhaps?). Odin gave the children gifts for being nice to his mutant horse. Odin eventually evolved into Saint Nicholas in the Netherlands, but St. Nick’s mythology included little Ethopian slaves who helped the “good saint” fill shoes with goodies. Another early image of Santa Claus came from Danish folklore of a yule goat and a jolly old elf named Tomte.
While many skeptics have shied away from deceiving their children with blatant lies about Santa, I think it teaches them an important early lesson that they are vulnerable to being fooled by authority figures. I will encourage my kids to solve Santa on their own, and I won’t continue the lie after they have figured it out.
This post was inspired by the Freethought Radio Podcast interview with author Barbara G. Walker. It was an extremely good episode by the way, since the FFRF are knee deep in controversy with their atheist sign on the state capitol in Washington.