Posted by: Ticktock | December 11, 2008

War on Winter Solstice?

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.

276px-standing_osiris_edit1svg1Jesus 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.



  1. Fantastic post, and blog. It’s so nice to find other blogging, atheist parents. Keep up the good work!

  2. YAY, excellent post! May reason prevail!!!

  3. Interesting reading, thanks!

  4. You know, I’ve been wondering how to handle the whole Santa thing. You’ve given me an interesting perspective. Thanks!

  5. I’ve always found it ironic that Christian parents set up this elaborate lie about a miraculous bearded man named Santa, and yet, they don’t use the same powers of reasoning to analyze the equally impossible myths of Jesus.

    Thanks for your compliments. My brother read the blog and was amused by the way I framed the Santa conundrum; he decided that it was even silly enough to mock me via text message. But, how else am I going to validate an elaborate lie to my children when it contradicts my respect for truth and reality?

  6. Colin, keep up the good work. Is there any way we can convince Bill O’Reilly that his so-called “War on Christmas” is about as mythical as the hoilday itself? As for Santa, we only use him for leverage in order to get good behavior out of Olivia. Heh-heh….

  7. FYI, as a born-again Pentecostal believer in Christ, and fellow stay-at-home Dad, I was able to find something in this post that I wholeheartedly agree with.

    Christianity and Santa have absolutely nothing in common. I feel the same way about the Easter Bunny (and the Tooth Fairy). I was yelled at the other day by a parent in my son’s pre-school class (run out of a nearby christian church) because my just-turned 4-year old told him “Santa is fake.”

    I said to the mother, “yeah?” I don’t lie to my kids. You might disagree with my Christian theology, so I’ll rephrase for this audience, I don’t tell my kids to believe something that I don’t also believe to be true.

    Cheers – PittCaleb

  8. I’ve been torn on the whole Santa thing. Since Peanut is scared to death of him anyway, I don’t really think it will be a problem. I love the idea of giving and we will certainly exchange gifts and enjoy the season, but I think I too will leave her to figure out Santa. For me, that means not telling her anything about him until she asks. When she does, I will tell her the truth. I thought it might be cute to get pics of her with Santa, but no dice.
    (P.S. It’s nice to find a good blog on a snow day, thank you!)

  9. Hmmm… I heard that December 25th was a day that the Romans used to exchange presents although I can’t remember why or why they picked it to represent the day Jesus was born.

  10. My article “Does the Santa Legend Endanger” is my attempt to offer an alternative that keeps the magic of the story and at the same time protects the child’s critical need to trust the parent:

  11. My article “Does the Santa Legend Endanger Trust” is my attempt to offer an alternative that keeps the magic of the story and at the same time protects the child’s critical need to trust the parent:

  12. (Just a note)

    If you post my comment, please use the second one, which corrects the article title. Sorry for that mistake!


    Jan Hunt, Director
    The Natural Child Project

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: