I wish I had a dollar for every time I’ve had to read, or listen to someone say to me, or heard on TV/radio that ‘Jesus is the reason for the season’.
When my daughters were growing up, I encouraged them to appreciate and empathize with Christianity – many of their friends and schoolmates attended Christian churches – but I always emphasized that they did not need to feel bound by Christianity.
I was never a Christian, though the 1950s school system in Canada assumed all students were Christians, obliging us to read, or listen to, a Bible passage every morning. My scepticism was there from the start.
But only later on did I learn that many religions preceded Christianity, and that Christianity borrowed many ideas and practices from them.
So, when we were setting up our Christmas tree each year, I always reminded my daughters that people were decorating trees, lighting candles, etc long before Jesus was born – that the Christmas tree is much older than Christianity.
Read anthropologist J. G. Frazer’s monumental collection of mythology, The Golden Bough, and you will see how many different peoples around the world, probably for tens of thousands of years, have decorated trees.
Most of the time they were doing this, and other things, in celebration of the winter solstice – Dec 21st on our calendar, or the spring solstice.
For example, in ancient Rome, the people who worshipped the god Mithras, would gather in underground rooms on the eve of the Mithraic new year – December 25 – (which they apparently considered to be the winter solstice) then at midnight they emerged, each person carrying a lighted candle, and marched through the streets singing of the world that was being reborn.
Mithraism is sometimes seen as a branch of Zoroastrianism, a religion born in Iran, that also emphasized light vs darkness, and celebrated the solstices.
When Christianity took over the Roman Empire in the 4th century, Mithraism was one of the first religions that it persecuted, and they destroyed it entirely. Zoroastrianism, however, survived, and is still alive today, mostly in India.
I should add that Rome, prior to its takeover by those early Christians, was was not known for religious persecution. It was famous for being open to all religions. Many eastern religions were popular, Christianity being only one of them. Everyone was free to worship and believe as they pleased as long as they recognized the Roman religions too, and Rome’s political dominance.
The Christians were persecuted because, refusing to accept that other religions had any validity, including the Roman religion, they were seen as troublemakers who threatened Rome’s social stability.
And yes, those early Christian leaders adopted many practices from other religions, like that use of candles. Over the centuries, as Christianity spread, its leaders sometimes took over ancient temples, as the Spanish did in Mexico, tearing down the pyramids of native people and using the stones from them to build churches on the same sites, because those places were already sacred.,
Whether Jesus would have approved of everything that has been done in his name is doubtful. When you consider what he said – for example, his story of the good Samaritan – I suspect that he never wanted his religion to be exclusive.
The same thing thing is true of Easter, which is associated with the spring solstice, and the real rebirth that much of the world experiences in spring. In The Golden Bough, Frazer documents the long-standing fertility symbolism of rabbits, painted eggs, etc, that long preceded the Christian Easter.
I remember once entering the home of some Burmese friends at Christmas time. They were Bhuddists and seeing that they had a beautiful tree set up, I asked how the tree fits with Bhuddhism. I was told that Bhuddism is an inclusive religion, that that there is no problem at all with decorating a tree in their culture.
I’m not the only writer who has had this open view. Look at Dickens’s story A Christmas Carol.
We meet the Ghost of Christmas Present – the favourite ghost of many people – in Scrooge’s sitting room, where the “walls and ceiling were so hung with living green that it looked a perfect grove, from every part of which bright gleaming berries glistened”, and, next to a roaring fire, the giant ghost was enthroned on a heap of “turkeys, geese, game, poultry, brawn, great joints of meat, suckling-pigs, long wreaths of sausages, mince-pies, plum-puddings, barrels of oysters, red-hot chestnuts, cherry-cheeked apples, juicy oranges, luscious pears, immense twelfth cakes and seething bowls of punch, that made the chamber dim with their delicious steam.”
There is something very pagan about that scene, as if some ancient rite were underway. Jesus is nowhere to be seen – he is not even in the wings – and as ghost after ghost visits Scrooge, he remains absent. Yet I’m sure he would have loved and approved of Dickens’ story.
So if you’re decorating and lighting up a tree this year, keep in mind that you’re doing something that is very old, and doesn’t belong only to Christianity.
PS – In the Alastair Sim movie version of Dickens’s story the Ghost of Christmas present at one point talks about a child born in a manger. But that was inserted by the script writers. It is not in the book.