Monday, December 20, 2010

"Merry Christmas"

“Merry Christmas!” said my Jewish friend when he greeted me with a smile. “Merry Christmas,” I replied. I asked him if it ever bothered him that nearly everyone greets with “Merry Christmas” during December.

“Not at all,” he told me. “I mean, Hannukah is over, and I recognize that 90% of Americans are Christians.”

“What do you think about people saying ‘Happy Holidays,’” I asked.
My friend laughed. “When people ask me that, I ask them, ‘What holiday are you referring to?’ Most say nothing, but some say, well, it’s New Years too.”

It was refreshing that my Jewish friend was OK with the “Merry Christmas” greeting. In fact, he liked it. “I don’t expect the vast majority to conform to me,” he explained.

Fair enough. Then why has our society become cowardly in its political correctness so that we delete “Merry Christmas”? Are we really worried that it might offend someone?

Yes, there are other holidays: the secular Kwanzaa invented by a Long Beach State College teacher in the 1960s for African Americans, New Years (though most Chinese celebrate not January 1 but the Chinese New Years which usually falls in early Februrary), pagans who simply celebrate the solstice, and the month of Ramadan which sometimes falls near December, but not often since it moves forward through the calendar.

On the radio, a Christian man told the radio host that he didn’t celebrate Christmas because it was a lie. The host was shocked. What is the lie?, the host asked. The man said that he didn’t like the tale of Santa Claus, and that Jesus wasn’t born on the winter solstice. The host, in so many words, called the man an idiot.

But the conversation brought back memories of my researching the roots of Christmas back in my teens, when I discovered that Christmas in its present form was observed in pre-Christian days. Initially, this led to my disenchanted with the social norm of Christmas celebrations. If this isn’t really about the birth of Jesus, I wondered, why should I participate in this pagan practice. But over the years, I’ve come to have a rather different point of view about how to regard this odd Christmas holiday which is really a mish-mash customs from all over the world from various times. (Read the Golden Bough if these details interest you.)

First, a bit of history. Yes, it is true that the so-called “pagans” observed the solstices and equinoxes as their high holy days. In fact, nearly all religions in the past did so. “Pagan” originally referred to the country people who lived outside of Rome-proper, but gradually became a derogatory term for non-Christians.

We do not know when Jesus was born. The scriptures provide clues but no exact dates and no indication that this followers ever made a big deal about his birthday.

Though this raises eyebrows, it is a fact that Jesus was not a Christian, but a Jewish rabbi, most likely from the Essene sect. Since Christianity had not been invented yet, he observed the Jewish holy days, such as the Passover he was observing during the “last supper.”

And for the record, his name was not “Jesus Christ.” Look up “Christ” in your dictionary. “Christ” was a term referring to the Annointed One, referring to a messiah or savior. The original Hebrew term for his name was most often translated as Joshua, but was always translated “Jesus” to differentiate him from the other Joshua. A more accurate rendering would be Iesu, or Yeshua, ben Josephus or ben Pandira depending on which scholars you believe.

His followers changed their holy day to Sunday, in part to attract the “sun worshippers,” and also to separate themselves from the Jewish Saturday Sabbath.

But by the 4th Century, Constantine had a vision and declared Christianity the official religion of the kingdom. He Christianized all the “pagan” holy days, which is how the birth of the Sun celebration at the winter solstice morphed into the Birth of the Son, which we now call Christmas.

In fact, the observation of the winter solstice has been regarded with great reverence for as long as we can tell. During this winter’s deep, the sun was in its lowest part of the sky as it rose each day. Four days after the solstice, the rising sun appears to rise further north on the horizon – the sun has risen! This astronomical event has long had great metaphysical and personal value to the vast numbers of those people who have observed and celebrated it.

Though you may have many opinions about whether or not it was fair and square for the church to have stolen and renamed the pagan holy days, that does not make it inherently wrong. In fact, there is no inherent wrongness to it at all. As with most things in life, its value is wholly up to us, to use the timing for spiritual upliftment and growth, or not.

Interestingly, Christianity isn’t the only religion in recorded history which has a crucified savior, or a “Christ.” Nimrod, Mithra, Kukulkan (aka Quetzalcoatl) are just a few of history’s other “Christs.”

If we see that “Christ” is a Principle, and not just a person, we realize that the phrase “Merry Christmas” is indeed universal, ancient, and timeless. We can then also see that “Merry Christmas” is an appropriate greeting for this season for all people, of all backgrounds. It is the ideal blessings that we need to give to each other. It is a greeting that binds us together, and shouldn’t divide. It is a greeting that tells us we are all more alike than different, and that it is each of our destinys to let the universal Christ blossom in our hearts.

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