"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, I recognize that 90% of Americans are Christians.”
“What do you think about people saying ‘Happy Holidays,’” I asked.
My friend laughed. “When people say 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 are we so afraid in our political correctness to say “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 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 as it moves forward through the calendar.
On the radio, a Christian man told the radio host that the didn’t celebrate Christmas, that 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 is essentially a pre-Christian holiday. Initially, I found myself disenchanted with that 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 have had a 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.
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.
Remember, early Christians were killed and tossed to the lions. 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 was turned into the Birth of the Son. 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 millions of people who have observed and celebrated it for millenia.