Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Searching for the Real Meaning of Christmas

In 1976, I was asked to conduct a Christmas event for the non-profit I’d been a part of.  My job: “Find the real meaning of Christmas.”  Even after I agreed to do this, I wondered to myself later:  How can I do that?  How can I be sure that I’ve really got it?  How will I know whether or not I’m right?  

I was told by Ms. Hall, the then-president of the non-profit, to make a plan, and that I should write out the overall reasons and purposes for the event. I should list all the tools or supplies needed.  Then, I needed to schedule some time for the research.  I was to start collecting all the facts I’d need for my study into the meaning of Christmas. Sounded good, so far.

I needed to discover what all the symbols of Christmas meant, symbolically, to each of us.

“So you need to focus your thinking on all the important details that pertain to Christmas.  Once your thinking ‘opens up,’ you need to write it all down. Your job is to find, and then to convey, that real meaning to the others at the event,” I was told.

I felt even more overwhelmed.  I was not sure I could actually do this and get meaningful results.
So, I did the best that I was able to, in 1976.  I played a “mental movie” of the event, so I could picture the people, the sequence of events, helpers, food, music, the whole enchilada.  But most importantly, I kept trying to discover the “real meaning” of this day.

Finally, the Christmas Eve event took place.  It was half the day of music, movies, and delicious food.  Once it was underway, everyone seemed to fill their role rather professionally.  And there was my presentation on the meaning of Christmas.  I had toiled over my research notes, and done considerable “thinking-into” the subject.  Still, even as I stood there in front of 20 or so people, I had my doubts about whether or not I knew what I was talking about.

I explained how I grew up in a Catholic family, and was taught that Jesus was born on December 25, which is obviously why we celebrate his birthday on that date. But by age 14, I began reading literature from non-Catholic, and non-Christian sources, that pointed out that most of the Christian Holy Days – including Christmas – were pre-Christian, as hard as that was to believe.  These first revelations had the effect of making me even more depressed at Christmastime, since not only did I perceive it as time when the merchants induced us all to buy, it now appeared that Christmas had so-called “pagan” roots. 

I had a few encyclopedias with me, and read passages from them as appropriate.  I also had The Golden Bough, and Manly Hall’s Secret Teachings of All Ages.  I told the small group that was gathered there that day that I was amazed to discover that Jesus was not the only god or savior of world history who birth was commemorated on December 25, or a few days earlier on the solstice.   Mithra, for example, was born of a virgin mother in a cave. His birthday was commemorated on December 25.  Mithraism was the dominant religion of the Roman Empire during the time of Jesus.  Nimrod from Babylon was also said to be born on December 25, as was Osiris, Quetzalcoatl, and others.  A few members of our gathering were scratching their chins, wondering where this was leading.

“I was very influenced in my early teens by the Jehovah’s Witnesses and the writings from the Worldwide Church of God, who taught that we should not observe Christmas because it is pagan,” I stated.  I explained that it was not until the 4th Century when Constantine was attempting to unite his empire that he made Christianity the official religion, and he Christianized all the so-called pagan commemorations.  As a result, the birth of the Sun that was already commemorated by the Mithra-pagans was now going to commemorate the Birth of the Son. 

It turned out that nearly all of the Christmas symbols pre-dated Christianity, and were called pagan by some. 

“But what is a pagan?” I asked the group.  “It turned out that the pagani originally referred to anyone who lived in the country.  Only later did the term take on the meaning of a non-Christian, since it was harder to convert the people who did not live close to the cities of the day.”

During the next 45 minutes, I discussed the meanings of the wreath, evergreens, lights and candles, the giving of gifts, the virgin birth, and birth in a stable.  It turned out that Mary wasn’t the only mother of a god or savior who was said to have had a virgin birth.

“It’s correct that many people have been turned off when they learn of this hidden history of Christmas.  And it’s also correct that many religious and non-religious people use this time to take a break, to get drunk, and to engage in very unbecoming behavior.  I do not believe that one should eliminate the Christmas holiday.  What we need to do is find the practical meanings of these symbols and take the time to find a way to live a better life.  After all, what is the essential point of this time of year that has caused people for four or five millenia to commemorate it?”

Timothy,  who was a guest that night, described the importance of the winter solstice to ancient people.  “That’s why there are so many stone structures and shadows and drawings that tell people when it’s the day of least light.  Not only did the farmers want to know when the days would get longer, but it was also highly symbolic.  There in the deep of winter, when the days were darkest, suddenly the days started to get longer. That’s where the birth of the sun idea came from.  It’s highly symbolic, as you’ve been saying, and just about everyone throughout time has taken note of it.”

You could hear a pin drop when Tim spoke.  He had a deep voice and a very thoughtful tone.  

Tim had actually brought along two books on the astronomical significance of ancient sites both in Europe and the Americas.  He passed each around for the participants to examine. 

When it was over, I felt that I – and the guests – had come just a bit closer to finding this real, inner meaning to this special day.  But I knew this was not a matter of just collecting facts, like some college research project. 

Can I even say that today I know the “real meaning”?  I have come closer to experiencing the “magic” of Christmas in my personal life, year by year, and for that I am thankful. 

[Note: I eventually produced a booklet on the meanings of the Christmas symbols which I have used as the basis for lectures.  The booklet, called "Whose Child Is This?" is available at the Store at]


mousiemarc said...

I haven't written a book on it but I too have done a fair amount of research on this subject. I would like to point out that many non christians use some of your examples to "prove" that christianity as a whole is a hoax. As a christian I obviously don't buy that. I do believe that Jesus was NOT born on December 25th and that Christmas like many Roman Catholic Holidays were a combining of Christian symbolism splashed on old pagan holidays. Such as the Yule Festival as I believe it was called at one time in ancient europe (where we get the 12 days of christmas or so they say).

So I absolutely agree with you on the symbols and times of these events. However, there has been some dispute as to how much these pagan gods actually had in common with the christian story. For one, some historians dispute the concept of the trinity as being a third to fourth century belief, and far from those of early christians. There is actually even a lot of current skepticism of the diety of Christ, stating him as savior and son of God but not God himself. Very well written and presented by one Anthony Buzzard in "The Doctrine of The Trinity Christianitis self Inflicted Wound."

All that aside, many early europeans who came over actually banned christmas as a pagan holiday. Heck even easter symbols are going back to a fertility goddess according to some sources. In the end One either believes that the evidence or they don't. It really comes down to if one believes the bible in it's original form (not in the copies of copies of copies we have today) was the inerrant word of God. I truly believe it is, but others do not. Either way, I believe there is enough joy and well being for everyone to celebrate christmas. If nothing else the history is a fun study.

God Bless you,


P.S. I know your not christian but I'm going to wish you many blessing in the days ahead anyway. May your days be long and full of joy.

mousiemarc said...

Oh and I forgot to mention that there are a number of differences between Christ and the pagan gods mentioned above. I have a book on it, but they point it out pretty well. Christian or not I have found well read individuals who practice wicca, hate the concept of christianity, and still say some "scholars" over play and over state the similarities of Christ and certain pagan Gods. Good blog, fun read. Look forward to your next one.

Christopher Nyerges said...

Thanks for your comments. but where did you get the idea that I'm not christian. Maybe more correctly I would call myself a primitive christian, in that I am more attuned to what the early "church" was all about. In addition, I am a Jew, a "pagan," a Buddhist, a Hindu, and a Moslem. Properly understood, there is no conflict.

mousiemarc said...

I think I get where your coming from. I just came to the conclusion that you were a hindu exclusively from an earlier blog you wrote. I am not accustomed to people espousing more than one belief system simultaneously, so my conclusion was based on my own bias (from previous encounters with others). So let me say I'm sorry. I wrongly made a conclusion about your belief system without full understanding of who you are spiritually. I have only come across one other individual who has made a similar statement. Where this person and I had differences in conclusions personally, we did end up with a healthy respect for one another. Though, if your so inclined, your spiritual outlook could be an excellent blog series.

Peace, good health, and a happy new year to you friend.


christopher Nyerges said...

Marc, no need to apologize... perhaps you are right, and I should write about some of these beliefs. I am not unique in finding that there is great value in various religious belief systems, and thereby identifying with several. Perhaps the best single source that would encapsulate my world view would be the book "Thinking and Destiny" by Harold Percival. Or, better yet, his simpler-to-read "Man and Woman and Child."