My earliest memory of Christmas is a jumble of activities and feelings, focused around receiving gifts and going to church. Mostly, it was the season, not the day, per se, that I remember. There was an aromatic, lit-up, star-topped tree, stockings thumbtacked to the fireplace mantel, lots of nuts and fruits in the home, and many parties and gatherings. It was a warm time.
Sometime later, I learned that the primary Christian purpose for celebrating Christmas was to commemorate the birth of Jesus, born in Bethlehem some 2000 years ago. But then, who was Santa Claus, I asked myself? Why the fat man in a funny red suit with a gunny sack of gifts, riding around the world in an aero-sleigh, whizzing up and down chimneys, ingesting hundreds of tons of cookies and cocoa?
In my early teens, I didn't question the holiday season very much. But I did feel anxiety, and I didn't know exactly why. Everyone seemed "driven" to buy lots of things for lots of people, and I would often join the last minute rush to throw some gifts together with whatever money I had. Usually, this frenetic activity resulted in my feeling let-down and depressed after it was all done. But why depression? Why such social pressure to "buya-gift"? To wrap "just-so" only to see the wrappings torn-off into a mountain of "trash"? To eat (and drink) so much that you were in actual pain (often accompanied by indigestion)?
Strange, it seemed, that some of my gloomiest days were before and after Christmas. "Before" because I was full of anxiety to feel and experience that spiritual something behind Christmas (that joy, that unity), conflicted with the materialistic drive to get some money and go buy; "After" because all too often I felt as if I missed whatever it was that Christmas was supposed to be when the day was coming to an end.
In my mid-teens, I became intently interested in the deeper meaning and significance of this season. Most of my studies were from encyclopedias, and from Ambassador College and Jehovah's Witnesses pamphlets on the subject. I must admit that those particular studies -- with their particular slant (especially the Ambassador College literature) -- left me feeling at that time that Christmas began as an "un-Christian" holiday of pagan origins, which made it VERY peculiar -- perhaps even hypocritical -- for Christians to be so deeply-immersed in it.
I will share some of the skeletal details of what I discovered about Christmas that led to this attitude of "Why bother celebrating Christmas at all?"
Some pre-1000 B.C. historical records indicate that Nimrod, a great warrior who lived in ancient Babylon two centuries after The Great Flood, married his mother, Semiramis. When Nimrod died, Semiramis claimed that Nimrod was resurrected out of a tree stump in the form of an evergreen tree. She stated that Nimrod would visit his tree every year on his birthday -- which was December 25 -- and leave gifts upon the tree. This ancient celebration was complete with mistletoe, holly wreaths, and yule logs!
The Nimrod celebration, in those pre-1000 B.C. days, was closely associated with the fluctuations of the solar year. The midwinter fires of ancient Europe were to celebrate the increased length of each day, which eventually became the "Festival of Lights" as celebrated in Europe. Also, inexplicably, December 25 was erroneously designated as the winter solstice.
During the time of the Roman Empire, the people believed in and worshipped Mithra, born on December 25 by Astarte, his virgin mother. Mithra, who was called "The Unconquered Sun," was regularly identified by the worshippers of the sun, since his nativity fell on the same day as the sun festivals.
Further research revealed to me that numerous advanced and "primitive" cultures had similar religious beliefs, from the Egyptians to the Mayans, and many other cultures. Osiris, Quetzalcoatl, and others, all follow similar patterns with a resurrected savior whose birthday was the winter solstice (or a few days before or after the solstice).
Keep in mind that all those celebrations of the solstice had been going on for at least 2000 years prior to the historical birth of Jesus.
Some historical records indicate that Jesus's birth was sometime in September of the year 4 or 6 B.C. No one knows for certain. Three royal astrologers came to the child and presented gifts, the custom of the day when meeting someone of prominence.
However, Christians of the first few centuries A.D. did not celebrate the birthday of Jesus -- there is some Biblical reference that suggests the Jews of the first century and the followers of Jesus believed that it was improper to celebrate birthdays, though that is speculative. Although the currently adopted versions of the Bible provide no means of precisely determining the birthdate of Jesus, historians know with certainty that it was not on the winter solstice. [They know this because the Scriptures record a census being taken -- not a winter event -- and animals in the fields, also not a winter activity. And astronomers who've dated various astronomical events that might have been the "star of Bethlehem" -- such as a comet or a triple conjunction of planets -- report that none of the dates coincide with any winter solstice.]
When the Christian emperor Constantine I came to power in the 4th Century, he began pressuring the largely non-Christian Romans to adopt the newly-"popular" religion of Christianity. But those Romans were reluctant to part with the merriment and festivals that surrounded their "Old Religion." To accommodate their reluctance, Constantine established December 25 as the day to celebrate the coming of the "Son of God" instead of the "sun." Many Old Religion customs were carried over from the "birthday-of-the-sun" celebrations, and blended into the "Son-of-God" (that is, Christmas) celebration. In reality, then, a few names were slightly changed, but the event largely remained the same.
When I first learned of this "other history" of Christmas, I recall thinking: This has nothing to do with the birth of Jesus of Nazareth. Why should I be a hypocrite and follow this holiday custom? Back then in my mid-teens, I concluded that Christmas was an invalid holiday, a pagan holiday masquerading as Christian. Still, there was a "magic" to the Christmas season that I could not explain.
In the 5th Century, an addition was made to the Christmas celebration. Nikolaos of Myra was an historical 4th century Bishop in the Catholic church of Asia Minor (modern Turkey). He became known as Saint Nicholas, and was well known for the gifts that he gave to newly married couples during the already established Christmas season. Soon, whenever someone received a mysterious gift, it was attributed to Saint Nicholas. St. Nicholas' name -- by the usual changes that occur in all spoken languages -- eventually degenerated into "Santa Claus."
And so today, we have a yearly custom that is an admixture of ancient pagan symbols: the tree, the wreaths, the lights, giving gifts, a birth of a savior, evergreen boughs, and eternal fires. And even Hanukkah has now become commonly recognized as being part of the "Christmas season," with its symbol of light, the menorah.
And so, what does all this really mean?
[To read about how I had a transformational way of looking at, and observing Christmas, check out my Christmas booklet, which you can get from the Store at www.ChristopherNyerges.com]