[Nyerges is the author of several books, including “Whose Child Is This” (about the meaning of the symbols of Christmas). He can be reached at www.ChristopherNyerges.com or Box 41834, Eagle Rock, CA 90041.]
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: How can I do that? How can I be sure that I’ve really got the “real” meaning? How will I know whether or not I’m right?
I was told by Ms. Hall, the then-president of the non-profit WTI, to make a plan, and that I should write out the overall reasons and purposes for the event. 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. Your job is to find, and then to convey, that real meaning to the others at the event,” I was told. OK. 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.
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 then 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. Those 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.
“I was very influenced in my early teens by certain religious groups who taught that we should not observe Christmas because it is pagan,” I told the small group. 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-followers 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 countryside. Only later did the term take on the somewhat derogatory “non-Christian” meaning, 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. I pointed out that the winter solstice, that darkest day when the day’s light increases, has been used ceremonial to commemorate the birth of saviors for four or five millennia. We know Jesus wasn’t born then, but we today use that day to commemorate the possibility of a new beginning.
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.”
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’ve concluded that, despite all the outward signs and parties and food, the “real meaning” of Christmas is that we should take the time to allow a “new birth” to occur within our own mind and soul. Yes, that’s not easy, and it’s hard work, though very rewarding. This real, inner meaning of this time of the year, is something that anyone of any culture can choose to experience.