|The lane from chez nous in rural Wales leading up to the nearby village|
Greetings, and a happy Christmas, all! No, I don’t balk at using the word “Christmas”. What, as the Bard asked through Juliet, is in a name? That which we call a festival by any other name would be as merry – potentially, anyway.
I’m no apologist for Christianity. I recognise its role in Western history and what it has brought, culturally, to our way of life and the language we use. I also recognise that, without it, other influences would have come to bear, but humankind would still have built its moral code, because a moral code comes not from a religion, but from humanity.
That people attribute their moral code to their Christianity or their Islam or their Hinduism or whatever is entirely up to them, and that may be the top layer, as it were, of the articulation of what is their code of ethics and mode of living.
Beneath it, though, is that thing humanity. It was the human in us that devised the religion that in turn codified our outer persona, the one we present to the world, the principles we live by. Most people are probably essentially good, but with flaws. Some are essentially bad, but are so because of their belief in religion’s edicts and diktats.
Some, of course, are just bad. I have a few politicians in mind, but let’s not go down that road, tempting though it may be.
That said, if people find comfort in a belief system and don’t wish to dictate how others should live their lives, I’m OK with that.
So I’m no apologist for Christianity, but it’s given its name to the midwinter festival that punctuates the seemingly relentless darkness and (in the UK at the moment) coldness and misery of winter, and brings us hope of a new season on the way. Bit of a laugh in the UK, of course, where we don’t seem to get proper summers any more, but there you go.
I’m not one to go about saying “Happy holidays!” or “Happy Yuletide!” It would make be seem a bigger prat than I already am. So it’s “Merry Christmas and happy New Year!” That’s the expectation, and those who know me know that I use the term “Christmas” as a descriptor. Saying the word doesn’t make people believe more in the mythology.
I leave it to my learned blogging colleague George Broadhead, secretary of this blog’s parent, the Pink Triangle Trust, to tell us the true origin of Christmas, though.
Atheists, agnostics, Humanists and other unbelievers are sometimes asked why they celebrate at Christmas time, or are even accused of being hypocritical for doing so.
The answer is that they celebrate at that time for the same reason as the early Christians – because everyone else was already doing so, and had been for centuries before the birth of Christ.
The last two weeks of December had long been a time of celebration throughout the ancient world in the northern hemisphere. It was associated with the Winter Solstice, the shortest day, after which one could look forward to Spring, to crops, regeneration and new life.
Almost all the customs of the Festive Season pre-date Christianity: the giving of gifts, decorating the house and tree, putting up holly and mistletoe, and eating the flaming round plum pudding – the most obvious solar symbol of all. And the familiar crib scene originated in ancient Egypt.
Among the Romans, the Festival of Saturnalia, which began on 17 December, involved the hanging of greenery and laurel leaves, the lighting of candles and the giving of presents. Like the present Festive Season, theirs was a season of goodwill.
In the third century AD there was great rivalry between Christianity and Mithraism, especially among the soldiers, upon whose support the Roman Emperors depended. Eventually, early in the fourth century, the Emperor Constantine decided in favour of Christianity but, during the rivalry, the Christians could not afford to appear killjoys in December when Mithraic soldiers were celebrating the triumph of Good over Evil.
The 25th of December may be attributed to the fact that in the year AD 274, at a time when the Roman emperors were trying to replace the ancient Roman polytheism with sun worship, the Emperor Aurelian declared 25 December to be the Sun’s official birthday.
So those who have no religion (47% according to the British Social Attitudes Survey, January 2010) need have no qualms about celebrating at this time of the year if they wish.
And with that, here’s hoping for happy holidays, happy Winter Solstice, happy Christmas, happy whatever you want to call it to all of Pink Triangle’s readers, and we all hope you have a great New Year.
We’re putting our feet up for the rest of the holiday and will be back with a few choice entries early in the New Year, by which time we may have sobered up a bit.