The True Meaning of Christmas

A traditional nativity set on the church altar, at Mission San Gabriel, California.

Today is the real day of Christmas, so Merry Christmas everyone! Actually, today is the winter solstice, the shortest day of the year. After today, our days will grow longer and longer.

This was the favorite holiday of pagans. They loved the sun. Worshiped it, in fact. And they got pie-eyed drunk every year, to celebrate its return from its southern retreat.

A recrudescent sun, peeking through clouds.

The early Catholics had a hell of a time converting pagans to Christianity. They tried torture, drowning, and mass murder. But apparently, many pagans would rather attend a mass murder than a Catholic mass. This had a lot to do with the bacchanal celebrations of the winter solstice. They were such a blast, nobody wanted to give them up.

This nativity set at Mission Santa Barbara, California, seems to have come from the Stone Age.

Finally the Catholics compromised and moved the celebration of Christ’s birthday to the winter solstice date. Nobody could agree on when Jesus was born anyway, so this was an easy move to make.

A modern nativity set, complete with hippies, at Mission Santa Barbara, California.

Imperfections in the calendar caused Christmas to eventually slide a few days past the solstice. But it’s still close enough, and besides, there aren’t many fundamentalist pagans around anymore to complain.

Solar eclipse shadow patterns projecting through tree leaves. Eclipses were more worrisome to pagans than the winter solstice, as they occurred unexpectedly, and unlike the winter solstice, nobody was sure the sun would return.

The Christmas compromise makes sense in some ways. The birth of Christ symbolizes new life for those who die, just like the returning sun melts away winter and brings new life to the land. And Christ is supposedly the “light” of this world, just like the sun.

This nativity set at Mission Santa Ines, in Solvang, California, is about 400 years old. I guess over the years, the three wise men, sheep, and angels must have all been dropped and broken.

I’m an atheist, but I like the sun as much as any drunken pagan. So I like what the winter solstice symbolizes. And after the winter of my life is over, I like to assume that there’s new life on the other side.

This nativity set at Mission Santa Barbara, California, depicts Christ being born in a canoe. Tsk, such a small place to be born. Perhaps there was no room at the ship.

I also like that we don’t have to be pagans to enjoy the benefits of our returning sun. And on the same token I doubt we have to be Christians to have eternal life. If there is such a thing as eternal life, then we’re living it right now. And we will always live it. There’s no getting out of something as enduring as eternal life. Just as there’s no keeping the sun from shining on earth.

The promise of a nice, warm sun, and eternal life. For me, that’s the true meaning of Christmas.

Sunrise over Long Beach, California, with an oil tanker promising warm furnaces, and eternal mobility for our cars.

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