Today is the 25th of December, well at least where I live in the Amsterdam region. Time zones and geographical locations are always a factor with dates. The most important factor of the 25th of December though is its meaning for the people who celebrate on this day. Christmas, more specifically what it means for many people is still relevant and for good reasons.
Before I start argumentation to establish a line of reasoning I have to clarify a few things. First of all I was raised in a Christian Evangelical family. Until I was a teenager I went to church every week. Second I come from a big family of religious people, either Christian, Muslim or something else where family culture was very important. When I was a Christian I actually considered Christmas and Easter two of the most important periods of the year. I am no longer religious for personal reasons.
From my perspective Christmas is not just a day in the year. In the week of Christmas until the 31st of December, there is a period of simply celebrating and commemorating you have made it through another year again. This mid-winter period has been historically so ingrained in Western and partially global calendars that all over the globe many people actually have time to meet up and come together again. The Christmas period is the people-come-together period of the year for me.
The history of Christmas is a mixed bag of old religion versus new religion leading to old tradition versus new tradition which the Roman Catholic church has won. December was first a 10th month instead of a 12th month. The 10th month counted as a fall and harvest month with its own seasonal celebrations. Two Roman emperors later, namely Julius Caesar and Augustus December became the 12th month, a winter month.
Winter months follow the fall months. The last winter month before the end of the year is traditionally a month of celebrating survival and going through to the next year. As for reasons why, people are intelligent and social beings so to add meaning to survival is a boost to one’s existence and motivations. Why people believe in divine creators of everything around them is up to the believers. There are no definitive answers, just choices people make.
Choices have led the Roman Catholic church to install the 25th of December as the day to remember the birth of Jesus, the son of God. The early Catholic bishops wanted to put Christianity on the map and inside people’s calendars. In the early days of Christianity there were many religions of all kinds in the Roman empire. Each tribe, each old civilisation had its own end of the year celebrations. In the Roman empire there were Roman, tribal and sectarian celebrations of all kinds.
When Christianity grew from a small sect to a large societal force the Roman emperors adopted certain aspects. Sure the Jewish-proto-Catholic details like “equality for all” and the “God-Jesus-Holy Ghost relationships” were some inconvenient details. Thing was, when the majority of your manual labourers and soldiers preferred Christianity over you, you the emperor had to listen or risk being killed. A powerful ruler with a dignified existence is not killed by his or her own people, even in ancient times.
In 221 A.D. Sextus Julius Africanus somehow determined the 25th of December to be Jesus’ birthday. There are several theories and methodologies used to come to this date. Theologians have thought of many theological solutions for these kinds of issues. It is interesting reading, just prepare for a lot of old theory and assumptions that are context specific. At some point in time the Catholic calendar became the leading calendar in the Western Europe. When is a matter of historical interpretation and I am not an expert.
What I do know is that the Catholic calendar has influenced Western society a lot through the ages. Even today’s yearly calendar reflects its influence and Sundays are often still “holy days” or “days of rest”. Every Sunday is for many people still a “day of congregation and mass” and every big event like Easter still brings all people together. The core strength of religion is that it connects and brings people together and adds meaning to the whole activity.
Christmas, or the “mass of Christ’s birth” is the sum of many parts. Some parts are heathen, some parts are Jewish-proto-Catholic and some parts are just pure improvisation by the old Roman Catholic church. Is there something to celebrate? The Roman Catholic has the historically perfect solution: hold a procession; celebrate in a dedicated space; create new rituals for a new tradition and give it a memorable name on the calendar. This solution has worked every time and is easy to adapt for future changes.
For me, a non-religious individual there is no objection against instituted celebrations. I am not forced to participate and I can choose to not celebrate at all. The advantage of this old mid-winter celebration is that people come together to confirm “yes, we are about to survive another a 365 days.” I happily join the mid-winter-survival celebrations because why not? If life is about living, having survived something is worthy of a festivity.
Thus I end, life is about living and surviving another year is really worth a festivity. From the moment a human is born he or she has to face death at some point. From my experience in the 21st century mortality is semi-taboo because wealth, prosperity and comfort rhyme badly with finite resources, finite energy and death. I say fuck that weak 21st century attitude which almost denies the life-death duality of human and planetary existence. Life and death complement each other, such is existence.
Christmas in combination with its Roman Catholic meaning and its date is about survival and birth. In life you are born, you survive and you die. Birth gives hope as it creates new life and new opportunities. A good symbol for that birth is Jesus in the stable. Even if I am not Christian any more I can still appreciate what Jesus symbolises on the 25 of December. Christmas is still relevant, because it gives hope.
Happy Holidays and please stay alive.