Christmas is a Christian holiday, but let’s face it, for most people Christmas is more of a secular holiday than a religious holiday. And that perhaps is the oddest thing about Christmas; that a holiday central in the Christian religion has become so secular. I’m not complaining about this because I believe this change to be a good thing. If you are a non-Christian living in a Christian country, you should have no problem celebrating Christmas because it is largely not Christian.
Here are a few more oddities about Christmas:
- When I think of astrology, I do not think of Christianity. However, the star in the sky to announce the birth is Jesus is definitely an astrological symbol. The early Christian writers had no problem it seems blending astrology with Christianity. This might seem strange to a modern Christian, but when you consider that astrology was accepted matter-of-factly in ancient times–this was two thousand years ago–we should not be surprised.
- How did the Magi get into a Christian story? The Magi were not Christian, nor were they Jewish. The Magi were followers of the religion of Zoroaster, which was centered in Persia. Just using the story itself as a guide, they seemed to have been very respected and well thought of as being wise. If that was their popular image, that might explain their appearance. Or it could be that the term Magi had become a common term for any wise person no matter where they were from. Either way, these wise people, whoever they are, do not seem to be Jewish. I find that odd if the writer of Matthew was Jewish.
- I’m pretty sure the Christmas tree is found nowhere in the New Testament. Yet, here it is one of our most important Christmas traditions. You could explain the Christmas tree as a means of hanging the Christmas Star, but that makes no sense because it would be easier just to hang it from the ceiling or from a wall. Another story I once heard is that is a leftover tradition from when people believed trees had spiritual powers. That might seem like an odd belief, that trees could be spiritual, but it was actually very common at one time. Still, that does not explain why the tradition has become so strong. I can think of only one rational answer, and it has nothing to do with Christianity. Christmas trees are pretty to look at.
- Christmas lights also have nothing to do with Christianity. Perhaps Christmas lights are somehow symbolic of the Christmas Star, but I don’t know how. There was only one star. But as with the Christmas tree, the Christmas Lights are pretty.
- What about all those children Herod killed looking for baby Jesus? Where’s the outrage over this slaughter? It’s interesting that there is no Christmas tradition to remember this act. I supposed to do so would be a bit depression, like doing something to actually help the poor.
- Although everyone knows Jesus was raised in Galilee, Jesus’ trip to Egypt is seldom remembered. The trip to Egypt is interesting because it adds nothing to the story, although the trip to Egypt is partly put there to explain a passage in the Old Testament. However, here is the dirty little secret about Christianity: Christianity has its foundation in ancient paganism as much as it does in Judaism. In the pagan stories, think Perseus and Jason, the young hero often has to leave home at an early age. So the Christian writer is following an even older, pagan tradition when he includes the description of Jesus being driven away from his home to a foreign land, only to return later. Also, because Galilee was away from the center of Judaism, being raised in Galilee is the same basic theme as going to Egypt.
- Was Mary really a virgin when she gave birth to Jesus? And why would it matter? Yes, in the story she really was. And it mattered because in the traditions at that time, two thousand years ago, all great heroes were conceived in the same way that Jesus was. That was a very common and traditional storyline for the ancient writer, whether the writer was a Christian or pagan. Although usually, it was Zeus who was doing the conceiving. It probably has to do with ideas of purity, and of course a can only mate with the most pure.
- Where was Jesus’ earthly father? You know, Joseph. This too was a very common storyline in the ancient world. The ancient pagan heroes either lose their father early or the stories mostly ignore them, as the Gospels do Joseph.
- We give gifts to each other, I always assumed, because gifts were given to Jesus while he was a baby. As far as I know that was the only time he got gifts, unless you include oil being poured over his feet or people donating to his ministry. The idea that everyone should give gifts to everyone else is a bit of a stretch (and waste). It would be closer to the story if we gave gifts to children when they were born. Or perhaps if we gave gifts to other people’s babies when they are born (no one who gave Jesus a gift seemed to have known him before hand).
- And of course the whole point of Christmas, originally, was that Jesus is born so he can be sacrificed, killed, later. Then, somehow, this act of sacrifice wisps away the sins of those willing to believe in this power of Jesus. This is a strange idea. But it was a common idea in the first century and before. Exactly how a sacrifice is supposed to help a person or a , I’m not clear on, but this was a time when magic was widely accepted as fact, remember the Magi? Sacrifice was a common practice in the ancient world. It was accepted without thought, just as most religions are accepted today. And that is what the creators of Christianity did with the concept of sacrificed. It probably never occurred to them to doubt the power of a good, righteous killing.
And what about Santa Claus, Reindeer, Red Noses, the North Pole, fruit cake, and candy? These are more proofs of the secularization of Christmas.
There’s a schizoid quality to our relationship with animals, in which sentiment and brutality exist side by side. Half the dogs in America will receive Christmas presents this year, yet few of us pause to consider the miserable life of the pig — an animal easily as intelligent as a dog — that becomes the Christmas ham. -Michael Pollan, professor and writer (b. 1955)