Gay and Lesbian Humanist

Winter 2001-2002

George Broadhead argues that Christians have no monopoly on winter festivities.

It’s Our Party Too!

by George Broadhead

My partner Roy and I don’t see eye to eye about the festive season. He insists on celebrating it in traditional fashion with tree, decorations, plum pudding, cards and so forth, and has no qualms about referring to it as Christmas. I am less enthusiastic, go to great lengths to find cards with “Season’s Greetings” in them and one year prevailed on Roy to spend the time in Tangiers.

However, like it or loathe it, there is no question that we non-believers are just as entitled to celebrate it as committed Christians – for the simple reason that it was originally a pagan festival held throughout the ancient world centuries before the birth of Christ. In fact, for the first five centuries after Christ none of the early Christians celebrated his birth. No-one knew, or pretended to know, the day, the month or even the year of that event, but the last two weeks of December had long been a time of celebration associated with the winter solstice, the shortest day, after which one could look forward to spring, to crops, regeneration and new life.

Among the Romans, the festival of Saturnalia, which began on 17 December, involved the hanging of greenery and laurel leaves, lighting candles and giving presents. Like Christmas, it was a season of goodwill. The Romans credited their legendary king, Numa Pomilius, with instituting the festival. Numa was the successor to Romulus and was regarded as a reincarnation of Saturn because of the wisdom and benevolence of his reign.

Happy birthday!

In the third century CE 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, 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.

It was not until 525 CE that anyone claimed to know the birthday of Christ. In that year the claim was made by Dionysius Exiguus, a mathematician and theologian living in Rome. Christian scholars today are all agreed that Dionysius Exiguus was wrong, and it is generally believed that Jesus was born between 7 and 4 BCE.

Nice one, sun!

The 25th of December may be attributed to the fact that in the year 274 CE, at a time when the Roman emperors were trying to replace the ancient Roman polytheism with sun worship, Emperor Aurelian declared 25 December to be the sun’s official birthday.

Almost all the customs of the festive season predate 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.

So those who have no religion (now over 40 per cent of the British population, according to recent statistics) and who may describe themselves as atheists, agnostics or humanists, have every right to celebrate at this time of the year if they wish. Christians have no monopoly.

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Created : Sunday, 2002-02-17 / Last updated : Wednesday, 2007-12-12
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