I have always loved Christmas. Growing up with three siblings and a score of cousins, most of them on my mother’s extremely Catholic side, we celebrated Christmas hard. We started baking cookies weeks out; my mother, grandmother and aunts made dozens of meat pies, and a family gift exchange meant plenty of taunting calls from uncles or cousins who knew what would be under the tree at Grandma’s house.
Christmas Day was a blur of people and food, two of my favorite things. My favorite, though, was always Christmas Eve. My immediate family would have a huge fancy dinner then watch “Little Women” or “It’s a Wonderful Life” before heading to midnight mass at St. Mary’s down the street.
I became a Pagan in my late teens, which only increased my zeal for Christmas. To me, the holiday represented the perfect blend of faiths. In fact, the placement of Christmas on the calendar, decided by the Roman Catholic Church sometime before 336 A.D., is believed to have been an attempt to hasten the blending of Christianity and Paganism.
In the Pagan tradition, Saturnalia, a weeklong celebration dedicated to the Roman god of farming, began each year on December 17th and was immensely popular. According to the BBC, this week was a time of joy and merriment, with gift exchanges, feasts and legal gambling: “The festival is described as a joyful period… By the time of Christian conversion, it was running into and incorporating a number of festivals.”
One of the festivals incorporated into Saturnalia was the extremely popular Roman Natalis Solis Invicti, the “birth of the unconquered sun,” traditionally celebrated on December 25th. Also falling on that day was the birthday feast of the Iranian “Sun of Righteousness,” celebrated commonly among Roman soldiers in the first centuries A.D.
An article on the origins of Christmas on ChristianityToday.com says, “The eventual choice of December 25…reflects a convergence of [the church’s concern] about pagan gods and the church’s identification of God’s son with the celestial sun… Seeing that pagans were already exalting deities with some parallels to the true deity, church leaders decided to commandeer the date and introduce a new festival.”
And thus Christmas was born, or at least the modern feast we celebrate. Ironically, the Christmas tree is one of the least Pagan elements of this holiday. Most assume it came from the tree and nature worship associated with European Pagans.
Yet as Time magazine explains, “the modern Christmas tree originated with German Lutherans in the 17th… When Germany’s Prince Albert came to England in 1840 to marry Queen Victoria, he brought the Christmas tree with him…Eight years later, a photograph of the royal tree appeared in a London newspaper, and ownership of the green item became the height of holiday fashion in Europe and America.”
This fact, more than any other, reminds me why Christmas is my favorite holiday. Something as iconic as the Christmas tree began as a fashion statement and grew into a widespread tradition bringing joy and fun to families for centuries.
I usually celebrate Christmas with my husband’s family now, and they generally keep old-school Polish traditions including “The Feast of the Seven Fishes” and drinking Goldshlager to ensure prosperity in the year to come. Similar to the Christmases I had back in Michigan, everything is a blur of people and food.
While we give presents, the emphasis is always on family and loved ones. According to a 2010 Gallup poll, the same is true for 93 percent of Americans who do not consider Christmas a religious holiday and for 97 percent who do. I love that Christmas has become an inclusive holiday, and I hope it will continue to be celebrated around the world by people of all faiths (or of none) as a time of peace, love and happiness.