Merry Christmas or Happy Holidays? The fight wages on over which greeting is appropriate at this time of year. The call for putting the Christ back in Christmas permeates Facebook feeds and news commentaries. The hint of reference to Jesus Christ in the phrase irks the politically correct. Saying Merry Christmas has become almost a revolutionary statement as it slips off the tongue from traditionalists and hipsters alike. It’s daring and divisive. Some employers have gone so far as to threaten termination if an employee dares utter the phrase. So much for free speech and freedom of religion.
While wishing someone a Merry Christmas can inspire a bit of knicker-twisting, is it necessary? The Christmas holiday season is fraught with traditions that blend religious and secular. It is a time of commerce, feasts and family. For most, it is a spiritual time of year honoring the story of the babe in a manger.According to Christian theology, Jesus Christ, the Son of God, was born of a virgin on December 25 in the town of Bethlehem.
Then again, maybe not.
Snopes has determined that the actual date of birth for Jesus Christ is undetermined. The birth of Jesus Christ was not officially recorded and according the spiritual texts, it is unlikely the birth took place in December. In the Gospel of Luke, it is noted that the shepherds were “abiding in the field keep watch over their flocks by night.” Shepherds would watch their flocks both day and night during lambing time, which took place in the spring. In winter, the animals were corralled and no nighttime watching was necessary.
December 25 celebrations are actually Pagan in origin. In ancient Babylon, the feast of the Son of Isis (Goddess of Nature) was celebrated on December 25. Raucous partying, gluttonous eating and drinking, and gift-giving were traditions of this feast. [Source: Essortment]
In Rome, the winter solstice was celebrated on December 25. The Romans called their winter holiday Saturnalia, honoring Saturn, the God of Agriculture. The merrymaking continued all the way into January. This whole season was called Dies Natalis Invicti Solis, the Birthday of the Unconquered Sun.
Not to be left out, European Pagans celebrated their own winter solstice, known as Yule. Yule was symbolic of the Pagan Sun God, Mithras, being born, and was observed on the shortest day of the year. Pagans also cut evergreen boughs and decorated their homes and altars with the fresh greens.
This gave rise to the tradition of the Christmas tree that has become ubiquitous with the season. President Franklin Pierce (1804-1869) arranged to have the first Christmas tree in the White House. President Calvin Coolidge (1885-1933) started the National Christmas Tree Lighting Ceremony on the White House lawn in 1923. [Source: Religious Tolerance]
So how did Jesus Christ get his birthday connected to this already crowded holiday? In 350 A.D., Pope Julius I declared that Christ’s birth would be celebrated on December 25. There is little doubt that he was trying to make it as painless as possible for Pagan Romans (who remained a majority at that time) to convert to Christianity. The new religion went down a bit easier, knowing that their feasts would not be taken away from them.
As far as the phrase Merry Christmas, that is a nod to the origin of how the Church celebrated the birth of Jesus Christ. Christmas (Christ-Mass), as we know it today, began in Germany, though Catholics and Lutherans still disagree about which church celebrated it first.
Regardless of belief systems, it is a time of year where family and friends take a moment of pause and enjoy each other, despite ideological differences. If Jesus is the reason for your season or if you prefer to have a Festivus pole, remember that the holiday is what you make it. Relax, grab some eggnog and watch a holiday classic. The phrase Merry Christmas is not just religious. It’s steeped in history with a blend of traditions so in a way, it’s code for Happy Holidays — and vice-versa.