The True Meaning of Christmas

Source: Mike Suszycki

By Teresa Zhang

December 10, 2020

An unnecessarily plump baby who is destined to save humanity, a stuffy nosed reindeer who is exploited by a fat white man for his mutation and three lumps of tightly packed snow that suddenly becomes sentient due to a magical hat. As absurd as they sound, all three are staples of an American Christmas. Which then begs the question: what exactly is an American Christmas? To answer this question we must first understand what Christmas actually is. Not a Christian celebration of the birth of the savior, not the holiest of holy days, but rather a series of pagan festivals filled with drunken revelries. 

While there is no single source of origin for the celebration known today as Christmas, the main components of its popular festivities seem to stem from the early winter solstice celebrations of Germanic tribes in northern Europe. Because of the cold climate, their winters were harsh, and heat and food were scarce. To keep themselves cheered up during this cruel and depressing season, tribes would hold winter solstice celebrations, known as Yule, in honor of their gods in public town squares. The center of the town square would often feature an evergreen tree, one of the only vegetations in the barren landscape, which would be burnt to keep the celebrators warm during the festival (and thus the origins of the Christmas tree and yule log). 

Another source of origin for this winter holiday was the Roman holiday of Saturnalia. Saturnalia was held in the winter seasons for the father of the king of gods, Saturn, who was associated with the winter months. The holiday lasted for seven days, during which there were public banquets, gift-giving and equality between citizens.

However, once Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire, the church found it unacceptable that their people were still celebrating festivals traditionally associated with pagan gods, and so they attempted to ban it. But citizens were reluctant to give up their celebrations and many chose to ignore the verdict and continue to openly celebrate. To compromise, in 350 AD Pope Julius I combined the celebration of the birth of Jesus with the pagan festivals, creating the first Christmas. 

And so for the next several hundred years, Christmas remained relatively unchanged. That was, until the Puritans arrived on the shores of America in the 17th century. The Puritans were fundamentalists and believed Christmas did not align with “true” Christianity, and so banned the holiday in the settlements. Other religious settlers of the colony held this attitude, and by the time of the Revolutionary War, it fell out of practice. It wasn’t until the 19th century that Christmas became fashionable in America, due to the rise of Sentimentalism and immigration of Europeans to the States. Immigrants brought their Christmas traditions with them, one of which, brought by the dutch, was Sinter Klaas or Santa Claus. 

Within the next hundred years, the American Christmas as we know it began to develop. Santa Claus went from being Saint Nicholas to Kris Kringle. The emerging American entertainment industry churned out such songs as “Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer” and classic Christmas movies like It’s a Wonderful Life. The post-war industrial boom led to the creation of classic toys, including Barbie dolls and Mr. Potato Head.

However, in recent years, some Americans began asking: exactly how Christian is Christmas? And with reason; in a recent study, the Pew Research Center found out of those who celebrate Christmas, 45 percent of Americans don’t celebrate it as a religious holiday but rather as a cultural one. Religious fundamentalists have been advocating for a more “Christian” Christmas, and some have even stopped celebrating it altogether. 

But I argue that Christmas has never been about Christ at all. Sure, it might feature some aspects and values of Christanity, but those values of family, tradition and goodwill are universal, not solely Christian. As I mentioned earlier, Christmas wasn’t originally a Christmas holiday, but a pagan one. Christmas celebrations back then were about community and unity against hard times. More than two thousand years later, these same values have persisted in the modern American Christmas. 

Christmas has persisted for such a long time while other celebrations have petered out throughout the years, not because of its holiest, but because it appeals to the early cavemen and neanderthals in us all: in our deepest innermost hearts, we all just want to be in a warm place where we are all welcomed. 

Christmas has never been more needed than in this year, when so many have been separated from or even lost their loved one. I urge those of you that don’t normally celebrate Christmas to consider celebrating it this year. It doesn’t have to be religious–far from it. Make Rudolf shaped cookies. Watch cheesy Christmas classics. Attempt and fail at putting lights up. Decorate a Christmas tree. Do all of these things with your family this holiday season, because Christmas isn’t about Christianity; it’s about being with the people you love during the hardest time of your lives.