One of the benefits of being a freethinker is that now I get to observe and enjoy other cultures and their traditions, setting aside the irrational beliefs woven into their practices. Last night I attended my first ever Christmas Mass. I loved it! I also got invited to my first Christmas dinner set for tonight, and I’m looking forward to that, as well.
But enough about me. I got this interesting E-mail from the Secular Coalition for America, which sends out highly informative E-mails every week about issues of secular interest, especially those related to separation of church and state. I wish they would have included sources for each of the tidbits below, since we freethinkers don’t just take people’s word for it. But maybe some of you could confirm or deny some of them?
Either way, I think it’s a pleasant message, so I want to share it:
Happy Holidays from the SCA!
Shared holiday histories make this a time for all to come together
At this time of year many cultures and religions celebrate different holiday traditions, including Human Light, Hanukah, Kwanza, Winter Solstice, and of course Christmas, among others. Many of these traditions overlap or have a shared history or origins. And perhaps surprisingly, many of the traditions associated with the holidays have very little or no religious basis at all, such as:
- It is believed that the modern date of Christmas on December 25 was chosen, to correspond with the pagan celebrations of Saturnalia and Natalis Invicti, celebrated in ancient Rome. It was tradition to bring gifts as offerings to the emperors during these holidays, and the tradition was later expanded to include everyone.
- Some believe that celebrating the birth of Jesus, who they believed to be the “true light of the world” was set in synchronization with the winter solstice because from that point onwards, the days began to have more daylight in the northern hemisphere.
- Until 1931, Santa Claus was generally was depicted as an elf, until Coca-Cola ads portrayed him as human-sized.
- Rudolph was created by an advertising agency hired by Montgomery Ward department stores, which created him to become became Santa’s ninth reindeer.
- Christmas was illegal in the early Puritan colonies in the early 1600’s because they believed there was no “scriptural justification” for celebrating Christmas. In fact, those who were caught celebrating were required to pay a fine.
- In the famous poem, “Twas the Night Before Christmas” published in 1823, Clement Clarke Moore named Santa’s reindeer first time (sans Rudolph). It’s speculated that the eight reindeer are representative for the eight-legged flying horse that belonged to the Norse god, Odin.
- Poinsettias came from Mexico in 1828.
- The custom of kissing under the mistletoe is believed by many to date back to the sexual freedoms associated with the pagan holiday of Saturnalia.
- Santa Clause is based on a real person – a Turkish bishop Nicholas born in 270 CE. He was made a saint in the 19th century, and is considered the patron saint of children and the poor. St. Nicholas became associated with Christmas because the days are so close together, although the Roman Catholic church later dropped St. Nicholas’ Feast Day from its calendar because his life is so unreliably documented.
These shared and overlapping histories demonstrate that even the holidays we associate with certain religions are in fact a compilation of our shared cultures and experiences as human beings throughout the modern history of the world.
“The holidays” mean different things to different people and each tradition has its own history and meaning—although many are shared. As Americans we have the unique ability to be able to choose to celebrate all, some or none of the holidays. No matter what you choose to celebrate –even if that’s nothing at all– the Secular Coalition for America would like to wish you and yours a happy holiday season and all the best for the new year ahead.
The Secular Coalition Staff