The context in which Christianity, and thus Christmas, was formed was the Roman Empire. The Romans honored Saturn, the ancient god of agriculture, each year beginning on December 17. In a festival called Saturnalia, they glorified past days when the god Saturn ruled. This festival lasted for seven days and included the winter solstice which by the Julian calendar fell on December 25. During Saturnalia the Romans feasted, postponed all business and warfare, exchanged gifts, and temporarily freed their slaves. Such traditions resemble those of Christmas and are used to establish a link between the two holidays. These and other winter festivities continued through January 1, the festival of Kalends, when Romans marked the day of the new moon and the first day of the month and the beginning of the religious year.
Each year as the days got shorter, early cvilizations feared that the sun would disappear completely. They celebrated the 25th of December each year because the days began to become longer 4 days after the winter soltice. Science has now clearly explained the seasons as a phenomenum caused by the movement of the earth around the sun and the tilt of the earth at 23 degrees relative to the sun.
As Isaac Asimov comments in his Guide to the Bible, “Converts could join Christianity without giving up their Saturnalian happiness. It was only necessary for them to joyfully greet the birth of the Son rather than the Sun."
I recently posted an article called “Organized Religion and God.” The post was actually meant to be a commentary about the early belief systems of civilizations before science had advanced enough to explain unexplained phenomena. Modern science has explained and swept away many of the fears of the past including the imminent disappearance of the sun. Many of these fears have been adopted by religion as a means to explain what has not yet been understood by humans and someday may be explained by observation and science. The most prominent fears that religion tries do deal with are death and the meaning of life. Both are not yet understood in tangible scientific terms.
The recent debate about whether it is appropriate to say “merry Christmas” or “happy holidays” is yet another argument made by thoughtless religious people. It is yet another means to create a debate about the nature of Christmas in America. Those who advocate saying “merry Christmas” to a Jew or a Muslim are inconsiderate, thoughtless, and are advocating the superiority of their religious beliefs. Many of these people believe that the Founding Fathers were religious Christians. They were not. Most of them were Deists and abhorred the very teachings of Christian fundamentalists. A Deist is one who believes in the existence of a God or a supreme being but denies revealed religion, basing his belief on the light of nature and reason. Christmas was not even a national holiday until 1885.
It is amazing to me how much American religious tradition has regressed since the “age of enlightenment.” That was the period in which both the American and French Revolutions occurred. It was a time in which the power of centralized religion was rejected. It is also a period in which many social movements began to advance the cause of humanity here on earth. Hopefully, the rest of the 21st century will bring upon us a rebirth of the enlightenment period in the spirit of our Founding Fathers. And when our Supreme Court Justices try to interpret the meaning of “freedom of religion” as written into the Bill of Rights, they will think about the intent and beliefs of those who were the writers of our Constitution. They were in the main Deists who rejected the dictates of organized religion.