Ah! That time of year is here again. The winter holidays are upon us and so it's time to debate what to call this busy time of celebration. The last few years have seen some controversy about how Christmas is the major American holiday and how it is wrong, and even offensive to some, to think of it in anything except Christian terms. The most fervent Christians -- those who use their economic power to promote their agenda -- have even boycott stores wishing us "Happy Holidays" instead of "Merry Christmas."
So I started to think about the real reason for the season, as a totally secular American. I am non-Christian to my core, yet I still pull out the ornaments, buy the tree, bake the cookies, and procure mountains of gifts. But that is how I was raised by my also-secular parents. We celebrated Christmas because everyone else did it, because it brought some fun to the middle of the long, mid-western winters, and because it was a family time that all could enjoy (more or less, anyway).
I have heard the phrase in recent times that "Jesus is the reason for the season" and for many people who follow the word of Christ as the cornerstone of their belief system, that may be true. For the rest of us, however, that has a hollow and empty ring to it. Of course I try to respect other people's beliefs, and I have even gone to midnight mass so that I might appreciate the holiday for its "true" meaning.
The Jewish people (and I am half Jewish but I do not practice that religion, either) have a nice celebration of the Miracle of the Lights -- Hanukkah -- which gives the Jewish households a reason for the season all their own. I enjoy the celebration of candles and fried foods and I look forward to our family party, but it is a minor holiday on the Jewish calendar, and no one is claiming that the menorah is the real reason for any season.
So what is the real meaning? The answer is simple: solstice. The pagan celebration of the winter solstice is the true meaning for the December holiday celebrating the coming of the savior for all mankind. As far as I can tell, the historical person who is called Jesus Christ was born at a different time of year; most scholars think it was in April. Now, the early Christians were a smart bunch of marketers and they knew that April was too close to the time of Jesus' death: it would never do to have celebrations for his birthday and his resurrection in the same month. So they had to move it. When they looked at the calendar way back in the third or fourth century they must have noticed that December 21st was the solstice, a holiday already celebrated by many pagans. It made sense to co-opt the pagan celebration (and get in on the Jewish holiday as well) since they wanted the Jews and pagans to convert to Christianity, and the sooner the better. Plus December in much of the world is the advent of winter, a depressing time when the days are short and cold, the food is scarce and bland, and the people are bored and a bit down in the dumps. So why not move the joyous celebration of Christ's birth right next to the established, also joyous holiday, which celebrated the rebirth of the sun god, the bringing back of light, and the hope that spring would come soon.
It was a no-brainer. And so is my persistence at celebrating what is now rightly called the Winter Holidays. When you think about it, Happy Holidays or Season's Greetings are not cop-outs on Christianity; they are accurate ways to express the full meaning of this time of year and the many rituals associated with winter. Up goes my tree and I'm almost done with my shopping, so pass the spiced wine. It's solstice time! The days are getting longer and I am ready to party!