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What is Christmas, really?

/ 12:09 AM December 18, 2014

It being the Christmas season, I thought a change of pace might be nice, so I’ve turned my column over to my daughter, Nikki, this week. She had only one stipulation: I can’t touch it, so I haven’t. Anyway, I agree with her:

I may be making some enemies here, but I would really like to discuss exactly what Christmas is. Mostly because I am a scientist and I do love facts and a bit of trivia. But also because, having grown up in a Catholic country, it’s not something I ever questioned. The history of the holiday wasn’t something I ever pondered. But 2014 has been a year of heavy thought for me, so as the season approached, my curiosity did not spare Christmas.

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Now, I hear you all shouting that obviously it is the birth day of Jesus Christ. It’s a Christian holiday. It is a day dedicated to celebrating our lord and savior. Jesus is the reason for the season!

Bubble pop moment coming…

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No one actually knows when Jesus’ birthday is. And, in all likelihood, he wasn’t even born in winter.

It wasn’t until the fourth century that the birth of Jesus was even declared a Christian holiday. Pope Julius I then chose Dec. 25 as the date to celebrate it. Why? Because celebrations were already widespread at this time of year as the “pagans’ were celebrating the winter solstice, the birthday of Mithra (a Greek god), and Saturnalia (a holiday in honor of the Greek god Saturn). It was, therefore more likely that the holiday would be adopted by the most number of people. And, in fact, the method in which the birth of Christ was originally celebrated was with rowdy, drunken, carnival-like parties—after they attended church, of course.

Christmas then slowly spread around the globe as Christianity started to replace pagan religions. It had a messy history of mischief and controversy. So much so that it was cancelled in England in 1645 and outlawed in Boston in 1659-81.

Christmas as we now know it is actually an American-invented holiday, based on bits and pieces of past “Christmas time” celebrations —Christmas trees from Germany, gift-giving from the Victorians… And it all began in the 19th century, 15 centuries after it was declared a holiday.

And now, here we are in 2014, and the newscasts are filled with debates on whether to call it a Christmas tree or a Holiday tree to be more inclusive of all religions. Long ago, it became politically correct to say “Happy holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas.” Angry Christians demand that Jesus is the reason for the season, and we shouldn’t bastardize that. We are all clinging to traditions and customs and beliefs—without ever understanding them.

I am not a religious person, but I am not antireligion either. In fact, I identify myself as a nonpracticing Roman Catholic, with a very strong admiration of Buddhism. So this article is the farthest thing from an attack on Christianity and Christmas. It is simply a fact-finding (and -sharing) mission… along with the message that the only thing permanent in this world is change.

We live in a world that is constantly evolving. We are constantly evolving.

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Celebrations at this time of year have been happening long before Christianity and, I bet, they will continue to happen long after. The specific date may change, the customs will definitely be altered, and sentiments will likely vary. The one thing that won’t change is the sense of humanity and community. We are all in this together and we will all celebrate together—whether we are celebrating the end of a long, hard winter, the birth of a god, or whatever else our imaginations can dream up. And whether we celebrate through prayerful worship or feasting and drinking (the pagans did this for as long as their logs burned—sometimes up to 12 days; now, THAT is a bender!), the most important fact is that we are doing it TOGETHER.

So if you are asking me what this time of year really means, I’d say it’s about community. It’s a time to appreciate those around you. And, no, not just your family. Your friends, your work colleagues, your staff, the person on the street… everyone that helps us get through the “winters” of life.

So make that extra lunch date, attend just one more party, buy that perfect present, tip generously, write a heartfelt card, and give more smiles and hugs than your muscles can handle. And for the love of all things good, don’t make this one more reason to argue with anyone. Who cares if it’s called a Christmas tree or a Holiday tree as long as you’re sitting beneath it with someone you love? Does it matter if you are excited about Santa Claus or the birth of Christ as long as you are celebrating it together?

None of us could have gotten through 2014 without a whole list of people. So take this great opportunity to let them know that you are grateful for them.

* * *

I’ll ride with you. After the hostage siege in Sydney, a young Muslim woman at the train station removed her hijab, fearful of antagonism against her. Another young woman, a non-Muslim, told her: “No, put it back. I’ll ride with you.”

The post has gone viral, as it should. We need such tolerance of each other and each other’s religion. What I most hate in these Muslim extremists is their deadly intolerance.

It’s the Christmas season, a time to reach out to everyone. It’s a time for not just Christians but for all to express goodwill to others.

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