The True Reason for the Season

It was December 21st 1974 and we were settling in around a campfire in the middle of the Superstition Mountains. Twenty-five of us had hiked into this forbidding environment for a class in field ecology sponsored by Arizona State University. Unfortunately, about half of the group had no experience in hiking at all, let alone desert style, so we did not reach our primary objective. We were, however, in a small oasis area that was quite pleasant though cold. People who have never been in a desert don’t realize how much the temperature drops at night. It can be 85° in the day and 35° at night. That 50° drop is brutal for those who aren’t prepared.

My roommate and I, as well as our two female companions, were not just well prepared, we had traveled in style. We had wine, garlic bread, salad, and spaghetti for our dinner. Because we packed light on everything else, we always had enough room for real food. After eating, we enjoyed the last of the wine and someone remembered that it was the winter solstice. So we conducted an impromptu celebration that was both boisterous and disturbing to the newbies who were shivering around their own fires. We felt totally connected to both the environment and our ancestors and went to bed, our hearts filled with peace.

Every year, like the winter solstice itself, certain people draw attention to themselves by uncovering some new slight against Christianity and declare it part of a “War on Christmas.” Or on Christians themselves. With two and half billion people and 70% of the U.S. calling themselves Christian, it seems like a bit of hyperbole, especially since many people who aren’t Christian still celebrate Christmas. This year, the hoopla was over Starbucks not having any decorations on their cups. The fact that they have always used secular symbols and never religious ones doesn’t matter. Previously, it was store clerks saying “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas.” As far back as the early 1900s, Henry Ford was complaining that the Jews were removing Jesus from Christmas cards. It’s all rubbish, of course, but haters gotta hate.

It is fine for Christians to claim any day they want as a celebration of their faith. And calling the 25th Christmas does just that. However, celebrations of the season predate Christ. One can claim the day as well as rue the commercialism associated with it. But the season itself belongs to all of humanity. The fact that it is the most important economic holiday for the U.S. is either a sidebar or the headline, depending on your orientation. But the day and the season are not the same. Any religion can claim a date as special. But I resent and resist all attempts to claim the season for any one group.

I realize that many scholars have spent many decades debating the exact birth date of Jesus and that their reasons for picking the 25th are both logical and rooted in tradition. But this date does not easily fit historical facts. It is highly unlikely that Jesus was born in Bethlehem on December 25th. Existing facts argue against both the place and time. For example, Roman records, which are extensive, argue against it. A Roman census was about tax collection, and there are no records of forcing people to return to their place of birth as part of that process. Counting noses and collecting taxes in the middle of winter was neither economical nor efficient. Why collect taxes when people had the least agricultural surplus and travel was difficult? The Roman government was nothing if not efficient. Even scripture itself does not wholeheartedly support the time frame. But, no matter what your belief, at the very least, an honest appraisal of the facts supports, even if it doesn’t prove, an argument against the generally accepted time and place.

Just because we have little corroborating evidence for Christ’s birth, let alone his life, this shouldn’t be an issue. Belief is supposed to be based on faith. But we do have a lot of evidence about the history of a seasonal celebration to start the winter. To our ancestors, figuring out the solar date was crucial for survival. People used the lunar cycle to keep track of time in general. But the lunar cycle is totally separate from the seasonal cycle, which is caused by the tilt of the Earth. And that pesky ¼ of a day added each year to the earth’s orbit around the sun made it necessary for developing a scientific way of keeping track of time. Otherwise, chaos would overtake the agricultural, hunting, and trading industries.

Fortunately, humans are quite observant and clever. Certain people noticed a change in shadow length corresponded with the advent of seasons. By watching the shadow of some object, either natural or man-made, people with this special knowledge became very powerful in their communities. They formed groups of priests or shamans and passed down their carefully held secrets as needed. It was common among ancient people to hold a festival that lasted several days around the time of the winter solstice. First, to celebrate the sun stopping its descent, and second, to fortify the populace for the upcoming coldest months of the year. The Romans, as one example, called this multiday celebration Saturnalia. But almost every ancient culture that we know of had some form of winter solstice holiday as well as a religious explanation for it. And those who had knowledge of the shadows informed everyone else about when to end the celebration. Just like we have Leap Year, the solstice celebration lasted an extra day every four years. And who wouldn’t welcome an extra day to party?

All people have a deep psychological need for yearly celebrations. Every government throughout history has recognized this fact and bowed to cultural pressure to have them. We no longer have the need for holidays that are sun oriented. But end-of-the-year and beginning-of-winter celebrations remain important world-wide. Whether Christians co-opted Saturnalia or other pagan holidays is not really important even though evidence suggests they did. What is important for Christians is to remember that they do not have a monopoly on peace, love, or seasonal celebrations. Christ, it is said, shared a very limited amount of loaves and fishes to a large group of hungry people. It was a practical as well as loving gesture on his part. Surely his followers can share the season in his honor as well. Happy Holy Days to all.

Photo By: Christopher R. Parent