This article was first published at the Pantheist Association for Nature website.
“Our ancestors worshipped the Sun, and they were not that foolish.
It makes sense to revere the Sun and the stars, for we are their children. ”
— Carl Sagan
Pantheists celebrate the winter solstice. Christians celebrate the birth of Jesus. The Sun of Life and the Son of God. What is the true significance of Christmas, and how can we celebrate this joyful season in keeping with its meaning?
Much of the meaning of the holiday season can be traced to manís close relationship with Nature in antiquity. Thousands of years before Christ, so-called pagans worshiped the Sun as a god. When winter approached, the sun dipped lower and lower in the sky each day. It seemed to the people that their god was forsaking them. The shortest day of the year came around December 21 (winter solstice). Several days later it became evident that the sun was coming back. By December 25, the people were sure the sun was returning, so a great celebration called the Brumalia began. Brumalia means “birthday” or “rebirth” of the Sun.
Many of our Christmas holiday customs evolved from the Sun-god celebrations. On the eve of Brumalia–corresponding to our Christmas eve–people exchanged gifts, sang songs, played games, and feasted. They kissed under mistletoe, which was considered sacred to the Sun-god and thought to have miraculous healing qualities. Holly berries were also considered sacred. Holly wreaths, round like the sun, decorated houses and places of worship during Brumalia.
The Christmas tree is another pagan carry-over. Evergreen fir trees symbolized survival and eternal life. People decorated these trees with round, egg-shaped ornaments. Eggs were a symbol of fertility, and the ornaments symbolized the fertility given to the people by their Sun-god. The world “yule” is derived from an ancient term used to describe winter sun-worship festivals. Burning “yule” logs and candles as part of Christian ceremony reflects a continuation of pagan custom. These symbols of warmth and lasting life were lit to hasten the ëoldí Sunís waning and the “new” Sunís rebirth during the winter solstice.
The word Christmas means “mass of Christ” or in a shortened form “Christ-mass.” It came to non-Christians and Protestants from the Roman Catholic Church, which absorbed the Brumalian rituals around 350 A. D. Biblical scholars suggest that the birth of Christ as “Light of the World” was made comparable to the paganís “Rebirth of the Sun.” This fusion of Christian precepts with pagan festivals encouraged conversions to the new faith. In the fifth century the church ordered Christmas to be celebrated forever on the Brumalia, December 25, inasmuch as no certain knowledge of Christís birthday existed. Thus the true meaning of Christmas goes beyond the recognition of Christís birthday to ancient pagan sun-worshiping practices.
Sun-worship was tied to primal manís close affinity with natural forces. Early peopleís dependence on the Sun, rain, soil, and other natural elements was direct and readily apparent. Today we are no less dependent on Nature than our ancestors, but modern technology causes us to be less aware of our dependency.
Widespread environmental deterioration has recharged our awareness of the interrelationships between man and Nature. With this awareness comes a realization that fundamental changes in our life styles are necessary if we hope to maintain a healthy environment. The Christmas season offers an excellent opportunity to begin remodeling parts of our life style.
Recycled Christmas cards, homemade ornaments and gifts, books and creative kits for children instead of gimmicky toys that quickly become part of the solid waste disposal problem–these are some of the ways in which we can minimize impact on the environment while keeping, or even enhancing, the spirit of the holiday season. Perhaps someday the joy of gathering together with family and friends at yuletide may largely supplant the need for material expressions of our feelings.
At Christmas, after all, Christians celebrate one who criticized excessive material possessions and encouraged simple ways of life. At the same time, Pantheists celebrate the winter solstice and gain inspiration from forebears who realized humankind’s dependence upon the Earth.
About the Author
Gary Suttle is the founder of the Pantheist Association for Nature, author of California County Summits, co-author of Pantheist Holidays, and a contributor to the Encyclopedia of Religion and Nature, ed. Brom Taylor.