Christmas has been losing its supernatural component in recent times.
Increasingly, it’s more about Santa and Rudolph and Frosty the Snowman — plus billions in spending for gifts and gatherings that build family closeness.
The Christmas season has psychological power to induce feelings of kindness and human togetherness — needed more so than ever this year. It’s a cultural phenomenon affecting even scientific people who don’t swallow magic tales.
A 2017 Pew Research survey found that 90 percent of Americans celebrate Christmas — but an ever-smaller share of them think it’s about a virgin miraculously giving birth to a god. “There has been a noticeable decline in the percentage of U.S. adults who say they believe that biblical elements of the Christmas story — that Jesus was born to a virgin, for example — reflect historical events that actually occurred,” Pew reported.
Conservative politicians often rant about a “war on Christmas,” a secular plot to diminish the season — by saying “happy holidays,” for instance, instead of “merry Christmas.”
Actually, nature itself — the Winter Solstice — provides a more profound meaning for this season. For millennia, prehistoric people in the Northern Hemisphere dreaded the worsening cold and dark as the sun sank lower each day and nights grew longer. Then, joyfully, the sun began returning in late December, and daylight lengthened. Happy celebrations and sun god worship erupted. Life had hope again.
Early Christians didn’t know a date for the birth of Jesus and observed it at various times. But in the fourth century, Pope Julius I pulled a clever ploy: He decreed that Jesus was born on Dec. 25, which allowed Christianity to co-opt the merry festival period, taking it away from previous gods.
Happy holidays, everyone!
This column is adapted and updated from a piece originally published at Patheos / Daylight Atheism on Dec. 26, 2018.