Opinion: Can we celebrate Christmas as Humanists?

People possessing a strong religious belief might ask how anyone who is not Christian could celebrate Christmas… a festival that commemorates the birth of Jesus Christ. Some conservative Christians believe that a non-Christian celebration of Christmas is an example of cultural appropriation.

Truth be told, the Christmas holiday was more or less hijacked from other religions and beliefs.

Yule and Saturnalia: Christmastime before Christianity

Yule, Yulefest or Yuletide was a twelve day festival that started with the winter solstice on December 21st. It was subsequently reformulated and resulted in the term Christmastide. Reformatting of pagan religious and cultural activities into a Christianized form was used as a strategy to convert people to Christian beliefs and was officially sanctioned by the Church. Pope Gregory argued that conversions were easier if people were allowed to keep outward forms of long held traditions while changing the object of their adoration to a Christian god.

Yule was celebrated by various Northern Europeans, Germanic and Norse peoples. Early references appear in Gothic texts around the 5th or 6th century.  It has been connected to the ghostly Wild Hunt procession, the God Odin (leader of the Hunt) and increased supernatural activity such as undead beings that walk the earth. Pagan Anglo-Saxons celebrated an event centred around female beings on what is now Christmas Eve called Mōdraniht. It was a fertility event during the Yule period.

Another credible theory is that Christmas’ derives from the Roman holiday of Saturnalia. Romans would cut down trees and bring them into their homes during this time. The upper classes in ancient Rome celebrated Dec. 25 as the birthday of the sun god Mithra. The date fell right in the middle of Saturnalia, a monthlong holiday dedicated to food, drink, and revelry.

Modern, secular Christmas celebrations

My own belief and what Christmas means to me is quite simple, and I find my view to be shared among many of my humanist friends. It’s not about the gifts or beliefs. It’s time spent with people I care about. Sitting down to a meal together and simply spending time with one another. Who’s to say we can’t put up Christmas trees or enjoy yule logs? A nod to traditions from long ago help make Christmas time special for us, no matter what our beliefs.

-Valerie McDonogh Gliffe.

Subscribe to our newsletter

Sign up today and receive our monthly email newsletter straight to your inbox.