Christmas is a time of joy and happiness for many, sadness and remorse for others.
But beyond one’s personal beliefs, Christmas Day is something that is strongly felt in different countries with very different religions, and for different reasons.
Historically, the day is celebrated by Christians as the anniversary of the birth of Jesus of Nazareth, a spiritual leader whose teachings represent the basis of their religion.
But the tradition of holding ceremonies in the middle of winter has been present in many cultures long before Christianity came to be. The winter solstice was a moment to rejoice for many people when the worst of the winter was behind them and they could look forward to longer days and extended hours of sunlight.
The Norse in Scandinavia celebrated Yule, for example, from December 21 – the winter solstice – through January.
And the Romans held their Saturnalia celebrations in the same time of the year. The holiday, established in honour of Saturn – the God of Agriculture – was a hedonistic time, when food and drink were available to many and when the social order was turned upside down, allowing slaves to be masters for a month, among other things.
Also, December 25 was considered by the Romans the birthday of Mithra, the God of the Unconquerable Sun. The holiday was named Juvenalia and was celebrated by members of the upper classes in the Roman society.
When Christianity was still a relatively small sect, Easter was the main holiday, and it remained so until approximately 336 A.D when Roman church officials decided to institute the birth of Jesus as a holiday. The date was chosen probably to increase the chances that Christmas would be popularly embraced by ‘pagans’, since it coincided with the Saturnalia and Juvenalia celebrations, despite the fact the Bible contained contrasting clues on the matter.
By the Middle Ages, Christianity had, for the most part, replaced other religions in the empire. And throughout the centuries Christmas Day has become so popular worldwide that many people celebrate it today, whether they embrace Christianity as a religion, the principles of generosity and charity behind it, or simply the traditions of the old peoples of rejoicing in this time of the year when the winter is officially behind us.
I personally began my Christmas celebrations as a child many years ago. It was a moment of great happiness and union with my family, and we always prepared a nice Nativity scene in the house and a big Christmas tree. I didn’t ask myself too many questions back then and just felt really grateful towards God and my family for all we had. I would try my best to be helpful in the house and behave nicely with my siblings.
For many years I looked forward to Christmas as something wonderful. We have a very big family, so quite often we would get all together and exchange gifts in my aunt’s house, in front of a fireplace and under a bright Christmas tree. Such anticipation was just wonderful, I can still remember it clearly.
In time, however, my religious beliefs started changing and I began to perceive Christmas as something typically commercial. A time when people spent money they had accumulated throughout the year for no apparent reason, and most importantly a representation of hypocrisy for many people who would call themselves Christians and never cared about anything apart from on that day of the year.
I am aware now it was very judgemental and narrowminded of me to think of everybody in such simplistic terms. There’s not just black or white, and people can have all sorts of reasons to get closer to a religion or to their family at a specific time of the year. And the fact they chose Christmas to do so is a chance as good as any other.
But I had not got this clarity back then, and I remember there were a couple of years I even thought of not celebrating Christmas at all, although it was not entirely possible since I was still living in my family’s home. But I did not buy presents for anybody in those years, and always looked at everybody differently during family gatherings.
Slowly, as my religious views started to mature, my perception of Christmas also changed. I started to notice little things in people’s behaviour approaching the winter time. Some family members tried to get close to each other during Christmas holidays after not talking for months, sometimes years and some friends opened their hearts to me in unexpected ways.
It was shortly after that I began seeing religion more like a philosophy and less of a code of strict rules to follow, and as my vision softened, I realised that people’s behaviour and intentions around Christmas were much more genuine than what I had previously assumed.
It might be true that some of them were unconsciously trying to reconcile a given relationship or behave nicely towards people to follow religious principles, but that did not make their efforts less worthy. And just maybe, in their hectic lived lives they did not have the time to sit and reflect on their religion, a thing that they could do instead during their time off work.
My views towards Christmas had changed, and no longer considering it from a religious perspective, the way I lived and behaved on Christmas Day changed with it.
I started perceiving the holiday season as a time to all get together, much as when it all started. Only this time, I was not worried about the reasons. People might have different motives to come together, but once they do, no one is going to focus on the “why are we all here?”. They will rather be happy to see you, to share memories and to create new ones, especially if you haven’t seen them for a long time.
Today, Christmas for me is a time of reunion and celebration. I do love Spring as a season, so for me, that would be enough to celebrate the winter solstice as many cultures have done in the past.
However as I am living abroad, I always try and visit my family and friends back in Italy during the Christmas holidays, and I guess that, beyond religious reasons, is something I look forward to almost as much as those Christmas nights spent with my family in front of the fireplace and that bright Christmas tree.