Is it Ok to Celebrate Christmas, Even If You’re Not a Christian?

Pine ConesI just love Christmas!”  my friend Hannah confessed recently, “even though I’m appalled by Christianity.”  She sounded sheepish, as if loving Christmas somehow made her bad.

Poor Hannah.  I understand her tone of apology.  What Hannah is appalled by isn’t the broad range of kind, thoughtful Christians in her community, but rather the thin cruel theologies that drive the Evangelical Right.  People like Bill O’Reilly have claimed Christmas for their own–deriding broader holiday traditions.  “It’s about Jesus!”  They cry loudly. “Jesus is the reason for the season!”   “It’s a Christian holiday (and this is a Christian country)!”  Who wants to be associated with O’Reilly and his minions?

Hannah’s Christmas isn’t about Jesus, and she doesn’t want to lend power to fundamentalists by joining in something they have defined as their celebration.   But she needn’t fear.   Jesus isn’t the reason for the season.

Yes, December 25 has become the time that Christians express the joy that comes from a sense of unearned forgiveness and unconditional love.  It is a time when they relish the community of believers and family, and they look forward to a future when peace and joy will reign on earth “as they do in heaven” and the lion will lie down with the lamb.  And for them, this is the very heart of the holiday.

That said, the Catholic Church chose December 25th  (Winter Solstice in the Julian Calendar) to honor the birthday of the Christ for a very specific reason:  It was already a well loved holiday – a time of revelry, gift giving, and yes, celebrating the birthdays of gods

Early Christians recognized this:   Fourth Century Bishop John Chrysostom wrote: “On this day also the Birthday of Christ was lately fixed at Rome in order that while the heathen were busy with their profane ceremonies, the Christians might perform their sacred rites undisturbed. They call this (December 25th), the Birthday of the Invincible One (Mithras); but who is so invincible as the Lord? They call it the Birthday of the Solar Disk, but Christ is the Sun of Righteousness.”(The Fourth Century is our first record of a December Christ-mass celebration.)

Not only did earlier generations of Christians recognize this, some of them were offended by the holiday’s Pagan associations.   Puritan leader Oliver Cromwell outlawed the celebration in England, and his prohibition against Christmas was kept by the Puritan colonies in the New World.  Even Baptists in times past condemned the holiday, and to this day Jehovah’s witnesses and some other fundamentalists perceive it as contrary to Christian teachings.   And not without reason.

Christmas appears to have its roots in two Roman holidays:  Saturnalia (December 17-23) and Sol Invictus (December 25)  Saturnalia, the feast of the god Saturn, is said to have been the most popular holiday of the Roman calendar. People celebrated with visits to friends and giving gifts, particularly wax candles (cerei), that may have represented the return of light after the solstice.  Natalis Sol Invictus (Birthday of the Unconquered Sun) is when the births of solar deities were celebrated including Sol, Attis and the Persian Mithras (who was, incidentally, born of a virgin). At the time of Constantine, the cult of Sol Invictus was the official religion of the Roman Empire. Small wonder, then, that he pronounced the 25th as the birthday of Jesus, center of the new official religion. (Excellent article here.)

The ways we celebrate Christmas reflect the intuitive, creative ways in which all human cultures and religions borrow, blend and adapt. We find what fits and make it our own.  It’s why French bread and coffee are part of Vietnamese cuisine.  It’s why T-shirts are popular in Kenya.  It’s why Egyptian hieroglyphs morphed into a Roman alphabet which then made its way around the planet.

My guess is that virtually everything Hannah loves about Christmas has roots that extend through and beyond the Christian tradition.  Here are just a few for fun.

  • Yule log – Ancient Norse tribes used  the yule log to celebrate Thor.  The term “Yule” itself may mean “wheel,” referring to the sun and its cycle of return.
  • Holly – This plant has been special to many people.  It was thought to ward off witches by Celts, and was used in Roman Saturnalia festivities.
  • Evergreen boughs – Branches from evergreens symbolized everlasting life for Romans, Germanic tribes and Vikings.
  • Mistletoe – This parasitic vine also known as “All heal” was sacred to Druids, because it grew in the sacred oak tree.  Early Europeans left it hung in the house all year to ward off fire and lightning.
  • Decorated trees – Uncut, outdoor trees were decorated by European Pagans and Druids at solstice.  (The custom of cutting trees was brought to America by German immigrants and became popular during the 19th Century
  • Twelve Days of Christmas – The sacred significance of the number twelve traces its roots back to ancient Babylonian star worship.  It made its way into a 12 day Egyptian solstice festival, the early Hebrew religion (12 tribes of Judah), the Roman calendar (12 months), early Christianity (12 apostles) and –low and behold—modern star worship (12 signs of the zodiac).

So, I say to my friend Hannah:  Love any Christmas tradition that is dear to you, including the ones that originated in Christian cultures and stories.  And no more apologies!  We all are borrowers, and especially at this time when people around the world celebrate the renewal of warmth, light, and life, we are all the richer for it.

Valerie Tarico is a psychologist and writer in Seattle, Washington. She is the author of Trusting Doubt: A Former Evangelical Looks at Old Beliefs in a New Light and Deas and Other Imaginings, and the founder of  Subscribe to her articles at

Ancient Mythic Origins of the Christmas Story
Celebrating Love and Light:  Ten Holiday Tips for the Post Religious
12 Christmas Traditions That Aren’t About God or Shopping

About Valerie Tarico

Seattle psychologist and writer. Author - Trusting Doubt; Deas and Other Imaginings.
This entry was posted in Musings & Rants: Life, Parenting, Relationships. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Is it Ok to Celebrate Christmas, Even If You’re Not a Christian?

  1. Pingback: How Did Jesus Get to be So Hot? Where Popular Images of Jesus Came From - Waking Times : Waking Times

  2. zytigon says:

    Great points by Valerie Tarico thanks.

    Wikipedia article on the carol, “The holly and the ivy” says that Cecil Sharp in 1911 had done research on this carol and had found an older version. I had been asking myself what other interesting information could be included in the well known version and thought of birds like Cedar waxwings that sometimes eat the berries so found it interesting to note toward the end of this older version that there are various birds mentioned. I don’t know if it is the case but looks a bit like some pious mind has degraded the older version with obsessive mention of their imagined sacred figures:

    “The Contest of the Ivy and the Holly”, a contest between the traditional emblems of woman and man respectively.
    Holly stands in the hall, fair to behold:
    Ivy stands without the door, she is full sore a cold.
    Nay, ivy, nay, it shall not be I wis;
    Let holly have the mastery, as the manner is.
    Holly and his merry men, they dance and they sing,
    Ivy and her maidens, they weep and they wring.
    Nay, ivy, nay, it shall not be I wis;
    Let holly have the mastery, as the manner is.
    Ivy hath chapped fingers, she caught them from the cold,
    So might they all have, aye, that with ivy hold.
    Nay, ivy, nay, it shall not be I wis;
    Let holly have the mastery, as the manner is.
    Holly hath berries red as any rose,
    The forester, the hunter, keep them from the does.
    Nay, ivy, nay, it shall not be I wis;
    Let holly have the mastery, as the manner is.
    Ivy hath berries black as any sloe;
    There come the owl and eat him as she go.
    Nay, ivy, nay, it shall not be I wis;
    Let holly have the mastery, as the manner is.
    Holly hath birds a fair full flock,
    The nightingale, the popinjay, the gentle laverock.
    Nay, ivy, nay, it shall not be I wis;
    Let holly have the mastery, as the manner is.
    Good ivy, what birds hast thou?
    None but the owlet that cries how, how.
    Nay, ivy, nay, it shall not be I wis;
    Let holly have the mastery, as the manner is.

    Also this week I heard a version of “The Coventry carol” which I found hauntingly beautiful. It is sung A cappella by the Handel & Haydn coral society, arranged by Grant Llewellyn . It can be heard on spotify or bought from Amazon. However the darkly amusing thing is that the carol is about what the mothers of the children slaughtered Herod might have sung (if the story had been real, of which there is no evidence ). This is another example of how the primitive nonsense sung in carols is like a bizarre puzzle which can be solved by greater detail and thus becomes oddly entertaining.

    The way forward is perhaps to embrace all points of view as each containing a grain of sense. So the aim is not to erase and eradicate but rather to amplify science, reason, positive aspects etc.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s