So This is Christmas...

The snow has arrived!  I love this time of year.  So many childhood memories of snowmen, Christmas decorations, baked goodies, and family time are brought back with the coming of the season.  There is no other collective memory that I can recall from my childhood that are more special than these.  It was the one time of year when the whole family came together to celebrate, exchange Christmas cheer, and renew our bond. 

The scents of the freshly cut evergreens, steaming hot cocoa, and Mom’s homemade fudge, right out of the oven, still permeate my senses so much so that if I closed my eyes and opened them again, I wouldn’t be surprised to awake and find myself there, listening to Grandpa’s stories, and nibbling on sugar cookies and candy canes.  To this day, I delight in watching A Charlie Brown Christmas, Fat Albert’s Christmas Special, and Rudolf the Red-Nosed Reindeer. 

So, why is it that I no longer celebrate Christmas?  With all the joy that it brought, why wouldn’t I wish to continue the tradition with my own family?  Principle.  It’s not that I regret all those wonderful years of family time intended to honor the birth of Jesus, peace be upon him, (as is often assumed by people who misunderstand my faith).  On the contrary, it’s the opposite. 

Other than in namesake, Christmas, i.e., Mass of Christ, has nothing whatsoever to do with the teachings of Jesus.  I can appreciate those who say “Jesus is the Reason for the Season” and to “keep Christ in Christmas.” Despite their good intentions, however, Christ never was the reason for the season.  He didn’t teach us to cut down and decorate trees, eat ham, hang mistletoe, or exchange gifts in honor of his birth.  Not unlike those before him, his teachings taught us to submit to the Will of God and to practice all that that encompasses, i.e., charity, honesty, patience, and consistency, to name a few.

In the beginning of my journey in Islam, I celebrated the Virgin Birth and had thought it important to remember the teachings of Jesus on Christmas, in hopes of salvaging some measure of spiritual significance.  I had no problem celebrating the birth of a prophet of God, for as Muslims, we celebrate the birth of Muhammad, peace be upon him, every day.  The Qur’an teaches us not to place the importance of one prophet over another so there wasn’t any apparent contradiction my actions. 

Unfortunately, my upbringing did not prioritize Jesus as the focal point of Christmas, despite being raised in a Christian home.  We were not Catholic, so we didn’t attend Midnight Mass.  Like most families, we had our Christmas Eve traditions; ours consisted of eating cookies with milk, and opening one gift of choice.  The next morning, we would wake up to find the gifts that “Santa” had left us.  Mom and Dad would get up, make breakfast, and later we would open the beautifully wrapped gifts that had been gathering under the tree.  Except for “knowing” that Jesus was born on Christmas Day, there was no correlation drawn.  The Bible wasn’t taken out and read, we didn’t attend a religious service or anything of the sort. 

The fact that this was common practice within most families, who celebrated Christmas, concerned me.  I imagined a day when people would know nothing of Christ, in whose name they were celebrating.  That day is upon us.  In Japan, Christmas celebrations are abundant, yet less than one half of one percent of the population is Christian.  Similar to Christmas in America, it is simply an excuse to go shopping and indulge in sweets, or worse, it has become a national date night. 

Ironically, Christmas has become a day when sincere Christians are trying to keep Christ in the celebration, while most others have forgotten all about the event that supposedly corresponds to his birth and in many cases entirely discount any religious significance to December 25th.  As it happens, the latter are closer to the truth than most Christians would care to admit.  In fact, a large list of pagan deities were given birthday celebrations on or around this day, including, Mithras, Horus, Dionysus, Hercules, and a host of others.     

Scholars have found that the Virgin Birth actually took place in autumn or possibly spring, not the end of December.  Historically, sheepherders kept their flocks indoors during the winter months, whereas the New Testament describes Jesus’ birth as having taken place when the flocks were being tended in the fields.  Christmas became the day designated to celebrate the Virgin Birth in 350 CE under the leadership of Pope Julius I, an attempt to streamline the Roman public into Christianity.  The ancient festival of Saturnalia, commemorating the birth of Saturn, god of the harvest was essentially coopted by the church which gradually replaced the names of pagan practices with holy ones.  In practice, however, the celebration changed very little.  The excess of feasting, drunkenness and debauchery continued to mark the days of the solstice to the extent that the Puritans actually banned the public celebration for twenty two years; in England, the church fathers instituted a day of fasting.

Like everything else associated with Christmas, December 25th is pagan in origin.  Nowhere in the Bible does God tell us to celebrate the birth of Christ on a designated day, nor did the early Christians do any such thing.  The day itself relates to the winter solstice and Yuletide celebrations, honoring the Germanic pagan deity Jul, whereby followers hung mistletoe and slaughtered pigs, hence the customary Christmas ham.  Odin, another pagan god, was said to the great hunt for the wild boar, became associated with the Christmas character of Santa Clause.  He is said to have rode upon an eight-legged horse and would fly down to people’s homes, leaving gifts inside the boots of children who would leave carrots and straw for his flying horse.  The myth of Odin merged with St. Nicholas, and boots became stockings, yet the traditions remain (although children in various countries continue to put their shoes out for Santa on Christmas Eve).

Today, the gifts are usually set beneath a Christmas tree.  Ironically, the concept of cutting down trees and decorating them is explicitly condemned in the book of Jeremiah 10:1-4: "For the customs of the peoples are worthless; they cut a tree out of the forest, and a craftsman shapes it with his chisel. They adorn it with silver and gold; they fasten it with a hammer and nails so it will not totter. Like a scarecrow in a melon patch, their idols cannot speak; they must be carried because they cannot walk."  Historically, there are various European traditions, influenced by the Romans who were themselves inspired by the Babylonian, which included the use of evergreens and fir trees to mark everything from fertility to birth stories of ancient gods.         

Most blasphemous, perhaps, is the “Nativity of the Son,” son, referring the “son of God”−a concept that Muslims and Jews object.  The Virgin Birth, as depicted in the nativity scenes displayed at Christmas time to honor Jesus, has been intertwined with the births of the sun gods of the Roman Empire and the Greek Empire before it.  As the shortest day of the year had come to pass, the sun was believed to have been reborn.  In actuality, “son” and sun have become one and the same.  The choice to observe December 25th had more to do with an attempt by the church fathers to coopt a pagan festival than establish a new morality; a decision that would prove difficult for the church authorities in their hope to curb pagan practices.

Of course today, people, especially Christians, are not cutting down trees to worship them.  It is simply a cultural tradition, just as is gift exchanging and the other activities associated with Christmas.  These traditions, however, are still of pagan origin.  All three of the Abrahamic faiths, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, are instructed not to do as the pagans do and to worship God alone.  There is no compromising this commandment.  Nor did Jesus teach his followers to engage in mass consumption in his name, in what has been coined “the Gospel of Prosperity.”  Despite the wonderful Christmas memories of my childhood, I cannot, in good conscious, pass onto my own children the association between of the Virgin Birth of the Messiah with consumerism, based on pagan concepts. 

Regardless of this, however, it is still a time sanctioned by the state wherein many families, including my own, are granted holiday.  As I value family time, I hope to continue making use of the time allotted.  Also, in some ways, to counter the inescapable materialism whirling around, I plan to use this time to focus on the teachings of the prophets.  This year, my wife and I are planning to visit Hiroshima, to pay our respects to the victims of the atomic bombs.  We will also reflect upon teachings of peace and goodwill, both timeless and common to all faiths.

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