When I brought my Jewish vegetarian boyfriend home to Minnesota one year for Christmas, from our home in New York City, my grandmother didn’t know what to do. What would she feed him? What did I mean he doesn’t really celebrate Christmas? — everyone celebrates Christmas, she declared.
Different era, limited exposure, I told myself.
Yet my own cosmopolitan, educated self, while aware of the pagan in the Christian, didn’t fully appreciate the tangled roots of Christmas and the winter solstice until recently, when my Humanist colleagues gathered on a Sunday for a monthly discussion of one of the talks from our First Unitarian Society founder. In 1916, Rev. John Dietrich was asked to move to Minneapolis to lead conversations that tended to deviate from the norm on Sunday mornings. Eventually he was talking to audiences of a thousand in a downtown theater. One of those one-hour addresses was titled “What and Why Is Christmas,” delivered on December 21, 1924.
As history tells us, Dietrich said, a joyful celebration at the end of the year with presents, lights and trees have been with us since thousands of years pre-dating Jesus. This “Midwinter Festival” he explained, “rests on the fact that the sun, after starting on [its] southward journey and sinking lower and lower on the horizon every day, at last stops [its] downward course and, after a brief interval, begins to climb again. … This is the basis of the joy of this Christmas season. …
One of the early popes frankly admitted that the 25th of December commemorated rather the return of the sun than the birth of Christ.”
Why December 25th?
Christian scholars agree that the date is not actually related to the birth of Jesus. It likely wasn’t until a few centuries after Christ that the church fixed the day on which Jesus was born. As Dietrich explained, in the earliest years after Christ the church expected the speedy second coming, in which all earthly affairs would end, thus who really cared to celebrate even the simple birthdate of Jesus? And if the stories in the Bible are based on some fact, this birthday with shepherds tending to flocks under a starry night would not have been in December, the height of the rainy season in Palestine.
- In fact, Dietrich said, before Christ the Ancient Persians celebrated the first day after the winter solstice as the birthday of Mithras, when the dark and cold seemed to swallow up light and warmth until their god, the sun, paused and began to return to them, to which they celebrated with a festival.
- In ancient Egypt, Isis was the queen of heaven and Horus was her virgin-born son who was born toward the end of December.
- Ancient Greeks celebrated December 25 as the birth of their man-god Hercules, son of a divine father and human mother, who ascended into heaven after clearing the earth of its evils.
- Ancient northern Europeans had a Yule feast with huge fires, bringing trees into their homes to bring beloved deities with them.
The Christmas date of December 25 was picked because it coincided with the pre-existing celebrations of winter solstice.
The Significance of Our Midwinter Festival
“Having shown that this festival is universal and human rather than sectarian and theological,” Dietrich said, “let us turn to its real significance. The particular charm about this festival is that it takes place when nature’s face is cold and cheerless … a sort of rigidity and harshness and inhospitableness settles down upon the outer world. … Somehow the end of all things is brought before our minds. It is not a time of rejoicing, but rather of mourning. And yet, in the face of all this there occurs the brightest festival of the year. We see and feel the wintry chill and yet something takes place [that] makes us disregard it, which causes our spirit to triumph over it.”
Dietrich explained how human Christmas is about the spiritual sense that even in our darkest hour there is hope of coming light, there is always the resource of the sun. “No matter how deep our sorrow, how tangled our perplexity, how dark our prospect, there is always a way out.”
In 1924, a few years after the first world war ended, Dietrich characterized the United States in this way: “For generations we have talked about turning spears into pruning hooks and shields into plows, and yet during the past decade the whole world has given its time to turning pruning hooks into spears and plows into shields. … We talked about the growth of intelligence, and yet see the masses of people running wild after every folly. We talk about good conquering evil, and yet all about us there is so much of evil and its consequence.”
We Are a Coral Reef
Dietrich left Christianity in 1911, and was part of the development of a congregated community of what today we might call “Nones.” He appreciated Christmas as a symbol of our belief in “the triumph of right, the triumph of love, the fresh incoming of the divine air into the world. … Through the snowstorms it sees June. Above the howling blasts of December it hears bird-songs. Beneath the snow it recognizes the thrill of seeds that promise harvest. … The essential spirit then of the worldwide human Christmas is this joyous faith of man … that light and truth and justice are constantly being reborn into higher and higher forms and will some day reign supreme.”
He concluded with a nod to the interconnected organisms of the coral reef, saying, “The future calls to us across the ages and says: Man’s hope is not in vain, his dream of a better world shall one day come down out of the clouds and build itself in rock foundations and solid walls here on earth. May we, like the coral polyp, leave behind us some result that shall enter into the construction of this larger humanity of the future!”
In other words, as our discussion group concluded about Dietrich’s message: