So, the true meaning of Christmas. What is it, then? Is it a celebration of love? Of friendship? Of giving? Of feasting? Of, to quote the evergreen John Betjeman, “The Maker of the stars and sea, become a child on earth for me”? Well, yes, indeed, all of the above, but none of those is what I’m referring to. Consider, if you will, the fact that most scholars believe that Jesus (if he did exist, and personally I see no reason to doubt that he did; it seems a little unlikely that Christianity as a religion would have achieved the traction it did in the first century AD if somebody pretty extraordinary and charismatic hadn’t been leading it, whether or not you believe he was the actual son of God) was probably born either in late September or March. Why then do we celebrate Christmas, Christ’s Mass, on 25th December?
Oh, well, that’s an easy one, isn’t it? It’s the good old Winter Solstice, the old pagan Midwinter Feast, which took place when the nights were longest and the days shortest, which was nicked by the early Christians who pasted Christmas over it and told everybody it was the Feast of Our Lord, which I expect was fine by the pagans so long as nobody expected them to stop pigging out and getting drunk in the middle of winter. And indeed, arguably the pagans had the last laugh, as we have as many of the pagan traditions surviving today as we do Christian ones.
Take the feasting, for instance. In the olden days*, most cattle would have been slaughtered in midwinter, partly because they couldn’t be fed but also because their meat would feed people during the “hungry months” from January to April when there was precious little food around. Midwinter was the only time fresh meat would be available in any quantity for months. Take the Twelve Days of Christmas, which go straight back to Yule, the northern Germanic pagan Midwinter festival, which lasted for twelve days. The Christmas Tree is a reminder that the the Celts and the Germanic tribes worshipped trees, and would revere and decorate certain King Trees which they believed to be particularly significant. And of course, it’s an evergreen to signify life and survival even in the midst of winter. Mistletoe was the sacred plant of the Druids, the pre-Christian priesthood amongst the Celtic tribes, and the practice of kissing under the mistletoe is obviously a much reduced survival of a fertility rite.
*Generic term for “pre-refrigeration”.
Yep, Christmas is still very much a pagan festival, all right, and we remember that, and deep in our hearts we know what it’s really about. For as well as all these other things we do, at Christmas we do one thing in particular which marks, for me, the true meaning of Christmas. We light lights. At the darkest time of the year, at the beginning of the hardest and coldest months, we make a great blaze of light against the darkness. Christmas lights in town centres and on shops and houses, tree lights, fairy lights, roaring log fires, candles, even lighted Christmas puddings, are all ways in which we call to the sun to return, and, perhaps more importantly, (please forgive my potty mouth, but I think this is important) we tell the darkness that it can go f*ck itself.
This for me is the real meaning of Christmas – it’s a festival of light. Actual light, lit against the darkness, but also of metaphorical light, the light of love, of kindness and generosity and friendship, the light of peace. At the darkest time of the year we stand up and say We are on the side of the Light, on the side of humanity, on the side of peace on earth and goodwill to all men. At the death of the year, we stand with life. Wherever you are, however you are spending it, and whoever you are spending it with, I wish you light, love, and every happiness this Christmas Day.