This is a cause for regret to my more devout friends, I know. They feel as though their festival is being not just cheapened and commercialised but taken over by godlessness. Is it any comfort to them to know that this is a reversion, that the opposite happened some centuries ago? Christianity once colonised and usurped a pagan festival.
Indeed, there are signs that we are simply removing some Christian layers from Christmas to reveal its older traditions buried beneath. While the Christmas tree is a German 17th-century addition, the habit of bringing greenery into the house at the time of the winter solstice is almost certainly far older than Christianity and was a Yule tradition of northern Europeans with origins lost in the fog of antiquity. Likewise gift-giving and the lighting of candles to urge the return of light in the darkest time of winter.
This is of course true of near all of the major Christian festivals. No, not to insist that Christianity means nothing nor that it is an invention (hey, make up your own minds).
Rather, that the hegemonic religion of the time spent some centuries noting that people tended to get merry at certain times of the year, three of the four turning points of the year for example. Samhaim became All Souls/All Saints, the arrival of spring Easter and the winter solstice Christmas.
As Matt Ridley notes:
If Christmas is really just a repurposed pagan festival of the solstice, this does not make any of its traditions, Christian or pagan, any more or less worthwhile than others. In particular, let us give the Christians credit for two things: charity and beauty. Had it not been for St Paul and Constantine, we might still be celebrating midwinter with just debauchery, flamingoes and female gladiators, and no acts of kindness, consideration, contemplation and care. And we might never have heard a boy’s treble singing Once in Royal David’s City in the incomparable, soaring splendour of Kings College chapel’s perpendicular architecture.
So have a merry solstice, be good and let’s hope the sun heeds our heathen hopes and starts to return this week.
Whatever your beliefs do have a merry one.