Contrary to what Christian leaders have been claiming for a long time, the “real meaning of Christmas” isn’t their nativity story. A midwinter festival has been celebrated in the Northern Hemisphere for thousands of years (it’s pre-Christian in origin). The Romans had a festival called Saturnalia, which the BBC website details – Did the Romans invent Christmas? The answer is, no, they didn’t; the early church high-jacked the Roman festival of Saturnalia, when it became clear that no one was going to stop having a good time at around this time of year.
Originally a one-day feast at the end of autumn, Saturnalia gradually moved to later and later dates, with longer celebrations, throughout the Roman period.
By the time of Christian conversion it was running into and incorporating a number of festivals. These included the Opalia – the festival day for Saturn’s consort Ops – on the 19 December and the Sigillaria- the day of present-giving – on the 23 December. The 25 December was dies natalis solis invicti – the birthday of the ‘invincible’ Roman sun-god Sol.
Cancelling Saturnalia was unthinkable, so Christian Rome converted it to a Christian holy day instead.
American atheists have a lot of invective aimed at them by ignorant Christian fundamentalists. One extreme example, this week, was in response to the school massacre in Connecticut; a Tennessee Baptist pastor told his congregation that the number of mass shooting were escalating because of schools were government “mind-control centers” that taught “junk about evolution” and “how to be a homo,” and that “humanism” in schools taught Lanza (the shooter) that he was God and “he can just go blow away anybody he wants.” He wasn’t alone in blaming atheists and atheism for the massacre. Former US Presidential hopeful Mike Huckabee said that the shooting was a result of having “systematically removed God from our schools” (ignoring the fact that America is constitutionally secular).
It’s great that many Americans, even those who are religious, find the statements of Huckabee and company objectionable, but it’s unfortunate that the objections focus on the wrong issue. Rather than argue about whether God is jealous and vindictive or loving and compassionate (or at least in addition to that argument), Americans should be calling out fundamentalists for depicting nonbelievers as agents of evil.