Perhaps we can look at Christmas, as it is celebrated in the U.S, as an Interfaith Holiday, in that its rituals are not drawn from just one religious tradition.
Advent, the season that leads up to Christmas in the Christian tradition, is a powerful reflection of this interfaith dimension.In terms of the Christan calender, we are “leading up to” the birth of the historical Jesus. But in fact, the practices of Christmas, such as the use of evergreen and the lighting of candles, predate Christianity and are associated with ancient Pagan traditions that mark and celebrate the winter solstice. Many pagan practices were absorbed by Christianity as the religion spread across Europe and we often forget that the practices themselves do not belong to the Christian holiday. To me this sort of melding of traditions, or syncretism, speaks to the ways that the boundaries between religions can be porous.
It is undeniably the case that this Holiday season in the U.S is fraught and problematic in the following ways:
1. As a “Christian” Holiday, Christmas can be alienating to those of faiths that do not celebrate it
2. We are surrounded by capitalism at its worst, manifested by an utter inundation of consumerism
3. While the media and the conventions of culture scream out “JOY!”, “HAPPINESS”. “PEACE,” in truth the month of December is the hardest of the year for a great many people. Those who are not housed and live in cold climates are under threat, those in poverty are further marginalized, and the conditions of those who suffer from depression and other mental and emotional disturbances are further exacerbated.
Yet despite all of this, and my personal ambivalence about Christmas for the reasons listed above, perhaps a recognition of the ways in which religions influence each other helps us reclaim some hope for the season. Many traditions, Judaism most specifically, have ways of celebrating the victories of life over death and good over evil at this time of year in this hemisphere when the sun is lowest on the horizon. And the traditions that history has tried to eradicate often show through despite it all… Maybe we can regard the Christmas tree with a conspiratorial smile—its not just a symbol co-opted by capitalism. Its an emblem of ancient traditions that have survived the spoils of empire….
Wishing you a safe and fruitful Solstice Season!