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Christmas: celebrate the return of the sun

24 dec 2013
Christmas celebrate the return of the sun

Christmas is an old, a very old tradition. Older than the 'name' Christmas, even older than the birth of Christ. It covers more then just a religious meaning - is also a great celebration of nature. On Christmas Eve I wrote an Op-Ed in the Dutch Newspaper NRC-Handeldblad. "Christmas firmly places both our feet on our ever-revolving planet." Here's the english translation.

Dutch version here


You can’t escape Christmas. The nativity scenes and Christmas trees with lights are everywhere. And as happens every year, people spend huge amounts on Christmas gifts and Christmas dinners.

The blurring of the Christmas message can provoke harsh criticism in some people. What has become of celebrating the birth of Jesus Christ? They point out that without its religious meaning, Christmas is left with only conspicuous and obsessive consumption. Yes, wrapped up in lovely paper, but profoundly empty.

By limiting the message to a religious one, these critics are depriving ‘Christmas’ of something. After all, humanity has been celebrating ‘Christmas’ for thousands of years, long before it acquired that name, or anyone had heard of Jesus. The real reason for this feast is one of the most remarkable natural phenomena we know: the winter solstice.

Our spot on earth (the northern hemisphere) is at its furthest from the sun on the 21st of December: it is cold, dark, and all of nature has come to a standstill. At the end of December it is midwinter and the northern hemisphere is slowly but surely making its way back to the sun. With the solstice, which is actually a turning of Earth, we celebrate a path of nature: the transition from darkness into light. This astronomic moment is well worth a celebration: without the sun there is no harvest, no food, no heat, nothing can be born and life on earth can not exist. The sun is, literally, vitally important.

The Scandinavian Yuletides on the 25th of December were well-known pagan celebrations of the winter solstice. The Romans celebrated the solstice on the 17th of December, with ‘Saturnalia’, a feast that lasted several days. In the fourth century the Christian church decided that the festivities already being celebrated at the end of December, were the perfect occasion to celebrate the birth of Jesus. The actual birth date of Jesus was unknown, and could therefore more or less be chosen at will. Saturnalia and Yuletide were such popular celebrations that the pagan customs were transformed into Christian rituals. It was easy to add Jesus to the festivities. The pagan or pre-Christian traditions remained the same: the lights, bringing evergreens into the home as an imitation of natural life, the festive meal and the gifts.
The return of the sun can be given several meanings. Religion will interpret it in a religious way; humanists and atheists are more likely to see the scientific beauty. In all events, there is a common experience at its core. Celebrating Yuletide, Saturnalia, Midwinter and Christmas firmly places both our feet on our ever-revolving planet. For a moment we become aware of our place in the amazing cosmos, which is ever becoming more marvellous and wonderful, as science advances its findings. This is what we know: it is dark, but soon the light returns. The position of the sun, nature, family, a baby being born, decorations, indulgence, traditions and science - all these things belong in these final dark days of the year. They mark a point in time to do something important: to celebrate life.

Boris van der Ham
Chairman of the Dutch Humanist Society

Watch also: freethoughvlog.com (humanist/freethinking videoblogs)

Published in Dutch in  NRC Handeldblad 24 december 2013

More reading:

  • English-written page and news from Boris van der Ham, here
  • Buy book 'De Vrije Moraal' (Dutch; Amazone.com) about the dilemma's of permisive society.
  • Buy book 'Voortrekkers en Baanbrekers' (Dutch Amazone.com) about the future of Europa after the 2005 Referendum.
  • Both books are also available on bol.com