Originally, what we call Christmas today had its root in a pagan festival celebrated across Europe. In the Norse culture of Scandinavia, it was known as Yule, which is the root of the word “Yuletide.” It was a celebration that is unique to high-latitude cultures because it celebrated the depth of winter, the lowest point of the sun: winter solstice.
In the early days of Christianity, the Christians were opposed to the winter solstice celebration precisely because it was pagan. As Christianity rose to prominence, however, many of the pagan cultural elements were adopted and transformed, including what has come to be known as Christmas.
Today, Christmas is imbued with Christian iconography and content. Even Santa Claus is a modern rendering of St. Nicholas of Myra in what today is Turkey. Although the Christmas tree has pagan roots, its meaning today is fully Christian. The star at the top of the tree represents the Christmas star that guided the wise men on their quest to find Jesus.
Many atheists take a cynical view, seeing the transformation of these Christmas icons as an example of cultural appropriation. It was a way for Christianity to consolidate its power. Clinical psychologist Jordan Peterson brings a different perspective to this. He notes that the Bible is full of stories that come from different cultures and different tribes, and that the act of uniting tribes is the same as the process of joining their different stories into one whole.
Christians did not truly embrace the winter solstice celebration until they made one key connection: the light. Pagan European cultures celebrated the darkest day of the year December 21, not because it was darkest but because it was the day that the sun turned and grew stronger. They saw it as the moment of rebirth of the light, of life returning to the desolate winter.
In Christianity, the light is a symbol of truth, love, and guidance. Indeed, Jesus himself states in John 8:12:
“I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.”
This ties in with the star that guided the three wise men to Jesus after his birth. Once this connection between the light celebration and the central tenets of Christianity was made, the Church was ready to fully embrace and integrate the winter solstice festival and take ownership of it.
The darkness of winter is the perfect canvas on which to paint a message of light and hope. The absence of light is hard for many, and it was even harsher in the past before electric lights and heating, but the darkness becomes bearable when you know that there is light at the end of the tunnel.
When you know that darkness one day will be displaced by light, the future promise gives you strength and hope to carry on.