Why do pagans celebrate a Christian holiday?

Every year, on the Tuesday after Thanksgiving, my city has a Christmas festival. (Well, not in 2020, ’cause pandemic.) The local newspaper started it and sponsors it.

I like to joke the festival begins with the pagan stuff. Once the sun is mostly down (and this time of year, this latitude, it sets around 4:45 PM) about 2,000 people gather round the 60-foot tree. The local Air Force band plays a few songs, the mayor says a few things, the people are led in a few secular carols about silver jingle bells, snowmen (even though we’re well below the snowline), reindeer (even though we’re on the wrong continent), and Santa Claus. Who makes an appearance, and the tree gets lit.

That done, the city’s Christians take over. Downtown fills with tent-canopied booths, nearly all of ’em set up by local churches. We give out cookies, cocoa, cider, and other treats. Our choirs sing. Open-air Christmas pageants are performed. One megachurch in particular handles crowd control and cleanup.

“What’s with all the Christians?” a friend commented years ago.

“Well it is our holiday,” I reminded him.

I find it a drastic contrast. My family does too. I’m usually there early to set up and work my church’s booth, so I see everything. My family, most years, skips the newspaper’s opening festivities, ’cause all they care about are the church booths. Because I’m manning the booth, I kinda ignore the pagan tree-lighting stuff at the beginning. And the few times I’m not in a booth, I go to Starbucks and get something egg-nog-flavored, then go check out the sister churches in town.

Whereas the non-Christians who only wanna hear the Santa and reindeer songs? They clear out early. Things get way too Christian for them. They might go to the downtown bars; that’s it.

And many of us Christians are fine with Santa songs, but the opening festivities are too crowded and impersonal, and we’d rather check out church booths and say hi to our fellow Christians.

I’ve lived elsewhere, and visited their local Christmas celebrations. Those celebrations weren’t adopted by the local churches. As a result they were mostly about Santa and snowmen and reindeer… and I found ’em pretty dreary and empty.

Some years ago I bought an edition of C.S. Lewis’s letters, and among them is a bit about the oddness of pagans who celebrate Christmas. Imagine, Lewis wrote his brother, if some non-Buddhists decided to enthusiastically celebrate a Buddhist holiday. (Imagine them celerating it American-style: Holiday decorations, songs, sales, movies, festive coffee drinks.) Now imagine, since these non-Buddhists aren’t big on the Buddha, they remove all the elements of him from the celebration. Even insert some mascot, whom they celebrate more than the Buddha. Then celebrate anyway.

Lewis later developed this idea into a satire, “Xmas and Christmas: A Lost Chapter from Herodotus.” In it, the people of Niatirb (get it?) vigorously celebrate a holiday called Exmas, while the religious folks celebrate an alternate contemporaneous holiday called Crissmas.

I agree with Lewis: It’s super weird to celebrate some other religion’s holiday, yet push that religion out of it. It’s exactly as if pagans took over Hanukkah—and instead of remembering the Maccabees, they invented some guy named Hanukkah Harry who flies round the world and delivers socks.

But weird or not, I don’t wonder why people do it. They do it for the same reason they have sex though they’re not in love; the same reason they take heroin instead of seek true joy. It’s fun. Christmas is fun, whether Christ has anything to do with it.

True, it’s meaningless without Christ. But it’s still fun, and fun’s all people care about.

Empty fun. But still fun.

I wrote about much of this in my “Happy Holidays” rant: Pagans try, and fail, to replace all the spiritual depth of Christianity with “the magic and wonder of Christmas.” In other words they trick the kids into believing in magic, then vicariously enjoy the kids’ wonder.

Or they try other ways to capture spiritual depth. They try their darnedest to create “Christmas magic” for their brains, of one form or another. Might be the euphoria of seeing loved ones, the thrill of getting a surprising gift, the noble fun of generosity and charity, or the struggle to try to make profound connections out of all the tinsel and humbug. I remember one writer who pointed out Christmas takes place right after the winter solstice, when the days stopped getting shorter and started growing longer, and how meaningful he finds this. I guess you could tap that idea for a warm feeling, but for me it’s just “meh.” When I think of “light of the world,” ’tain’t that.

But really these are all attempts to feel something. Anything. Get happiness where one can. Sometimes by any means necessary; if it can’t come from wonder, it can at least come from sugar. Or rum.

Shorn of Jesus, that’s all Christmas is: The pursuit of the warm fuzzy feelings. I’ve known many a pagan (and Christian; we do it too) who goes to great trouble to go through all the motions. Christmas celebrations have to be done just so. And it’s easy to fantasize what we’re doing has some significant, deep meaning to it. Especially when it’s pretty, or when it invokes wonder in small children. Especially when we’re so stoned we can’t stop giggling. Humans are really good at psyching ourselves into believing our actions aren’t really empty or futile or meaningless.

Yeah, Jesus is the solution. One they won’t acknowledge, ’cause they don’t care about him. Just the feels. They don’t realize it’s all about chasing your tail… but you don’t have any tail.