T is the Season - Modern Mythology
Despite efforts of many religious leaders and politicians to "put Christ back in Christmas," we've realized that he never was an original part of winter celebration and pageantry. Jesus was unlikely to have been born in December; his birth probably occurred in May or June when "there were shepherds abiding in the fields keeping watch over their flocks by night." The celebration of Christ's birth was grafted onto a much older and far more popular celebration - the Saturnalia - by Pope Julius I in 350 CE, after the outlawing of pagan celebrations at that time of the year proved impossible. Many historians regard the establishment of Christ's birthday as December 25th as opportunistic piracy.
This is true of many of the traditional beliefs of Christianity. The notions of virgin birth in late December, death by crucifixion in the spring equinox, resurrection after three days, and communion with bread and wine signifying flesh and blood were around long before the birth of Christ. These ideas may be found in the myths of Osiris in Egypt in 2500 BC, Mithra of Persian Zoastrianism in the previous millenium, and Roman Attis and Greek Dionysis centuries before. So, many of the tenets of Christianity held dear by modern Christians were borrowed from religious and mythological beliefs that predated Christ's appearance centuries later.
Saturnalia itself likely originated two millennia before the birth of Christ as a celebration of the winter solstice. Saturn, the god of the harvest, was an icon of the celebration. In 50 CE Seneca the Younger wrote "loose reins are given to public dissipation; everywhere you may hear the sound of great preparations, as if there were some real difference between the days devoted to Saturn and those for transacting business." He referred to Saturnalia as a time "to avoid singularity, both take a better supper and throw off the toga." Saturnalia was associated with most of the practices of modern Christmas: religious rituals, honored figures, sacred flames, decorative greens, peace and forgiveness, time off from work, relaxing with family and friends, gift giving, feasting, exuberant play, celebretory dress, and helping the less fortunate. But, for many, its primary significance was bringing the previous year to a close, and finding hope and joy for in the beginning of the next.
Astronomically, Saturnalia (and specifically the Feast of Sol Invicta - the Unconquered Sun) signified the end of the shortening of daylight hours, when days began growing longer again. It would be a very appropriate time to begin a calendar, thus initiating a "new year," and in fact was probably the first day of the year on ancient calendars before it was realized that each year was comprised of an extra quarter day, which (uncompensated by the "leap year" principal) would cause the date of the solstice to drift earlier in the calendar. As a result, the day of the solstice would fall on the last day of a 365 day calendar four years after the calendar began, and would be a week early after 28 years. After numerous "resets" of the calendar by various cultures, what we consider the first day was erroneously and somewhat arbitrarily labeled "January 1st," and the solstice ended up on December 21st or 22nd.
Thus: Christ wasn't born December 25th, and the year doesn't really begin January 1st.
And so, we've decided to do something different with the winter holiday season this year. We intend NOT to celebrate Christmas on December 25th, NOR will we observe New Years' Day January 1st. We've realized that both are false and meaningless practices which leave many drained and disappointed. Instead, we are going to observe and celebrate the winter solstice, and intend to recreate the original spirit of Christmas (as was observed centuries before Christ) at the real beginning of the year - on the solstice. No silly wired tree propped up in the living room, no obligatory popping of champagne corks. Everyone coming will be asked to bring something to share: food, drink, musical instruments and voices, stories, rituals. Weather and global warming permitting, there will be two fires indoors and a fine telescope by a firepit on the back deck. All arriving may be given two cards on which to write "As the year ends, I most want to remember. . ." and "As the year ends, I most want to forget. . ." Gathered around a fire, all will be asked to read aloud what they've written of remembrances, and to toss the other cards into the flames. It being the last night of chanukah, we may chant and pray around the menorah.
We hope to embrace the "true spirit" of Christmas in these ways.