Every year, we hear the same Christmas-based arguments around the water cooler and in the media. Christians tell us we’re celebrating the day Jesus Christ was born, while others tell us Christmas is a pagan holiday adopted by early Christians as a time to celebrate. The truth of the matter is, Christmas celebrations can be whatever you want them to be — and they have been since mankind first set foot in the northern hemisphere. Celebrations surrounding the winter solstice haven’t always been tied to major religions, or even to small pagan ones. For the vast majority of human history, we humans were celebrating for a decidedly simpler reason: We knew we wouldn’t all make it through the next few months.
In our modern society, it’s easy for us to forget that wintertime in the northern hemisphere wasn’t always just an inconvenience for commuters. The cold winter months meant surviving almost entirely on the food you hopefully managed to squirrel away during the warmer seasons, and without modern housing and cold-weather gear, starving was certainly not the only way Old Man Winter might do you in. There was far less work to be done once the crops had all been harvested, so each year, right around the winter solstice, communities would gather around feasts to be cheerful, spend time together, and sometimes, party hard in the face of their own mortality.
One of my favorite writers, Jason Pargen, once wrote a column for Cracked.com, wherein he asked what we, as a human race, would do if we learned the world would be hit by an asteroid at some point in the next three months. We could do nothing to stop it, and we couldn’t know how many of us would survive the impact. His hypothesis? We’d prepare as well as we could, and once the work was done, we’d gather our loved ones, express our gratitude for the role they played in our lives, and promptly party until the sun came up… or didn’t ever again.
And that’s exactly what humans have been doing around Christmas time for millennia.
Now I’m certainly not calling into question anyone’s religious beliefs. This concept and the traditional idea of Christmas are not mutually exclusive, but as we open presents, drink too much eggnog, sing our songs and tell our loved ones how much we care, we’re doing more than simply celebrating Christmas, we’re connecting with a human tradition that extends beyond recorded history.
In today’s world, most of us are blessed with lives in which the prospect of death feels like a distant, abstract concept. When our loved ones pass away, their death is represented in our minds by their absence. Their bodies are shrouded and taken away, cared for and prepared, and if we do see them again, they’re made up, well dressed, and at peace. For much of human history, however, this was not the case. In much of the world today, it isn’t either.
Although this concept may seem unnecessarily brutal or crass to consider around the holidays, for many of us who have had the misfortune of seeing people die, this concept is a powerful reason to celebrate. Like the human beings who looked toward the winter with an understanding that they may not all make it to the other side, soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines fill out their SGLI (Service Member Group Life Insurance) forms before heading to combat zones the world over and look to the horizon with the same uncertainty. We know we could lose people we care about, we know that the people we care about could lose us, and the way many of us dealt with that stress? By gathering our loved ones, expressing how much we cared, and partying until the sun came up.
Some things never change.
Christmas isn’t just a holiday about Christ (though for many, it truly is), it’s also about life, love, and celebrating one another. The winter solstice celebration has changed many times throughout history, and even the ways we celebrate Christmas have changed over the last few hundred years, but the point has always been the same. We acknowledge the beauty and the brevity of life, celebrating our savior and the afterlife he promised us as well as the love and joy we’re blessed with while we’re still here.
Death, like Christmas, is subject to interpretation, but it serves as a reminder to us all that our time here is fleeting. We can choose to see that as reason for dismay, or we can embrace it as a reason to celebrate, love as hard as we can, and raise a toast to those who didn’t make it through the last winter, or the last deployment. At Christmas, we can look to the uncertainty of the horizon, right in the face of our own mortality, and meet that fear with a song, a drink, and those we hold dear. We can think of those we lost, and know we’ll see them on the other side. We can party until the sun comes up, even if it never does again.
We do this because humans have always been warriors, fighting for survival against whatever odds we’ve been faced with. Because love can bind the saltiest war fighter to the most innocent child. Because we know we may not all make it to the next one, I wish you all a very merry Christmas. For the last 100,000 years and for a 100,000 years to come, humanity always has a reason to hope when they look to the year ahead, and this year is no exception.