From the Vault – Murphy’s Law – The true meaning of Christmas

Joel Murphy

Joel Murphy

[Editor’s Note – This column originally ran on December 20, 2005. With all the talk of Starbucks red cups and the “War on Christmas,” it seemed like a good time to revisit it.]

O Holiday Tree! O Holiday Tree!
Thy leaves are so unchanging.

It just doesn’t have the same ring to it. But, given the way things are going, it very well could be how the song goes a few years from now. It seems more and more government agencies are referring to the large, decorated trees on their lawns as “Holiday Trees,” afraid of upsetting the more politically correct among us by using the dreaded “C” word (no, not that “C” word). The tree displayed on the West Lawn of the U.S. Capitol, which was formerly known as the “Capitol Christmas Tree,” was re-branded a “Holiday Tree” in the late 1990s.

As our society gets more and more PC, I guess our government is really starting to worry about upsetting people during the “holiday season,” which I guess is easier for them to focus on than the war in Iraq or the way oil companies are screwing us over. By carefully avoiding the word “Christmas,” our government is trying to appease the atheists out there. Because after all, Christmas is a really big religious holiday. It’s like the Super Bowl of Christianity.

Or is it? This year some of our country’s mega-churches are shutting down on Christmas Sunday. In the past when Christmas has fallen on a Sunday, attendance at these large churches has been down considerably. So the mega-churches have decided to just close up shop on Christmas, which they are viewing as a “family day.” Naturally, some people are not very pleased about this.

“This is a consumer mentality at work: ‘Let’s not impose the church on people. Let’s not make church in any way inconvenient,'” quipped professor David Wells, who teaches history and systematic theology at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, a leading evangelical school in Massachusetts. “I think what this does is feed into the individualism that is found throughout American culture, where everyone does their own thing.”

Basically, we’ve become a consumer culture and we now value material possession over spiritual growth (pretty much everything Chuck Palahniuk was trying to warn us about in Fight Club). We, as a nation, are our fucking khakis.

Which is why I think our country needs to get back to basics. We need to reevaluate our priorities and look into the past to remember what Dec. 25 is really all about – the feast of the Son of Isis.

Now, I’m guessing I’ve lost a few of you at this point, but try to stick with me. I’m warning you, this might be upsetting in a Da Vinci Code kind of way, but it needs to be said – Jesus Christ probably wasn’t born on Dec. 25. You see, it gets pretty cold in Judea in the winter, so it’s pretty unlikely that shepherds would still be “keeping watch over their flocks at night” during this time of year.

In fact, there are no references in the Bible to the actual day of Jesus’ birth. It was in the year 350 that Pope Julius I decided people should start celebrating Christ’s birth on Dec. 25. Since pagan Romans were the majority at the time, the pope was looking for a way to convert them to Christianity without taking away their beloved winter feast (he did the same thing with Easter).

Most of our Christmas traditions come from these pagan rituals. Not just Babylon’s Son of Isis feast that I alluded to earlier, but also the Roman’s winter solstice known as “Saturnalia” and the northern European pagans’ “Yule” celebration.

Caroling comes from the ancient Romans, who had a group known as the Mummers. The Mummers would put on costumes, then sing and dance throughout their neighborhood.

For their Yule celebrations, the pagans in northern Europe would burn large “Yule logs” in honor of their Sun god.

And the big one – Christmas trees – were actually a part of all of the northern European winter solstices. Pagans would often bring live evergreen trees home during the harsh winters to remind them that their crops would grow again. The Druids (not the guys who bring out the Undertaker on Smackdown!) would gather around huge trees and worship them as part of their sacred ceremonies. In those days, Evergreen boughs represented fertility and were often given as presents at weddings.

The first record of Christians using a Christmas tree was in Germany in 1521. Ironically enough, a Lutheran minister at the time saw this as blasphemy and said, “Better that they should look to the true tree of life, Christ.”

I guess what I’m trying to say to our government and all of you Christmas haters out there is – lighten up. I think we can call the large Evergreen on the Capitol a “Christmas Tree.” Christians can be happy because the word Christmas is still part of our vocabulary, and atheists can secretly smile because all of these traditions come from pagans. Everyone’s a winner.

Whether you are celebrating the birth of Jesus Christ, giving props to your Sun god or just in it to get a new iPod – Christmas is a beautiful holiday. I think Bill Murray said it best in the classic Scrooged, “It’s the time of the year when we all act a little nicer, we smile a little easier, we … cheer a little more. For a couple of hours out of the whole year, we are the people that we always hoped we would be. It’s a miracle.”

I think we should just all openly embrace Christmas. Look, Dec. 25 can mean whatever you want it to mean. If you are Jewish, you can even go the Seth Cohen “Christmukkah” route – but let’s all just enjoy the holiday season. Just think back to when you were a kid, when all you wanted to do was get downstairs and see what Santa brought for you (or for Jewish kids, think of how fun spinning a dreidel for eight days was).

Christmas can be whatever you want it to be. And that may be the true Christmas miracle.


Joel Murphy is the creator of HoboTrashcan, which is probably why he has his own column. He loves pugs, hates Jimmy Fallon and has an irrational fear of robots. You can contact him at

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