On the Celebration of Christmas

“Monday Musings” for Monday December 8, 2014

Volume IV.  No.  49/205

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A Few Words about Christianity:

Commercial vs. Spiritual

by Assad Meymandi, MD, PhD, DLFAPA*

There is a great debate about Christmas commercial or Christmas spiritual.  A few reflections:

Christmas as a religious observance and Christmas a secular event may co-exist, woe unto the cynics and to the intolerants. In ancient days of Egyptians, Persians and Romans, they celebrated the winter solstice called the Saturnalia which ran December 17 to 24. They closed offices and exchanged gifts. This is the time when the sun reaches its lowest point and begins to climb, once more, in the sky.  In its earliest days, Christianity did not celebrate the Nativity at all. Only two of the four Gospels even mention it. Instead, Easter was the most important day in the Christian year.  In 325, when the Church fathers convened in Nicea, they focused on this issue and decided that Easter should fall on the Sunday following the first full moon of the spring, making it a moveable feast. In 354, the year Saint Augustine of Hippo was born, Pope Liberius decided to add the Nativity to the Church calendar. So, it was he who decided to celebrate the birth of Christ on the fixed day of December 25. It was not until the 1800’s that commerce got a hold of Christmas and resurrected the ancient gift giving of the Roman Saturnalia. In 1828, for example, the American Ambassador to Mexico, Joel Roberts Poinsettia, brought the plant poinsettia to the US. It has been associated with Christmas ever since.

We have room to celebrate the secular feast of Saturnalia, Winter Solstice, on the 25th of December. To get us closer to God, eternity and spirituality, we observe the mystical and holy phenomenon of the birth of Christ religiously at the same time. It is unhealthy to engage in extremes of either and to be cynical and intolerant of the other. After all, Christmas and Saturnalia are to enhance love and understanding.

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*The writer is Adjunct Professor of Psychiatry, University of North Carolina School of Medicine at Chapel Hill, Distinguished Life fellow American Psychiatric Association, and Founding Editor and Editor-in-Chief, Wake County Physician Magazine (1995-2012). He serves as a Visiting Scholar and lecturer on Medicine, the Arts and Humanities at his alma mater the George Washington University School of Medicine and Health.

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