- Our modern celebration of Christmas is a hodgepodge of traditions and holidays that includes the winter solstice and the birth of Jesus.
- Confusion about Christmas contradictions can create cognitive dissonance, leading to defense mechanisms, like splitting, denial, and suppression.
- Overcoming splitting can involve embracing Christmas' contradictions, rather than denying them, while enjoying all of its modern customs.
What comes to mind when you hear the word “Christmas"?
Do you envision snow? Sleigh rides? A real pine Christmas tree decorated with ornaments? A Christian religious service in a big church? Santa Claus giving presents to children? Familiar carols about “Jack Frost nipping at your nose” in a scene reminiscent of Charles Dickens's A Christmas Carol?
By now, most people know that none of these things were present at the time and place of Jesus' birth in Israel around 4 BC (yes, somehow, Jesus was born four years before Christ; Dunn, 2003). Adding more cognitive dissonance is that Jesus and his apostles, all of whom were Jewish (Rich, 2016), celebrated Hanukkah, described in the Gospel of John (10:22) as “the Feast of Dedication”, and not the holiday that would eventually be named after him.
Another source of consternation is that the exact date of Jesus' birth is still a mystery (Strauss, 2015), despite our longstanding tradition of celebrating this event on December 25.
During the era of the Julian calendar, Dec. 25 was the day the Romans recognized as the winter solstice, or as they called it, "Sol Invictus", and this event fed into a holiday called Saturnalia (named after the god Saturn) which marked the start of seed planting for the new year. However, perhaps as long as 10,000 years before Jesus was born, pagans celebrated the winter solstice. The winter solstice marks the occasion when light returns to the world as days get increasingly longer, which is a sign that flowers, trees, and plants will soon be resurrected and crops will start growing again. It also marks a time of psychological rebirth, and remission of the malaise we now call seasonal affective disorder.
When and how the date for celebrating Jesus' birth was affixed on Dec. 25 is also unknown, but there are many theories. One such theory is that in the 4th century, after the Roman emperor Constantine converted to Christianity and legalized the religion within the empire, the early Church assigned Jesus' birthday to coincide with Sol Invictus and Saturnalia for both symbolic and political reasons.
No matter what day Jesus was actually born—whether it was Dec. 25 or not—one thing that we can be confident about is that there probably wasn't snow on the ground. Though it’s technically not impossible for it to snow in Israel, where Jesus entered the world, we’re talking about a country at the same latitude as northern Mexico, so it's highly unlikely that there were any effigies to Frosty the Snowman.
Whether it's visions of snowflakes, sleigh rides, or jingling bells, most of our associations of Christmas are accouterments that were added centuries after Christmas was established as a holiday in the Roman Empire and it spread to other parts of Europe. It then merged with another solstice festival called "Yule" (which was celebrated by the Germanic peoples of Europe), sometime around the 9th century (Eldridge, 2022), and this added another layer of traditions, imagery, and mythology to the mix.
This growing amalgam of celebrations was then revised by the British (Flight, 2022), who appear to have standardized the beliefs and customs around what we now call "Christmas" and they spread their version of this holiday throughout their empire during the Victorian era of the 19th century. The British Empire, which was the largest in history and once included the American colonies, peaked during the early 20th century: a time when mass media was starting to come into its own, allowing the most powerful entities in the world to spread their culture (including their cultural and religious beliefs about Christmas) across the globe. It is this version of the holiday that seems to be the foundation of what we, in 21st-century America, believe to be a "traditional" Christmas celebration.
Although the updated, British version of Christmas is a modern creation, sharing little in common with most aspects of the original nativity story in the New Testament, the hodgepodge of beliefs, customs, and traditions that we've inherited has created confusion and cognitive dissonance among the masses who call themselves "Christians," of which I consider myself one. This has led to a growing schism between secular and devout Christians about how to celebrate Christmas, with the latter imploring us to "keep Christ in Christmas," but the great irony is that the original form of this holiday had nothing to do with Jesus.
Tribalism, Shibboleths, and Splitting
Why then do we insist on preserving a past that never existed? One reason is tribalism. Cultures and subcultures coalesce around a shared set of ideas, myths, practices, and shibboleths, and the common bonds that form around these elements are psychologically important. The bonds of our respective cultures and subcultures make us feel connected to something larger than ourselves, which provides us with belongingness, support, protection, and the satisfaction of other primal needs described by Maslow's famous hierarchy. Or, as Ned Stark from Game of Thrones might put it to explain the importance of belonging to a group: "When the snows fall and the white winds blow, the lone wolf dies, but the pack survives.”
In my experience as a psychologist, people will go to great lengths—sometimes even violent lengths—to preserve the cultural pillars of their psychological well-being and to ward off existential anxiety. As terror management theorists Sheldon Solomon, Tom Pyszczynski, and Jeff Greenberg (2015) have suggested, when one’s psychological survival is at stake, truth is a mere luxury that can be discarded, when necessary, in the service of connecting with a cultural group larger than oneself that offers the prospect of real or symbolic immortality.
To be clear, I do not believe that we should abandon our cultural myths and traditions, even if there’s little-to-no historical evidence supporting them. I also believe that, even in the current era of great skepticism, religion can still serve an important psychological purpose, despite the fact that we will never be able to historically or scientifically verify all of its claims.
I, for one, am a fan of the cultural traditions that comprise our modern Christmas celebrations, which we’ve inherited from our European and American ancestors. Whether or not Jesus was born on Dec. 25, or was even an actual historical figure, we can-and-should still enjoy all of the modern traditions of Christmas.
My hope is that this post might inspire you to take a more psychological mindset toward your religious beliefs, practices, and cultural traditions, starting with Christmas. I believe it starts by rejecting the type of binary thinking that leads to what psychologists call splitting—splitting the world into us and them; good and bad; black and white; secular and religious; believer and infidel. Transcending splitting first requires that we learn to recognize when we’ve used our defense mechanisms—especially denial and suppression—and understand that their deployment comes at a cost: truth. Hence, the more we deploy our defense mechanisms, the less access we have to truth.
Though the attainment of truth is a goal of both psychotherapy and religion, we must also recognize that defense mechanisms are necessary, at times, to filter out the most dangerous threats to our psychological survival, until we feel strong enough to confront them. Splitting, as a defense mechanism, forces us into binary, "either/or" thinking, but the antidote for overcoming splitting is to approach life's contradictions with a mindset of "yes, and!"
As it relates to Christmas, yes, we can choose to see its contradictions for what they are, and, also embrace the spirituality of the holiday, and, also enjoy the modern traditions that have nothing to do with the event that gave the holiday its name.
As such, I wish you a Merry Christmas, and a happy solstice!
Carroll, James (2001). Constantine's Sword: The Church and the Jews: A History, Mariner Books, Boston.
Rich, W. (2016). Acts I: Peter and the Jewish Christian Church: Trinity Church Boston, web article, accessed December 16, 2023; https://www.trinitychurchboston.org/blog/acts-i-peter-and-the-jewish-christian-church
Solomon, S.; Pyszczynski, T.; Greenberg, J. (2015). The Worm at the Core: On the Role of Death in Life. Random House.
Flight, T. (2022). Anglo-Saxon Christmas, Historic UK, https://www.historic-uk.com/HistoryUK/HistoryofEngland/AngloSaxon-Chris…, accessed December 17, 2022.
Eldridge, A. (2022). Yule, Britannica, https://www.britannica.com/topic/Yule-festival, accessed December 17, 2022.
Strauss, V. (2015). Why is Christmas on Dec. 25? A brief history lesson that may surprise you. The Washington Post, December 25, 2015, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/answer-sheet/wp/2015/12/25/why-is-c…