I was supposed to deliver a reflection at the Unitarian Universalist meeting tonight, but I had to cancel at the last minute. I was asked to send a short piece that would be read at the service instead. Here it is:
I have always loved Christmas. When I was a kid, this was like a bonus birthday, a time when I could ask for another expensive gift. When I was a teen, Simbang Gabi gave me an excuse to go out past curfew with friends and, of course, see a lot of pretty girls, especially in prestigious churches like those in Alabang. And even when I lost belief in the Christ, who Christians assert to be the reason for the season, I never lost my love for the holidays. This is because I know, and have always known, the true meaning of Christmas.
But it is not the same meaning preached by the bishops and priests. I read of a bishop who wrote an article about how Christmas is supposed to be about worship, not courtship. Nor is it supposed to be about commercialism or consumerism or anything material. Even your loved ones — your friends, your family, your special someone — have to take a backseat to the true event which allegedly inspired the celebrated day. After all, they argue, can there be Christmas without Christ?
Yes, there can. And for centuries before it was even called “Christmas,” there has. It was called Saturnalia. It was one of the most popular Roman festivals. But if it was so popular, how come only a few know about it today?
We have the Church to thank for this. They wanted to compete with the pagans celebrating Saturnalia, so they invented a celebration of their own to coincide with it. This is how Christ’s birthday was born. This is interesting for two reasons. First, they had to make an exception for Jesus — it was considered pagan to celebrate birthdays at that time. Second, they didn’t even know when Jesus was born (they still don’t). Eventually, after centuries of conditioning — not to mention the Crusades and Inquisition — Christmas came to replace Saturnalia as the default December celebration.
So for the early Catholic Church, Christmas meant competing with the pagans. But what did it mean for the pagans who invented it?
Saturnalia was introduced to raise the spirits of soldiers and citizens after a bad beating in battle. Students took a break from school, people gave and got presents, everyone had good food and drinks and the celebration that went with it. Everyone — even the slaves. Many described it as the best of days. And although the festival still involved rituals offered to Saturn (the god of sowing), it was clear to everyone why it was a wonderful time.
And this, I believe is the true reason for the season. A lot of bad things may happen in a year, but at the end of it, you get a chance to celebrate life by giving and receving, eating and drinking, and most importantly sharing the experience with people, in this world — right here, right now. The bishops and priests want to make it about an event that happened thousands of years ago — it might not have happened at all. And they want to make it about receiving rewards in a place that’s worlds away from this — a world that might not exist at all.
But by trying to distract us from this world they are merely trying to be consistent with what they have done before. They have stolen the holidays from the pagans, and they want to keep it that way.
Yet people always remember the true meaning of Christmas — of Saturnalia — no matter how much they know about its history. They may attend the Misa de Gallo or pray before Noche Buena, but they instinctively know why they are happy. It may have taken me years to realize this, but I’ve never needed the Savior myths or the Sunday masses to enjoy Christmas. All I needed was to exchange greetings and presents, or even just share a meal or a drink, with people — even just a person — that I truly love.