Christmas tree (Copy)Twas the night before Christmas, and all through my mind, a question began stirring, of what the function the Christmas holiday might hold to the human psyche and development. Now why, I wondered, have we continued to practice this ritual for all of two millennia. No doubt that, for some, a real significance lies in the religious traditions that Christmas is said to represent today. But for anybody who takes the time to look into the history of the practice will find that what we currently celebrate is very different from what has been practiced throughout the ages. This, however, does not mean that in and of itself the ritual of Christmas celebration isn’t important to the human mind and soul. On the contrary, this holiday is one of the most important rituals we have for keeping us attached to our humanity—a necessary undertaking in an era when intellectual and technological advances pose a real threat to human social unity.

Winter_solsticeThe Christmas holiday has its roots in Pagan traditions. Early Europeans celebrated the winter solstice—the point of lowest solar altitude above the horizon—as this time meant that the days would gradually grow shorter and the nights longer. The Yule log was burned in Pagan Scandinavia as a way to celebrate the return of the sun, while some of the foods we consider traditional Christmas fare, as well as the Christmas tree (15th century), came from the early traditions of Germany. The Roman celebration of Saturnalia is where the gift-giving tradition of Christmas began.

Christmas, like all rituals, was an important way to unify people. Many would starve to death during the rough days of winter, when food was scarce, so that groups ultimately learned to cultivate their food and drink, including spirits, and fresh meats from slaughtered cattle, so that the winter celebrations were true feasts to honor a successful harvest. The yearly rhythm of the winter rituals kept people connected to the perpetual cycles of nature—the annual seasons, the changing length of daylight, and the life cycle itself. In this way, the internal clock or biorhythms were set both in the psyche and the physiology, and eventually in the culture as a whole.

pagan ritual (Copy)

The evolution of the Christian version of Christmas didn’t fully take hold until the 19th century, although it had transformed slowly over the previous two hundred years. But even in this version, which became a little less festive than the earlier celebrations, as they brought the tradition from outdoors in nature to inside the home, it was still a way to celebrate new beginnings—the coming of the Sun—although this Son was now the symbol of divinity, and not merely a cycle of nature.

Nativity-Wallpaper-05 (Copy)Whichever form of winter celebration we consider, each has held a function of bringing individuals together to strengthen the group. While every person is unique and important as an individual, by virtue of being the planet’s most social species, we derive our greatest powers by working together in groups; and thus a tradition like Christmas, a ritual in its most fundamental sense, strengthens societies and cultures, creating cohesion of beliefs, understanding and gratitude for nature, life and divinity—all aspects of humanity that we can easily overlook in our day-to-day lives.

As civilization advances intellectually and technologically, we become vulnerable to the paradox of being both better connected, yet also more isolated. Man and machine will evolve together as an inevitable consequence of expanding intelligence, but that is where the risk of losing touch with our humanity will be the greatest. It will be so easy to become enamored with our expanding capabilities, to the degree that we may think that the symbiosis of man and machine transcends our natural and divine heritage. But this will be a mistake, because as far as we can surmise, machine intelligence will have the capacity to far exceed our own, rapidly, and we will never know what that might ultimately bring.

Confucius (Copy)Only by keeping in touch with our humanity will we preserve the wits and caution to remain the dominant species on the planet, and thus assure our continued existence. It is in our daily, monthly, and yearly rituals that we best keep connected to our humanity, and unity of species. The great sage Confucius understood the importance of ritual, and he taught it fervently; for through ritual we become and remain virtuous in character. It was his version of maintaining humanity, although I cannot imagine he would have predicted his ideas being pondered in terms of machine dominance. But timeless wisdom is pertinent in any circumstance, and thus the Confucian idea of maintaining and honoring ritual is universal in its applicability.

So Christmas has a function that goes well beyond what we tend to think of it as—it is more than just a celebration, and more than an honoring of a fruitful harvest, or the birth of savior. Like every ritual in which humans engage, it is a way of connecting on a deeper level of unity to one another, to nature, and to our divine essence—to the great organizing intelligence of the universe, and our place within it. This is why our winter ritual of honoring the cycles of life should not—and will not—ever die, because it is a celebration of being a part of the divine nature of the universe.

Maintaining humanity (Copy)

Merry Christmas to all, and to all a good night.

7 Responses to Christmas: An Essential Ritual for Humanity

  1. Natalia says:

    Amazing article…Thank you so much for enlightening! Merry Christmas and Blessings…

  2. Ingard says:

    It is a beautiful and awakening essay for this particular time. It is no coincidence therefore that the birth of the “Son of God” was placed at the time of the sun emerging higher and longer to bring new life and vitality.

    It is also a very timely admonition for humanity to remember what really matters during our journey on this earth. Thank you for taking the time to remind us of what is the real value of being human, and ultimately, it’s real purpose

  3. I have been so disillusioned by modern day Christmas that I have given up celebrating it completely since about 10 years ago. After reading your article, I still feel that modern day Christmas is something that I do not want to be a part of. For me, it has become so commercialized that people feel guilty if they don’t have the right gift to give or a circle of family or friends to prepare a meal for or go to. Needless to say, the media exploits Christmas to ensure consumerism at its peak! As stated by certain stores, Christmas is the Super Bowl when it comes to purchases. Christmas is a good time to create guilt and indebtedness as a result of perceiving joy through sharing consumer items.

    I personally celebrate the Solstice because I feel connected to the universe and understand at a profound level that a new cycle in nature reflects a new cycle in our own personal lives. It is time for the light to come into my life and a new shift in consciousness to take place for me personally and for humanity.

    Like you indicate in your article, Christmas is a ritual that has its roots in Paganism and has evolved from there through the Church. My question is why do we still need Christmas today? Tribal communities that have not been touched by religion do not celebrate Christmas, yet still feel a sense of community. Natural occurrences such as the Solstices and the Equinoxes are still today being celebrated by these people.

    Thank you for all the insights and historical information about Christmas. I am grateful for the way you have explained it, bringing up some very important points to make us reflect on the whole evolution of Christmas and the Solstice as a need for people to unite.

    I also very much like that you touched upon technology and how as much as we can feel connected, we can also feel the most isolated ever. That’s certainly a very valid point.

    Thank you Nick for sharing this article today!
    Joy, peace, love, and harmony.

  4. Ann Checkley says:

    Although I was baptized and confirmed in the faith, I have not considered myself a Christian for over 45 years. I have celebrated Christmas as a family tradition, but always felt a bit hypocritical doing so. I must say, reading your essay makes me feel much less a hypocrite and more connected as a human, so thank you for that.

    Having spent all of my adult life working in the nonprofit sector, I must also say that this season brings out the absolute best in people’s philanthropic spirit. The generosity of our donors to those of our clients in need seems to increase each year. It’s inspiring to behold, this “Christmas spirit.”

  5. Jessica says:

    Hi Nick,

    I enjoyed reading your post. Yes…it is so important for humans to engage and socialize and it should definitely be done outdoors to reconnect with nature. Technology has led us to spend more time indoors sadly.
    Thank you for a lovely post :-)

    • Dr. Nick Campos Dr. Nick Campos says:

      Thank you for reading Jessica – and for the lovely response. It will take awareness to not become completely absorbed in a virtual reality (which some might argue is what we’ve always been in anyway, but that’s a different topic altogether :) )

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