This year the winter solstice came on a Saturday, at 9:11 am, here in California. I felt a physical link to my ancestors going back into deep time as Spaceship Earth circled around to more sunshine for the northern parts. In modern times we can know to the fraction of a second exactly when the solstice happens, but before the time of calendars ancient people going into winter did not know when, or even if, the sunshine was coming back. Thus all around the world the return of the Sun was cause for celebration sometime in the first few days of winter, when people noticed that the length of daylight stopped getting shorter. Summer would return.
As time went on, major religions took over the ancient festivals of the returning sun, and in the case of Christianity, the "death and resurrection after three days" may have been slid along the calendar to Easter in the next season. However, winter solstice as a time to gather friends and family to exchange gifts and good will, is now more associated with the sales and entertainment industry supporting commercialization, than with the fictitious story of baby Jesus. But, that is not what we hear about the "War on Christmas," which tries to induce fear of the secular as the big threat to tradition and moral purity.
Dave Niose wrote a nice piece titled Merry Times for Atheism at the Psychology Today blog this week. In it he addresses the increasing secularization of Christmas as the polls show a falling belief in religion in general. If you watch the political media, here in the U.S., you would get the impression that the Christian Right is locked in a life-and-death struggle about who says "Merry Christmas" versus those heathens with their "Happy Holidays" straight from Hell. Actually, I and many of my atheist friends are quite fine with wishing others a "Merry Christmas" because we are talking about a gathering and celebration that has nothing to do with a Baby Jesus myth, let alone a post-mortem deification to make any kind of Christ.
Dan Dennett has often told us that he even likes the church part of Christmas. He likes the singing of the Christmas songs and all that goes along with it. I am sure this would also be true of Harry Potter fans or Doctor Who fans, if they had their own winter solstice tradition. You don't need to believe fictional characters are real to enjoy the rituals and traditions built around them. At the same time, if my Christian friends and family catch me wishing a "Merry Christmas" it is not going to give them any ground to think that I am slipping from my holding December 25, as special, because it is the anniversary of the birth of Isaac Newton.
Bertrand Russell wrote this Christmas Message, and I think it serves us well, even in modern times:
A CHRISTMAS MESSAGE
The spirit of brotherhood embodies not only the highest morality but also the truest wisdom, and the only road by which the nations, torn and bleeding with the wounds which scientific madness has inflicted, can emerge into a life where growth is possible and joy is not banished at the frenzied call of unreal and fictitious duties. Deeds inspired by hate are not duties, whatever pain and self-sacrifice they may involve. Life and hope for the world are to be found only in the deeds of love.
So, Merry Christmas to all post solstice, remember Newton, and rest assured that celestial mechanics (not divine intervention) will bring the Sun back again to shine like a crazy diamond.