Christmas is one of the most complicated and divisive questions facing Hinduism today. Hindus living in the West are met with the difficult situation of adapting to their new nationalities while at the same time trying to maintain their religious identity. In India, Christmas celebrations are often seen as a Christian encroachment into the last viable non-Abrahamic civilization. It is not paranoia on the part of Hindus to be leery of this festival since its very existence was and still is an invention to slowly assimilate pagan culture with Christianity. However, many Hindus have also noticed that Christmas is itself a double edge sword, a living remnant and pseudo-celebration of heathenism. My personal relationship with this complex holiday has left me torn, always searching for the best way to deal with it, emotionally, socially and spiritually. However, it is time to find a happy medium.
I celebrated Christmas until about the age of 10 or 11. Like all children raised in Christian households it was a time waited for with extreme anticipation and excitement. The colorful atmosphere created by the family Christmas tree is obviously very alluring to young children, Christmas music which is both festive and somber infuses the atmosphere with both joy and hidden meaning. I remember writing wishlists to Santa Clause, leaving out plates of cookies and milk, only to find crumbs and a half-empty glass on Christmas morning. I also remember my first Christmas meal, a series of courses presented to us on the dining room table which has been moved into the living room, making it obvious to me that this was a very special occasion. I got sick that night and threw everything up in a guardian’s bedroom. Of course the highlight of Christmas for children is to wake up Christmas morning to tons of presents and toys, it’s hard to sleep Christmas eve night.
However Christmas also has a slightly dark side. I recall a time when I was very young, several people had been invited over the house and I don’t know what I did but I got into trouble, I was threatened that Santa would not leave me presents that year, I cried. Christmas eve services are held in Churches until midnight, called Midnight Mass. The white steepled church I attended at the time would turn out all of the lights, allowing only a wreathed display of candles to illuminate the room from the front. Above the candlelight was a black clad, old pudgy preacher, speaking very softly and ominously about something I didn’t know what. Like many scenes in Christianity the preacher over the fire gave me an odd feeling, it felt like something wicked hidden by the mist. Then there is the humiliating time when some children have come to realize that Santa is not real, while others still hold onto this cultivated deception. My relatives went to great pains to trick me into believing. One Christmas when I was very young they played reindeer chimes on a record player, all the adults began shouting Santa is here… they rushed us all out onto the deck and began pointing to the stars saying look, there he is flying away. I looked for him but couldn’t see anything. Around 3rd or 4th grade, teasing and snickering begins and those children who have not yet realized the farce are obviously hurt in the process. I remember finding my Christmas presents in the truck of our family car, the feeling was not great.
Yet obviously most children are not put off by the sometimes eerie/deceitful ceremonies at Christmas time, and like most kids, I loved it. Things began to change when I was about 8 or 9, this is when I began my forced conversion to the Jehovah’s Witness (JW) religion. I remember that year, as Christmas time approached, I was taken aside into the kitchen where a black bible was presented, I don’t believe I had every really held a bible or much seen one before this time. In a soft but concerned tone I was told that we would no longer be celebrating Christmas, because it was not biblical, but pagan, coming from demons, god did not want us to partake in the culture of demons. It’s strange, but I did not become overly upset, I only asked why we could not mix god and Christmas together. A prepared answer was given to me; to mix religions is called syncretism, a ploy used by demons to corrupt the one true religion of god. Oddly enough, I accepted this very quickly and walked away not so crushed.
Now began a great turmoil in my family life surrounding this holiday, I and some of my relatives had converted to the new religion, but the rest of my family still celebrated Christmas and were very upset by my new path. Relatives began demonizing each other, those who still celebrated Christmas began to entice me with promises of great gifts, meanwhile the JW elders counselled me to resist demonic temptations. As the family divided, so did I, going to Christmas celebrations to please my family but feeling guilty, returning home to elaborate doctrines and emotional appeals urging me to reject the celebration. For several years my confused state brought animosity from both sides, eventually family members stopped fighting with each other and I became the object of scorn. Why wasn’t I making a decision? Was I going to celebrate Christmas or not? Who was I, where did I stand, what did I believe? I was often ridiculed for the fact that Christmas was really not about religion, it was just a family celebration! Christmas eventually became a horror show, a time of constant criticism and berating for me, and so in the end it was easier to simply abandon it and go with the JW lead.
The Christian overtone of Christmas is obvious by its name. “Christmas” is a truncation of “Christ’s Mass”, a day when many Christians celebrate and commemorate the birth of their messiah, Jesus of Israel. Besides Christmas Trees, Santa Clause and reindeer, Christmas iconography is also accompanied by the baby Jesus placed in a manger, surrounded by his mother Mary and step-father Joseph. The arrival of the three “Wise Men” who accompanied Jesus’ birth is a subtle triumph over paganism, as these men were likely “astrologers”, looking to the stars for signs of great births. Astrology is strictly forbidden in biblical morality, implying that not even these practitioners of demonic sciences could help but recognize the arrival of the world king.
As my intense bible studies hastened, I came to see that the JW were actually correct, Christmas in its essence was indeed pagan. Nowhere in the bible does it say that Jesus was born on December 25th, and there are certainly no Christmas trees or Santa Clause in Israelite culture. I learned that under the auspices of the Catholic and Protestant churches, leaders had tempted the pagans into Christianity by using their own celebrations against them, keeping the outer veneer but making the internal meaning about Christ. The date around December 25th had originally been a pan-pagan celebration of the winter solstice, a glorification of Sun gods, as they would be slowly returning from the darkest day of the year. Christmas trees, Santa Clause, reindeer, these are all Northern Germanic pagan customs which glorified gods like Odin and Thor. The Christians has been very clever, they placed Christian holidays on the same dates as the pagan holidays and dressed them up with the most fun aspects of pagan customs, but in the end they were converting the pagans to Christianity. I as a JW however knew better than to get involved in such schemes, the demons were clever and knew how to use pagan elements to confuse Christians and lead them astray.
Now this leads me into the complexity of Christmas in the eyes of the Hindu today. I must say the JW are absolutely correct in that the pagan elements of Christmas have confused the Christians and have led them on a course removed from Christianity. Many of my Hindu friends rightfully see that Christmas has become almost completely devoid of religion in the West, it is most obviously seen as nothing more than a cultural practice, a time for families and friends to get together for the sake of being happy. People are more enamoured by the warm glow of Nordic pagan customs than they are by the surreptitiously placed myths about the birth of Jesus. More fundamentalist sects of Christianity have also become hip to this social crisis. These days it is becoming more and more common for mainstream Christians to avoid Christmas seeing that its pagan and cultural heritage now outweighs its religious message, Christmas is quickly becoming a liability for Christ. Still, most Christian groups would like to retain the Jesus message in Christmas, you will always see billboards with the message “KEEP CHRIST IN CHRISTMAS”, requesting that the faithful remember that Christmas is a religious holiday, albeit a manufactured one.
Even after leaving the JW religion I still did not involve myself in Christmas for many years, later I slipped in and out of celebrating. Not only had my own personal experience left the holiday with hard memories, but its confused and twisted nature repelled me. How was I to take this celebration? It had obviously been used as a clever vector for Christian enculturation. So what if Jesus was not born on Dec 25th, it was still called “Christ’s Mass”, named after the supposedly foretold messiah of the Old Testament, the one who would bring anti-pagan Isrealite culture to the earth. While Jesus himself was not a warrior, he made it clear that he had not come to abolish the Old Testament code, he did not condemn or change the old commands to mass murder, culturally annihilate, enslave and degrade the pagans. Jesus is famous for saying he did not come to abolish the law, but to “fulfill” it!
The fulfillment of Old Testament law was to bring these anti-pagan laws and cultures to the rest of the earth, and for the last 2,000 years the followers of Jesus have been doing just that. As Christianity spread to and became influential in Europe, Christians leaders and fanatics began physical and cultural pogroms against the native pagans. Temples were destroyed, libraries burned in mass, pagan schools outlawed, pagan priests murdered and women who remained faithful to their own gods were burned by the thousands as “witches”… all of this being a reenactment of the ethnic and religious cleansing of Canaan, now known as Israel. Christianity is falsely called the “White Man’s Religion”, this is ironic since White Europeans were one of Christianity’s first victims.
However the conquest of Europe was not all gore, the Christians had learned a thing or two from Israel about subterfuge. In the Old Testament we see Israel’s complicated dance as it took over Canaanite lands over several centuries. While sometimes the Israelites would engage in direct confrontation, they also understood the merits of deception. Yes, Christmas is decorated pagan, but is this a good or a bad thing? How is one to view this? Is this rape? The Dec 25th date, the Christmas tree, chamber music, are they all the spoils of war for Christianity, cynically used as a cultural weapon? Or are the pagan elements of Christmas a Trojan Horse, inevitably secularizing and despiritualizing Christmas for Christians and delivering it back into the hands of the Pagans, sullying Christendom in the process. After all, in their growing cries to abandon Christmas, many Christians must invoke the names of old gods to demonize the festival, while their Christian adversaries must flounder to explain away these painfully obvious inconsistencies. Christendom is being torn apart in the process.
But we must also briefly address the advent of Christmas in India, the bastion and heart of Hinduism. Because Christmas’ paganism is really European paganism, the nuances which trouble the West are likely to be undetectable to most Indians. It is only the adroit few who will notice the pagan infusion, but to the masses this is just Christian encroachment, plain and simple. Indian Christians have the upper hand in that they have a new and visually stimulating display to advance their religion, customs and social activities which are undeniably hypnotic. How should Hindus in India approach this spiritual affront? Let’s not be naive, Christianity has cleverly conquered civilization after civilization, we cannot act like this is innocuous. However, Christians love to play the victims, and so an aggressive approach falls right into their hands. While there is no precise remedy to the Christmas problem, I will offer up my personal approach and also some suggestions which we as Hindus may want to try.
So how do I personally deal with Christmas? First let’s talk practically. Families and friends in the West tend to gather on Christmas day, everyone has the day off and and it is an ingrained tradition. If you don’t attend Christmas parties you are likely to miss out on the rare opportunity to socialize with relatives, neighbors and business associates… the trap is cleverly designed. While for many years I avoided Christmas gatherings, I eventually found out that this led to crippling social isolation, damaging my opportunities for the future. While I am still extremely leery of the Christian overtones of Christmas, I have come to find that in the West, Jesus is conspicuously absent form practically 95% of Christmas celebrations. I take comfort in the fact that my Nordic and Mediterranean ancestors may have engaged in similar rituals around this same time, notwithstanding that their celebrations had deeper and genuine religious meaning. Christ is not likely to be pushed down your throat at a Christmas party, so there are few occasions to feel righteous indignation.
Now on the other hand, I can also see the conundrum of Christmas for Christians. Isn’t it true that all of their Christmas customs, even the date, are actually the gifts of paganism? If the pagan origins of Christmas are indirectly and tastefully presented, the Christians find it hard to respond with any semblance of logic. Yet their is a deeper dilemma which the Christians find hard to face; what is so lacking in Israelite culture that they must constantly look to pagans for social and cultural cues? Isreali culture is supposedly the product of the one true god of the earth, yet Christians want to dress like pagans, celebrate like pagans, design like pagans and even act and think like pagans. The knowledge that Israelite culture cannot fulfill them is deep within the subconscious of most Christians and must be probed carefully as the reaction could be violent. And so while I am sociable as Christmas parties, in writing I am certain to expose the obvious paganism of Christmas, always attempting to break biblical rein and restore the eternal religion.
Now that I have given my cut on Christmas, I would like to make a few suggestions which I hope will help us as Hindus deal with the challenges of Christmas. First, I think it is a very good idea that we take a varied and natural approach, something we are already doing. Some Hindus may decide to attend Christmas parties and decorate for the holidays, others may choose to avoid Christmas practices all together. This blended approach allows us to retain and protect Hinduism, while at the same time reaping the benefits of social adaptation. I would encourage Hindus to also take a two pronged approach in exposing Christmas. The first would be to carefully warn of its power to infect Hinduism with the personality cult of Jesus, taking great pains to expose his hatred for pagans and his role of establishing global biblical reign. The second would be to consistently and persistently highlight the borrowed paganism of Christmas, stirring deep seated cultural memories, indirectly forcing Christians to ask themselves troubling questions. The magic of Christian Christmas was paid for with pagan blood, with terrorism and intimidation, do not let their memory fade, their suffering will not be in vain.
We as a Hindu community must work diligently to revive and invent rival holidays, absorbing the warm feeling of Christmas and putting it to use for our Hindu religion. Like the European pagans, Hindus in Punjab celebrate the winter solstice as Lohri, a bonfire ceremony venerating the element of fire, a folk goddess and also the sun god Surya. Hindus have made good use of Christmas lights to decorate our temples and our homes for Diwali, so why not mix fire with electric lights, creating beautiful displays to venerate our Sun god and the god of fire Agni. As for inventing Holidays, the founder of “Hinduism Today” magazine, Sivaya Subramuniyaswami, has done a good job with establishing Pancha Ganaptai, a five day ceremony which highlight the many blessings of the god Ganesha, culminating on December 25th. Finally, we already have popular and established holidays like Diwali and Holi which ask us to look deeper into the question of good and evil and how to live righteous lives; the narratives behind these stories, unlike Christmas, are native and completely integrated. Also don’t forget the movements to institutionalize Hindu holidays in school and government calendars, as well as on stamps… in America, Christians, Jews and Muslims have recognized holidays, we deserve the same. Of course we must also do all we can to invite non-Hindus to our own holiday parties; we attend theirs, so why can’t they attend ours?
This was a long post, but Christmas is a topic of much discussion today. What hurts me most is that at times it can be a cause for derision amongst Hindus. However, I am certain that our diversity and pluralism will be our strength on this matter. Hindus are inventive and adaptive, I know we will find the solution to the Christmas problem and at the same time use this as a springboard for our own eventual ascension.
P.S. – when someone says “Merry Christmas” I respond with “Happy Holidays”.