Do Buddhists celebrate at Christmas? This one does!As a Buddhist I’ve spent Christmases in a variety of ways. My first substantially non-traditional Christmas was 20 years ago when I went on a two-week intensive meditation retreat in Carn Dearg lodge in Gairloch, Wester Ross, in Scotland. It was well into the afternoon of Christmas Day before I even realized it was the 25th, and I remember it struck me then that there was nothing intrinsically Christmasy about Christmas. If I hadn’t checked the date I would never have known that it was a special day in the western calendar.
The lesson of this for me was that the festivity of festivals comes essentially from within. There is no “season of goodwill” without people actually exhibiting goodwill. I think people tend to automatically assume that they will feel and act differently just because the page of the calendar has flipped, but of course that’s not the case.
Anyway, for several years I was on retreat at that time of year, and Christmas just didn’t exist for me. I opted out of giving and receiving gifts, and instead spent hours each day meditating. Sometimes I wouldn’t be on retreat, and Christmas would just be a normal day, although I admit I could be a bit stubbornly resentful on my ignoring of the festival going on around me. After all, this was a nominally Christian day, and I was not going to compromise on my Buddhist beliefs. I was a bit rigid in those days.
Later I came to appreciate that Christmas isn’t really very Christian. My favorite parts of the day are pagan: the tree, the lights, the gifts, the feasting, the traditions like kissing under the mistletoe — even that “jolly old elf,” Santa Claus.
The reason we celebrate Christmas on December 25th is that this was the traditional birthday of the Roman sun god Mithras, who was probably the single most important deity in the empire in the early days of Christianity. What better time to honor the Sun than at the time its light is weakest? Mithraists celebrated their deity each Sunday (that’s why it’s called Sunday) with bread and wine. Christianity borrowed all this, down to the birth-date, in order to gain more legitimacy.
The festival day became amalgamated with other winter celebrations such as Yule, which was a Germanic pagan 12-day festival based around the solstice. Bringing evergreens into the house reminds us of life in the midst of Winter’s quasi-death. Mistletoe, sacred to the Celtic Druids, reminds us of fertility.
The ironic thing is that Christmas, having been co-opted from Paganism by Christianity, has now in turn been co-opted by Capitalism, our new religion, and that it’s taken Buddhist practice to help me to avoid the gross commercialism of the day and to appreciate the simpler things, and as I’ve grown older I’ve enjoyed more and more the opportunity to spent time with my family.
We combat commercialism by not having a TV, which spares us from an endless barrage of advertisements. We meditate, in order to find inner peace, rather than looking for happiness in material possessions. My wife and I set a low limit on how much we’ll spend on each other’s presents (this year it was $30), and we give the kids a limited number of gifts. This year we’re spreading the gift opening over two days so that we can be more mindful of what we’ve received, and we’ve considered taking a Hanukkah-style approach and having the kids open one gift a night for a week, to further take the pressure off of the 25th, and to give more time for appreciation.
So I wish you all a Merry Dies Natalis Solis Invicti (Birthday of the Unconquered Sun — the feast of Mithras), a good pagan Yule, and a Happy Christmas. Concentrate on appreciating the people more than the gifts, and remember that it’s only a season of goodwill if you let your heart soften and connect with others.