It’s customary in Britain to wish people a merry Christmas and a happy new year. This greeting is used by everyone and has no religious connotations. I know that in North America people often say “happy holidays” for fear of offending those who are not Christians. Well I’m not a Christian either (nor do I subscribe to any other religion) but I’m happy to wish people a merry Christmas because it’s a holiday season almost universally observed in the UK, not because of any sacred connections but because there are two official public holidays (we call them bank holidays in Britain, for strange historical reasons). The UK is a mainly secular society. Most British people do not observe any religious ritual, nor do they attend a place of worship, though they are often reluctant to describe themselves as atheists, perhaps hoping to keep their options open.
We’re often told (by the Christian religious minority) not to forget the true reason for Christmas. I think by this they mean the largely invented tradition with tenuous roots in the new testament. The birth date of Christ isn’t mentioned in the Bible, though I think it’s widely accepted that it probably wasn’t in the year we now call 1AD (or 1CE if you prefer) owing to some calendar re-scheduling some centuries back. It probably wasn’t in the winter either, since some of the gospels mention shepherds watching sheep in the fields at night.
Anyway this is beside the point. The origin of the mid-winter festival which we now call Christmas is pagan. The date was probably picked to coincide with the winter solstice (also the date of the Roman festival of Saturnalia, at which there was drinking, sexual license and the consumption of human-shaped biscuits, according to this source). Many of the “traditional” trappings of a British Christmas were either pre-Christian (mistletoe as a fertility symbol, evergreen decoration) or imported from Germany by the Royal Family (Christmas trees), who were themselves imported from Germany in the eighteenth century.
The spirit of having fun, giving presents and celebrating the mid point of the winter are all separate from the Christian message. Both pagan and Christian are even more removed from the mass consumerism of the modern western Christmas. But there is no harm or offence intended in wishing someone Merry Christmas, so I hereby do just that:
Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.
I prefer Bart Simpson’s version. “Christmas is the one day of the year when people of all religions come together to worship Jesus”.
Merry Christmas !