There's a possibility that some Christians think December 25th is the actual birthday of Jesus. When I once suggested this was not the case to a class of students training to be teachers there was a gasp from one of them - what did I mean? How could this be the case? Well we don't know the date of Jesus' birth but we do celebrate the reality of that birth and we do it on 25th December - a legitimate thing to do. Some suggest that the date is borrowed from pagan mid winter celebrations such as the Roman festival of Saturnalia or Sol Invictus which celebrated the birth of the Unconquered Sun on 25th December. Some Christian communities are so convinced of this that they don't celebrate Christmas and reject all the trappings of lights, cards, Christmas trees etc as pagan.
But it's not unusual for religions to absorb into themselves indigenous and pagan elements. A Sri Lankan theologian, Aloysius Pieris, divides religions into what he calls cosmic religions and the more developed meta-cosmic religions. His theory is that the more developed religions only succeed in countries where they connect with the indigenous faith and practice. All religions have places of pilgrimage, holy sites, holy trees, holy wells and places associated with the sacred and often that sense of the sacred has predated the religion. It's as though the religion has recognised the sacredness already present, honoured it and endowed it with new meaning. So it's not at all unusual that Christians should christianise a pagan mid-winter festival showing that for them Jesus is the Unconquered Son, the Light, the One who can dispel the darkness and bring renewed hope and promise to the world. This is a moment for what Tich Nhat Hanh calls looking deeply - not being distracted from the meaning of the feast by analysing its origins or even what might have happened at Jesus'er birth. It's a moment to look behind the glitter and the stories of shepherds and wise men to see what meaning Jesus has in the life of Christians and how significant this child, whose birth we are celebrating, has been for humanity and its history. For Christians it's a moment to realise that religion, spirituality, faith is embedded in our humanity which we know to be sacred and a place where God is present. Jesus shows us that ordinariness and humaness can manifest God and make God present in our everyday lives.
Celebrating the birth of religious founders is common, most religions do it. Some do it quietly and others with pomp and ceremony. The birthday of Krishna, for example, is a great event within Hinduism and celebrated at the festival of Janmashtami. For some people part of the celebration is waiting up until midnight - the hour when it's thought Krishna was born - for the unveiling of a baby Krishna in a cradle which devotees will take turns to rock. Hindus would feel quite at home with Nativity scenes in Catholic Churches and homes. Gift-giving, dramatisation of the Krishna story, story-telling are all part of the festivities. Popular Hinduism is a religion of story and myth and people seem to enjoy the stories without angsting about whether they're historically true or not. They understand that there is a hidden meaning behind the stories and allow them to speak for themselves - something some Christian preachers are not able to do, afraid as they are of literal misunderstandings and a lack of theology.
Muslims on the other hand don't make much of the birthday of Mohammed. It so happens that 26th December is the date of his birthday. This is an unusual coincidence which happens only every 11 or 12 years. When I first heard of it I thought we might be able to arrange a common celebration of some sort until I realised that not many Muslims, in Scotland at any rate, celebrate the birthday of the Prophet. In fact the Imam at a nearby Mosque told me he had never celebrated his own birthday though he did know the date and his age! Some Muslims do remember the Prophet on that day but whether it should be celebrated and how is much disputed. For me, however, there's something auspicious about the two birthdays being around the same time. It's good to remember two great men who made such a significant contribution to humanity and changed the world forever even if their followers have not lived up to their example and let them down by the way they live. But they do show us the possibility of a new way of life which if we were faithful to it could help transform the world in which we live. The celebrations of their birth and life could be a moment of new beginning for us all.