The True Meaning of Christmas

Merrick, 12th December 2000ce

It's the end of the year again and, being the start of the new millennium, this year has suffered more than the usual Christmas carping from Christians about the 'true meaning' of the festivities.

Let's be clear: contrary to the plastic signs on churches, the millennium was not 'Christ's 2000th birthday'. King Herod died in 2BC - why would Mary and Joseph be fleeing a man who'd been dead and buried for two years? And even if you did believe the 2000th anniversary stuff, surely that was December 25th, not turn of the year on the 31st?

Christ was actually born in mid-June of 4BC if we're to believe the bit about the bright star in the western sky. The Bible makes no reference at all to December 25th. Even within Christianity there's dissent; the Greek and Russian Orthodox churches say it's a week later.

The whole countdown thing is a 20th century invention; calendars were only synchronised 70-odd years ago (an event as recent as the famous Russian 'October Revolution' of 1917 was actually in November according to the British calendar at the time). The usage of the same hours by different towns and countries only came with the invention of railway timetables. Split-second synchronisation only came about when telegraph and radio made it necessary. Which is why the millennium was a bit of a red herring.

For the billions of Jews, Chinese, Muslims and other people who ignore the Romano-Christian calendar it wasn't a millennium. These calendars are arbitrary. Every day, every second, is the anniversary of a year earlier and the millennium of a thousand years before.

Let's see the festive season for what it is - there's a real need for a good midwinter knees-up and a once-in-a-while reflection on what's passed and what may come. If you're Christian you can call it Christmas, if you're pagan call it Solstice or Yule, if you're Jewish Hannukah, if you're Hindu Diwali, if you're Muslim Eid, and if you've no religious leanings then who cares; you're obliged to give yourself something to distract you from the bleakness of winter and get thoroughly wankered with friends and family. Nothing else will do but the things that reliably make us truly, simply and deeply happy.

Complete sobriety is not our natural state. Throughout history, humans has been forced by circumstance into altered states achieved through prolonged fasting, heat or cold. Many cultures have codified these things into wilful rituals.

Another form of intoxication - consumption of particular foodstuffs - is practically universal. All around the world, wherever there are humans and also quite a few places where there aren't, there is an abundance of plants with psychoactive effect. From the fly agaric mushrooms beloved of snow-bound Siberians to the desert-dwelling peyote cactus, there's always something to get humans off their tits.

Early humans wouldn't have had our modern categorisations - 'this plant is a food, but that one is a drug'. Everything you ingest alters your physical - and thereby psychological - state, and as an example of how arbitrary these definitions are, the chilli pepper that we consider food is used as a psychoactive by some shamen to 'raise inner heat'.

Because psychedelics alter the way we see things and make us want to explain it to those around us, it's plausible that these plants were catalysts for the sudden burst of evolution that gave human beings language. From there, it's arguable that the first word was 'wow'.

Such experiences serve to bond the group, both at the time and as a shared memory. As time has gone on we have ritualised this into feasts and parties. All humans engage in this (except for those with certain hang ups, allergies or membership of life-denying miserablist religions) to mark special events or to buck up our consciousness when its flagging. Feeling included and bonded to your group is crucial in the bleak midwinter. Which is why we invented Christmas style festivals.

The Christians pinched the festive season from the Western European pagan Yuletide celebration of Winter Solstice. The tradition lives on in such pagan rites as the decorative veneration of a tree and kissing under the sacred druidic fertility plant of mistletoe.

But to see it as just (another) case of the Christians nicking the pagan festivals is to miss the bigger picture and the whole point of Christmas.

Pretty much every culture in the northern hemisphere has a midwinter Festival Of Light And Gifts. It's dark outside, it's cold, the plentiful harvests of summer are long gone and seasonal insomnia and depression are rife. What we all need is to get together with dependable loved ones, and to make each other feel wanted by exchanging gifts. We need to feast, get intoxicated and give ourselves a lift. Presents and partying are the 'true meaning' of the season.

Christmas time, mistletoe and wine? Absofuckinglutely, Sir Cliff

To read an edited version of this article in Swedish, visit

Once there, if you click on Merrick's name you'll get a picture of him DJing dressed as a nun.