Midnight mass on the 25th of December, what does it mean? I think of it as a festival of the sun, and a kind of farewell to the night. It’s the time when the sun is no longer declining, and is about to begin mounting a little higher each day, bringing light, heat, joy, greenery, harvests. It is like the new birth of a god; and those who know how to watch the stars and measure the course of the sun see this rebirth before anyone else. So Christmas is already a festival of spring.
There is another festival, Easter. This also celebrates the return of the sun; except that it comes a little late; it waits until its effects can be noticed, a warmer sun, the first flowers. I conclude that it was invented before the other, at a time when the stars were not observed closely, when we lacked the notion of the winter solstice.
Later, astronomers fixed the rebirth of the sun more precisely; from this came a new festival whose meaning would remain completely obscure to most people, as it is exactly at the moment when the coldest weather begins that we should greet the return of the sun and the lengthening of the day. So I would call Christmas the Easter of those who know, and Easter the Christmas of those who don’t.
Perhaps none of this corresponds very well with historians’ knowledge; but that hardly matters, for historians don’t know very much. They know nothing of the invention of the boat, the lever, the wheel, fire, the wheelbarrow, gunpowder, or the cultivation of wheat. To tell the truth, the most fertile period of human history is completely unknown.
In the first historical writings, humanity is already old; it’s already hauling the same baggage as today; it has the same understanding of mechanics, the same morality, the same religion; it forgets only its mistakes. All the customs that have resisted the test of time are rational. Theologians, with their chatter and abstractions, have not succeeded in stifling the true ideas enclosed in them. So fasting, confession, communion, mass, the festival of Christmas, these all have a meaning. In religion, everything is true, except for the sermon; everything is good, except for the priest.
English translation copyright © Michel Petheram