Thursday, 14 December 2017

Can Buddhists Celebrate Christmas?

Buddhist Christmas

Bah Humbug!

Other non-Christian religions can get a bit uptight about Christmas, but Buddhism is fairly laid back.

A few years ago the city of Birmingham renamed Christmas to 'Winterval' as a result of protests by non-Christian faith communities, but as far as I'm aware it wasn't the Buddhists who were complaining. 

Of course, there are aspects of Christmas which a Buddhist might have reservations about - rampant consumerism and so on, but these are the same excesses that are often denounced by Christians who complain that in recent years the spiritual aspects of Christmas have been replaced by a credit card frenzy.

But in general Buddhists are quite happy with Christmas and have no hangups about hanging up Christmas decorations and enlightening Christmas trees.

Presents under the Bodhi Tree

In the Simpsons episode She of Little Faith , where Lisa converts to Buddhism, Reverend Lovejoy tries to dissuade her by saying that she can't celebrate Christmas because "Santa doesn't leave presents under the Bodhi tree". Richard Gere puts things right by explaining that Buddhists believe that those religions that are founded on Love and Compassion are valid spiritual paths.

So you can eat your Christmas cake and still be a Buddhist, though of course you can never finally have the cake whether you eat it or not (all cakes are compound phenomena and thus subject to impermanence).

Excessive consumption of Christmas cake may also promote the realisation that there is no inherent difference between an object of attachment and an object of aversion. ("Can't you manage just one more slice? Look here's a nice piece with extra thick icing... What's the matter, aren't you feeling well?")

Was Jesus a Buddhist?
Many Buddhists believe that Jesus was a High Bodhisatva or manifestation of Enlightened Mind. There is also some evidence that in the 'lost years' Jesus travelled to the East and studied Buddhism - certainly you can't get any more Buddhist than the traditional Christmas message of 'Peace on Earth - Goodwill to All'. And who exactly were the Wise Men and where did they originate? Were they Buddhists?

A Buddhist Christmas Carol

Dickens' well-loved story A Christmas Carol sometimes upsets the more fundamentalist Christian evangelicals with its 'ghosts' (to an evangelical all such spirits are apparitions of Satan). But from a Buddhist perspective the story makes perfect sense:

Chains of attachment to money-boxes

Marley's miserliness has resulted in him becoming a Preta (ghost) after death. His attachment in life was to money, and in the Preta realm his attachment manifests as fetters to chains of money-boxes, keys, ledgers and heavy purses. 

In order to help purify his karma, Marley sets out to warn Scrooge that the same destiny awaits him. Marley is assisted in his task by two peaceful Buddhas (Christmas Past and Christmas Present - Buddhas can manifest in any form that is beneficial to sentient beings), and one wrathful Buddha ('Ghost of the Future!' I fear you more than any spectre I have seen'). 

Buddhas can appear in any beneficial form

The Buddhas take Scrooge through a sort of mini-Bardo experience, where he reviews his life from the perspective of what he has done to others, or not done for others, rather than what he has done for himself. He awakens into a state of mind transformed by compassion and generosity.

Ho Ho Ho ... Hotei! The Buddhist Santa Claus

I'm a mince pie junkie, so when it comes to the the annual Christmas Battle of the Bulge, I've long ago taken Langri Tangpa's advice and adopted the practice of 'accepting defeat and offering the victory'.

Unfortunately, this does have a slight problem with the self-generation visualisations. Most of the Buddhas are portrayed as young, slender and sitting upright, which means that those of us with a more Homeric appearance (in the Simpsonian sense) need rather vivid imaginations to 'bring the result into the path'.

So I was quite pleased when I discovered a Buddha with whom I could easily identify - Buddha Hotei - a manifestation of Buddha Maitreya with an amply proportioned physique (The Wikipedia article rather unkindly calls him 'fat').

Buddha Hotei is very popular in China and Japan. He's often portrayed sitting in a semi-reclining posture and laughing uproariously, while distributing presents to children out of an inexhaustible sack. The similarities with Santa are quite intriguing, see Hotei_1, Hotei_2,
Hotei 3

The winter solstice

Of course the origins of Christmas long pre-date Christianity. The majority of the world's religions originated in relatively low latitudes (around 30°N) where the difference in day length between Summer and Winter is not particularly noticeable. However, for us folks who live further from the equator, the long dark nights and short dull days of midwinter are definitely a big psychological issue. That is why the Winter solstice has always been of such importance to Northern Europeans. It symbolises, if not the rebirth, at least the conception of the new year. In the Celtic calendar Imbolc (Candlemas) was the actual birth of the New Year, with the appearance of the first lambs and green shoots.

The early church failed to suppress the solstice celebrations and instead adopted them (much as they planted churches on pagan sacred sites), overlaying the scarcely concealed Druidic symbolism with Christian attributes. There is actually no historical evidence that Jesus was born on the 25th December.

The Celtic annual cycle of Imbolc, Halloween and Winter Solstice offers a rich source of symbolism and analogy for the process of rebirth, life, death, bardo and conception that would not be as apparent in traditional Buddhist countries, which are mostly at lower latitudes. So it is likely that as Buddhism continues to spread in the Anglo-Celtic cultural areas, it will adopt some of the Winter Solstice customs. There is no reason for in not to do so, for it is often remarked that unlike most other religions, Buddhism is not tied to a particular culture. 

Because of its strong philosophical foundations, Buddhism is universal.   It is effective for any sentient being, anywhere, any time.

Christmas Eve at Vajralama Center Seattle

- Sean Robsville

Read more at Buddhist Philosophy


Related articles:

Buddhist New Year

Buddhist Halloween

Buddhist Candlemas

Celtic Buddhism - Buddhism in pre-Christian Britain

Why Beauty Matters - Spiritual Art versus the Cult of Ugliness

Cauldron, Chalice and Grail Symbolism in Buddhism and Celtic Wicca

Buddhist origins of Christianity

Numinous Symbolism - Pagan, Buddhist and Christian

Evolution is no Threat to Buddhism

C J Jung, Buddhism, Tantra and Alchemy


Anonymous said...

Thank you for this article. I am relatively new to the study of Buddhism and many people have asked me if I will continue to celebrate the holiday season. I feel much better after reading through this article and exploring the other sites. Thank you

Amanda said...

I am also new to Buddhism after years of being raised fundamentalist Pentecostal and then becoming Catholic 5 years ago. After a long internal battle, I could no longer accept what Christianity was selling, at least for my own spiritual satiety. But I certainly do not believe the are "wrong" or that any religion that truly practices love and compassion is "wrong"....they're just not right for the spiritual path I want to be on.

This post and your blog has really helped me answer some internal questions I have been struggling with. As a geologist, who accepts science above all, the Buddhist philosophies fit in very well with what I study and teach. The Earth is ever changing and impermanent.

I have bookmarked your blog and hope to finish reading your entries soon as I embark on my new path.


Anonymous said...

I look at Christmas as a man made holiday. I was raised Catholic and bacame a freethinker at a young age and two and a half years ago I got into Nichirin Buddhism. most of them celebrate the holiday in more of a cultural way than religous. however I,ll most likely celebrate humanlight day since a part of me still considers myself a freethinker. John K.

Anonymous said...

Great stuff, as a Kadampa Buddhist, all beings wishing peace and happiness to all is the greatest gift of Christmas, thanks so much for your informative piece, greatly enjoyed, Happy Christmas and peace and goodwill to all beings, namaste

Nicholas Stanosheck said...

Reminds me of the teachings from

Anonymous said...

Jesus wasnt a Boddhisattva, Jesus was a monotheist. To be a Boddhisattva one must have "right view" which is the view of Interdependent Origination and Emptiness. Monotheists do not view reality in this way as they believe that reality has a single source (god). Bodhisattvas understand that all things are interconnected and that all sentient beings are the cause of reality.Its all so worth mentioning that historically women were thought of as not being able to be a Bodhisattva as they were said to be a lower birth the a male birth. Hopefully over time this will change, as will the view that western Buddhists seem to continually do in saying that monotheists are also Bodhisattvas.

Anonymous said...

Interesting... though I have never seen any evidence whatsoever that women were considered "lower" in Buddhism. I think you're referring to their status in traditional Asian culture.


Anonymous said...

so what you are saying that you don't celebrate Christmas because you don't believe that Jesus Christ was born on this day and that we should celebrate the meaning of his life. Is that what you are saying I am a Christian and so therefore I do believe in Celebrating the birth of our savior and without him there would be no you or tomorrow.

Jas Baku said...

Good points here. I always escape th plastic consumerism of Christmas by going into retreat. Folk understand that - because I'm Buddhist. But yes, wishing peace and happiness to others is as Buddhist as any other world religion.

Unknown said...

Great article.

Anonymous said...

I've been studying and practicing Buddhism for a couple years now. I find that Christmas is more of a family tradition than a religious holiday for my family, in my eyes. I can enjoy the company of family, peace and happiness, and practice being generous as well. I just try to make the holiday the most enjoyable for my family and friends. =) Everyday is a special day!

Unknown said...

I've been Buddhist for ten years. My wife has been for about half that and we always get the question, How do you celebrate Christmas if you're Buddhist. This will help, more with her than I since most of the people I'm friends with stopped asking when I got into Christ's lost years.

Kris K said...

I really enjoy your writing style. The post really drew me in... I found you in a google search for "do buddhists celebrate christmas". I am not buddhist, but was wanting to create some holiday cards that reflected my connection with yoga and spirit.

David Hereford,MSIT said...

Enjoyed reading your blog and I think you information has really got me thinking

Anonymous said...

Enjoyed reading it all and was a big help. Thanks

Unknown said...

I am working on a project casting Buddhist poetry to Christmas carols. Would love to get your thoughts. Please take a look.

Anonymous said...

Hi Rob,
Your old post has appeared at

Buddhists do celebrate Christmas like I do. We are accommodating lot.
Some people like to tolerate but not accommodate.
Tolerating means you don't like it or hate it but still you have to face it with a pretentious face or smile.Very false indeed!.
Cult does tolerates but not accommodate. So when they don't tolerate and accommodate, they will shout 3 times before chopping with a meat cleaver or mow down others with a truck. So yes, we celebrate Christmas like many as we accommodate so we make space for others.Merry Christmas!

Anonymous said...

There were people living before the birth of jesus christ, how could u say that without him there would not be us.. Tht doesnt make any sense.

jade said...

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