Updated: Dec 19, 2020
Like most people who celebrate “Christmas,” my family and I partake of a variety of “Christmas” media. We have some very old favorites – I am particularly partial to “The Bishop’s Wife” – a must for all Episcopalians – and some newer picks, from the surprisingly resilient and overtly religious “Charlie Brown Christmas” to the more recent and decidedly less religious “Krampus.” Recently, when I unloaded our mounting stack of seasonal videos, DVDs and compact discs it occurred to me that it is no wonder that people have become confused about the so-called “true meaning of Christmas.” There seem to be as many versions of the “real” reason for the season as there are Amazon trucks driving around.
How are we to make sense of the phenomenon that is called “The Christmas season”? We already know that the commercial holiday which seems to start earlier and earlier each year does not coincide with either the season of preparation the church observes prior to December 25, or the season of religious joy following. The question is what this means for Christians who believe that Jesus “is the reason for the season.” The Episcopal Church provides some helpful information:
“Christmas (in old English, Cristes maesse) is a festival celebrated on December 25, commemorating the Incarnation of the Word of God in the birth of Jesus Christ. In the Book of Common Prayer it is also called The Nativity of Our Lord Jesus Christ. In the United States it is also a popular secular holiday.
According to the Philocalian calendar, Christmas was first celebrated in Rome in the year 336 [almost four hundred years after the founding of Christianity]. It gradually spread to the churches of the east, which already had a festival on January 6 commemorating the manifestation of God in both the birth and baptism of Jesus. The date, December 25, rests on no historical foundation. It was probably chosen to oppose the feast Natalis Solis Invicti, the birthday of the ‘Unconquerable Sun God’ (Saturn), which took place at the winter solstice to celebrate the birth of ‘the Sun of Righteousness.’
The customs associated with Christmas have developed from many sources. From early days the popular observance of Christmas was marked by the joy and celebration characteristic of the Roman Saturnalia and the pagan festivals which it replaced. It came to include the decoration of houses with greenery and the giving of gifts to children and the poor. In Britain other observances were added including the Yule log and Yule cakes, fir trees, gifts, and greetings. Fires and lights (symbols of warmth and lasting life) and evergreens (symbols of survival) were traditionally associated with both pagan and Christian festivals. Their use developed considerably in England with the importation of German customs and through the influence of the writings of Charles Dickens.”
The truth then, is that Christians borrowed the date of December 25, as well as many pagan traditions, and applied them to our remembrance of Jesus’s birth. As time went on, people all over the world added their own cultural customs to this holiday, making it into the broadly celebrated “Christmas season” we experience today. This is not necessarily a bad thing. The desire of Christians over time and all over the world to commemorate the birth of our savior in a way that is meaningful demonstrates how important it was for them to share in the miracle that is at the core of the Christian religion – the willingness of God to come to earth in human form and live as one of us. In this sense, Christmas truly symbolizes the universality of God’s salvation; people everywhere wish to contribute to it and receive happiness from it. This is reflected in the best of our holiday practices and stories – whether they mention Jesus specifically or not. Tales like Dicken’s “A Christmas Carol,” and the many manifestations of O. Henry’s “The Gift of the Magi,” -neither of which is overtly Christian – still speak beautifully to the essence of Christmas – a spirt of kindness, generosity, and forgiveness.
We identify these traits as “Christian,” but they do not belong to us alone. Christmas season as it is celebrated at this time in this country does not have the same meaning as The Nativity of our Lord. If it did, it would mean that Christian values also include competitiveness, greed, and gluttony. The reality is that fifteen hundred years ago Christians borrowed the December 25 date and its festive trappings from non-believers – and they appear to have taken it back. As Christians it is our responsibility is to decide how to react to that change. We can argue, as some do, that coffee cups and sales clerks should be required to say “Merry Christmas,” but how does such behavior reflect our understanding the birth of Christ?
Let’s consider the idea that “Christmas is for Christians.” Clearly, many of customs that have come to surround us at this time of year are not relevant to us – or not to us alone. This does not mean that there is no Christ in Christmas. He is where he always has been: Christ is in the story of an unwed mother, an unprepared father, and an unwelcoming world. Christ is in our understanding that our salvation comes in the form of the most humble of human beings born into the most modest of human circumstances. Christ is in our belief in a God who cares for us “not because of any works of righteousness that we have done, but according to his mercy.” Most importantly, Christ is in us – when we care for those in need, when we put aside our pride and hold out our hands in welcome, and especially when we love others as we would be loved – not just once a year, but every day and forever. AMEN.
Don S. Armentrout and Robert Boak Slocum, eds. (2001), An Episcopal Dictionary of the Church: a User-friendly Reference for Episcopalians, [New York: Church Publishing], “Christmas” entry.