I get broadcast emails from some American friends about keeping the “Christ” in “Christmas,” as the argument goes. And I’m reminded constantly as I watch seasonal television every time somebody says oh-so-sincerely “Happy Holidays!”
That’s an appropriate greeting, of course, to a mixed audience … but it’s certainly rather forced when they are talking about “holiday” presents, and “holiday” decorations of wreaths and garlanded trees, which are part of the Christmas tradition, not Hanukkah or Kwanzaa or whatever else our neighbours may celebrate at winter Solstice time. However, I appreciate the bizarre legal world of the public square [broadcast version], and I’ll just grimace a little every time the semantic requirements stretch my patience too far.
I should hasten to add, I am not of the party compelled to lobby to “keep the Christ in Christmas.” Rather, I echo the conviction of Teilhard de Chardin who found “Christ in all things,” and I don't fear he's in danger of getting lost. As a writer, I simply prefer that things be called plainly what they are. The time of year is a season of several “Holidays,” and a suitably open greeting is appropriate; but a decorated tree comes to us from a Christmas tradition, and it’s just fine to call it a Christmas tree, thank you. As a citizen and a theologian, however, I see something much larger and more universal unfolding, and the world is a better place for it… There is no need for the defensive or proprietary tone struck by some Christians at this time of year.
“Christmas” in its popular festive guise has become a secular celebration. By that I do NOT mean it has been de-spiritualized. Rather, it is a celebration that has become a tradition of our society, it’s a Canadian [speaking of my own context; transpose as you see fit for yours] cultural event that the vast majority of us participate in to some extent, whether or not we identify as Christians. The tree; the cards (although far fewer than even 10 years ago); the presents; the feast – some on Christmas Day, others on Christmas Eve; the Santa Claus legend; the exterior lights on malls and offices and homes… we all know the cultural cues.
People – communities – need occasions of shared festival. Public celebrations are as important to our social health as yearly vacations or daily baths are to our personal health. In the West, I’d argue that the broadest and most familiar such festival is Christmas. It is a Season of Light(s)… overlaid on solstice ceremonies, we celebrate the Light at the turning of the year, the longest night signaling the start of the lengthening days.
Early Christians used that ancient festival time to celebrate the birth of their resurrected Christ. Of course we don’t know the birthdate of Jesus … he was a nobody, born to a peasant. Nonetheless, a commemoration of his birth was in order. Therefore, just as the early community “Christianized” much of pagan Rome’s traditions and social roles to conform to their own ethics and values, blending in just enough to avoid persecution -- so they later made the winter festival an opportunity for celebration and thanksgiving.
A lot of history has elapsed since then, for good and ill, as far as “Christianizing” impulses go. It’s mighty hard for us to imagine that impulse as a private, countercultural compromise among believers, an effort by a tiny minority to be faithful and still be citizens and participants in mainstream life. Christianity’s imperialistic history has infused Christian traditions into the most religion-less corners of life; there was a time when whole communities and traditions were buried and suffocated under a universalizing presumption of “the Christian society.” I’m glad, personally, that such a time is passing now.
Those who argue to keep the Christ in Christmas are arguing, I think, from a similar universalizing presumption: celebrating Christmas is an expression of Christian faith and belief, and this belief in Christ the Risen Saviour must not be separated from our public Christmas celebrations. Respectfully, I disagree.
While active practice and public confession of Christian religion is much less visible now than a couple of generations ago, it is still safe to say a majority of people accept that Jesus of Nazareth existed as a historical figure. Whether or not he was the Messiah, or whether he was resurrected to reign in glory at God’s right hand, these are questions of theology and faith commitments. On the other hand, the teachings that we read about in the Bible stories of his life and ministry do not require a faith commitment to absorb and accept. Jesus as the popular “Prince of Peace” can be accepted as such as a teacher and an “evolved” spiritual being. His teachings, his example according to the Gospels, his “love ethic” as it is known, has become part of the Jesus lore even for those who are not religious. This love ethic has been absorbed into the fabric of our winter festival, into the traditions of Christmas – the public holiday, apart from the religious observance.
As an active Christian and public theologian in a post-Christian world, I’m completely okay with the notion that peace and grace and the eternal Light of Love -- the message and mission of Christ … are the “reason for the season.” For me, that is embodied in the holy messenger Jesus Christ, whose birth we acknowledge in the word “Christmas.” But if the secular world wants to pause in its dispassionate frenzies for a couple of weeks and actually practise goodwill and generosity in the name of self-emptying love … then God is indeed alive in the world, and the Holy Spirit is moving, touching, and changing people by other names.
To that I sing, Hosanna in the highest.
Merry Christmas to all, and may grace and peace abound in 2010.