Years ago, I delivered a sermon about the origins of Christmas at the Unitarian church my wife and I attended. It was, understandably, well received by most of the congregation. In that sermon, I disclosed that the holiday we know as Christmas is not new, was around and in full swing long before the celebrated birth of Jesus, and that many, if not all, of the symbols of Christmas – from the manger to the tree – come from decidedly non-Christian sources. The fact is, “Christmas” doesn’t belong to Christians only, and Jesus is not the only “reason for the season”.
So, Christians, accept this truth. Yes, the official name of the holiday is Christmas. You won that one, but you do not own the holiday. I honestly can’t think of a single Christmas tradition, belief, or celebration that is unique to your faith. I honor and support your right to put whatever religous significance you are moved to feel, but understand that the symbols you use to celebrate the birth of your Savior are “re-gifted” symbols.
I think you owe it to your faith to learn the history of the celebrations of your faith. The celebration of Christmas has not always existed among Christians. At one time, the celebration of Christmas was even outlawed – by Christians! On Christmas day in 1789, Congress was in regular session. Christmas as a federal holiday didn’t exist until 1870. Our current celebration of Christmas, and all of the traditions of hearth and home, owe more to Dickens and Washington Irving than to Mary, Joseph, and the three Wise Men.
Now, let’s get to my fellow non-theists and some of you knee-jerk, easily offended, PC dictators.
Christmas is not a religious holiday. Shall I say that again for clarity? CHRISTMAS IS NOT A RELIGIOUS HOLIDAY. It is a cultural holiday. Some elements of our culture wrap their faith around the holiday, but that is not the only significane of the holiday – far from it. The very admonishments I give to Christians about the history of this time of year I give to you. Yes, the word “Christmas” is distinctly Christian, but it’s use in the public forum (i.e., public schools, government buildings, etc.) is as much an endorsement of Christianity as Wednesday is an endorsement of Nordic paganism.
As much as many of my fellows would like to deny it, the prevailing cultural myth in the US is the Christian one. That means that many of our traditions and cultural symbols have a root in Christianity. That doesn’t mean they are “Christian-religious”, just that they are “Christian-cultural”. If you are offended by the Christian-cultural symbolism of the season, I suggest you pick up a book or two by Joseph Campbell and Carl Jung and spend December inside reading. It is a shame that so many of us would rather erase our cultural mythology than understand its importance.
Those of you of other faiths – Christmas is not a Christian holiday. Please try to see that celebrating Christmas is not a denial or rejection of your faith. Your faith is safe with Christmas. In fact, I will go so far as to say that celebrating Christmas will strengthen your faith.
While some Christians attach a religious significance to the holiday, the core, the root is peace, celebration of family, warmth, wonder, mystery. Are those not the core values of all faiths?
When I was a youngster, my best friend was a boy named David Shapiro. My friendship with him introduced me in a personal way to the faith of others. I recall going to David’s house in December, and finding a Christmas tree in their living room! I was very confused. My friend and his family were (are) very Jewish. What were they doing with a Christmas tree? David’s father saw my confusion and explained it all very simply to me by pointing out the decorations. It was decorated with the symbols of their faith and ornaments that represented family, family times, shared family memories. Mr. Shapiro explained to me that Hanukkah wasn’t the Jewish version of Christmas, but as the “festival of lights”, it fit right in with Christmas. Of course, I didn’t understand it then, but I do now.
Christmas is, indeed, the most wonderful time of the year. It doesn’t belong to Christians in spite of the name. It doesn’t belong to pagans in spite of the symbols. It doesn’t belong to Americans in spite of the fat man in the red suit. It doesn’t belong to Europeans in spite of Scrooge. I have found that Christmas is the most inclusive holiday. We are all welcome under the tree. We all have a gift to bring to the new born king.
“The new born king.” The very phrase brings visions of wisemen dancing in the head. But I choose this interpretation of the symbol of the babe in the manger. Christmas appeals to the innocence in us all. It awakens the child-like appreciation of the intangible, the unknown, the mystery. When we have learned to “keep Christmas well”, we will open our hearts to the wonder still, hopefully, alive in us all. We will allow that wonder to be newly born – refreshed. That is our gift to our own king and queen.
So I tell you all – MERRY CHRISTMAS!0