The true meaning of Christmas
Here in Australia, it’s Christmas time. The houses sport Christmas lights, the streets have Christmas decorations, and the shops are filled with busy shoppers buying gifts or completing their Christmas preparations.
But, in among the many Christmas traditions, one religion claims to have the true meaning of Christmas: A true meaning that has little to do with all the bustle and confusion. In past years, I made this claim myself. But how does it measure up?
What does Christmas mean to me?
For me, the biggest thing that Christmas Day means is family time. Over the years, Christmas has usually involved meals with different branches of the family. Some are people I see frequently, while others are relations I haven’t seen for a long time, so it can be both fun and nerve-wracking. Within the immediate family, that family time also involves giving and receiving gifts.
I don’t see anything in that list that I should reject as a result of leaving the family religion. It may mean that religion is off the table as a topic of discussion, but I’m not sure it was a big part of our family Christmas celebrations anyway. The stories of the birth of Christ were a great outreach tool, since it was one of the few times in the year that the Common Man might actually pay attention to the religion. But that was for the outsider: as a family we agreed on the truth of the narrative, but I think it stayed in the background. Yes, I knew “Jesus was the reason for the season”, but I also knew that our family traditions on the day had come from our family, not from the religion.
At a more trivial level, Christmas means food. I like some foods (like mince pies) that are only available in the lead up to Christmas. It also means carols, many of which I like.
One final thing the Christmas season means to me is a break. Like many companies, our office is closed between Christmas and New Year. The days are long, the weather is warm, and I don’t feel any need to go somewhere for a holiday. This makes it a good time to stop and reflect as one year ends and another year begins.
A warm Christmas
Melbourne Christmas can be variable: I remember times with temperatures in the high-30s and fire danger ratings, as well as times that were pleasantly cool. Tomorrow looks like it will be on the cooler end, with a predicted maximum of 22°C. My memories are more of playing cricket out in the local park, or having family water-fights. No snowball fights, and certainly no huddling by a warm fire. The closest I can remember to a white Christmas was having hail at Christmas.
The Immigration Museum currently has an exhibition on British migrants after World War 2. Quite a few of the migrants commented how different Christmas felt as a summer event rather than a winter event. Some liked it, others didn’t. But for me, it’s all I’ve ever known. Jingle Bells and a White Christmas are things of song, not things I actually experienced. But they are also not things inhabitants of Bethlehem would expect to experience. They come from our northern European ancestry, not from the Christian Christmas story.
Christmas as a cultural event
Quick quiz: Which of the following are part of Christmas?
- Christmas trees
- Christmas lights
- Santa Claus
- Nativity scenes
- Gift giving
- Mince pies
- A star
- The Krampus
- Summer heat
- Handel’s Messiah
- Reindeer drawn sleighs
- Plum pudding
- Family time
- Crackers (with included jokes)
- Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker (and associated toy soldiers).
- Red and Green
- Baby Jesus
I think we would recognise that just about all of these form part of Christmas in Australia, even if they don’t form part of our personal Christmas celebrations. A few are part of the Christian message of the birth of Jesus and his mission, but most are completely unrelated. Not only has the role of Jesus in Christmas shifted out of the foreground, but I suspect many would associate Santa Claus with Christmas far more than they would associate Jesus with it.
The true meaning?
Into this mix, Christians come and proclaim that they alone have the true meaning of Christmas. Personally, I don’t have a problem with them proclaiming the message of Jesus’ birth and mission to anyone who wants to hear it. But it is just one part of a rich lattice of Christmas meanings which has been built up over the centuries.
To hear some talking, one would have to believe that other Christmas traditions are somehow inferior or misguided. Perhaps even that they are a secular conspiracy to keep Jesus out of Christmas, where he rightly belongs (if there’s any conspiracy, it’s probably a conspiracy of marketers trying to sell stuff). And, in the extreme case, some suggest that it is hypocritical for any non-Christians to celebrate Christmas, particularly if they were formerly Christian.
I just don’t buy it. Here in Australia, Christmas is a public holiday for the entire nation, not just for Christians. It comes at the end of the calendar year and during summer holidays for Christians and non-Christians alike. Over the years it has changed and adapted, and it means different things to different people.
That’s just how cultural evolution works: When a thing becomes popular, it changes and acquires new meanings. No one group in the society gets to impose their “true meaning” on others. You can no more define by fiat what Christmas means to everyone than you can define what Anzac Day means (which doesn’t stop people trying in both cases).
But is it true?
I’m sure many Christians think that their story deserves pride of place because it really happened. However, I don’t view the nativity stories as any more true than stories of Santa Claus. Earlier this year, I discussed at length why I don’t believe Jesus was born in Bethlehem, but in short: I think the birth narratives in Matthew and Luke both contain implausible elements, and they also have very little overlap with each other, making it difficult to credibly fit them together. Jonathan MS Pearce lists even more problems here.
I am not convinced that Christmas was originally a cynical attempt to co-opt an existing pagan ritual. However, it is clear that times around solstices have been viewed as important by many different cultures, as have times considered the end of a year. It is also clear that our celebration of Christmas includes many elements from different sources. Some of these are relatively recent, while others may be from traditions older than Christianity.
I do not value these stories for their truth, but for what they contribute to our Christmas heritage and culture. They form a shared part of our human story and a connection with our ancestors. This year I went to a Cadbury themed Christmas event at Federation Square (carols, a VR sleigh ride, and lots of free chocolate), and I also returned to Road to Bethlehem. Both were good fun, though I was concerned by how unquestioningly Road to Bethlehem presented their message as truth. This evening, I went to a Wizard of Oz themed play, where Dorothy and her companions followed the Yellow Brick Star to Bethlehem so they could find the Wizard of Love and the true meaning of Christmas - certainly an unusual combination! It is fascinating seeing the many different ways the Christmas story can be presented and reworked.
Christmas as a Christadelphian was complicated. The congregations I belonged to always held a Christmas service as an outreach event. Typically it would include plays, singing, and a message about the true meaning of Christmas. But it would not be on Christmas Day itself, as that was already occupied by family time. I don’t know about everyone, but I think most members of those congregations kept Christmas Day as a family event rather than as a religious event.
However, even here there were mixed messages. Yes, we used Christmas as an outreach opportunity, but we also emphasised the fact that the traditional nativity story was flawed. Jesus probably wasn’t born on December 25. Wise men probably came long after the birth, and it never said there were three of them. It wasn’t a silent and peaceful night, and Mary and Joseph would have been ostracised by the community for conceiving a child out of wedlock.
I remember being in a play in which a librarian had to convince a seeker of information that most of the carols didn’t come from the Bible. It started with trying to look up “Noel”, travelled through various carols, and our seeker finally stormed out after finding there was no drummer boy, no roasting chestnuts, and no jack-frost nipping at the nose. It was a fun play to do, but it reinforced the message that, while the traditional Christmas story and celebrations could be enjoyed, they weren’t to be trusted as true. Only the Bible counted.
Then there were the significant sections of the Christadelphian community that pointedly didn’t keep Christmas. They viewed it as either a pagan celebration or a Romish tradition (or maybe both?). They didn’t want us holders of The Truth to be confused with the common herd of Christians who had given in to worldly traditions. And sometimes Christmas trees came in for special condemnation as pagan idolatry, citing Jeremiah 10 for support.
I think the effect on me was to make Christmas celebrations a private thing which I just didn’t talk about outside my friend group. I didn’t think we were doing anything wrong, but you couldn’t always tell whether you were talking with someone who would think it wrong.
Some years ago, a lengthy article condemning Christmas celebrations made its way into The Christadelphian, and I responded defending the use of Christmas as an outreach tool. I guess it was part of the larger debate about the extent to which we should be “in the world but not of it”. For me, the example of Paul in Athens came to mind, since it was the best example of someone using pagan traditions to present his Christian message. And obviously at that time I thought there was a true message of Christmas:
As I see it, we have the same choice: when many people are thinking at Christmas time about a wrong message of Jesus or even of Santa Claus, we can either leave them in their ignorance for fear of being misunderstood, or we can try and show them the right way.
I don’t remember talking about wrong doctrine much in the context of Christmas, but it must have been in the background. After all, we remembered the birth of Jesus, a man who was the son of God. Most other Christians remembered the Incarnation, a mystical time when God came down to earth and became man. We also thought Jesus brought a different salvation: a future return to raise the dead and rule Earth, not a hope of going to heaven after death.
When singing carols in a group, I pay more attention to the words when I realise everyone around me takes them as literally true. But in some ways the doctrinal issues made it easier for me to accept carols as songs I enjoy without believing them true. After all, I already knew that we had altered the words of carols or omitted verses as it suited us.
Last year I went to the Christmas Eve Midnight Mass at my local Anglican church. This year I went along to my former ecclesia’s carol service. But even where the two services included the same songs, they didn’t necessarily have the same words. Christadelphian Away in a Manger does not have “And fit us for heaven, to live with thee there”. Nor do I remember Hark! The Herald Angels Sing including “veiled in flesh the Godhead see; hail the incarnate Deity! Pleased in human flesh to dwell, Jesus, our Immanuel.”
How about O Come, all ye faithful: “True God of true God, Light of Light eternal, lo, he abhors not the Virgin’s womb; Son of the Father, begotten, not created”. Even the line “Word of the Father, now in flesh appearing!” would have raised a few eyebrows, though technically it’s just following the Gospel of John.
Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol has been a much loved part of Christmas since it was written. While it contains many things we would not typically associate with Christmas (for example, Blind Man’s Buff), it has a positive vision, and has been endlessly adapted and retold.
Early on, Scrooge’s nephew sets the tone:
I am sure I have always thought of Christmas time, when it has come round – apart from the veneration due to its sacred name and origin, if anything belonging to it can be apart from that – as a good time: a kind, forgiving, charitable, pleasant time: the only time I know of, in the long calendar of the year, when men and women seem by one consent to open their shut-up hearts freely, and to think of people below them as if they really were fellow-passengers to the grave, and not another race of creatures bound on other journeys. And therefore, uncle, though it has never put a scrap of gold or silver in my pocket, I believe that it has done me good, and will do me good; and I say, God bless it!
For Dickens, Christmas was a time of good will and joy. It was a time for families to be together, a time for lovers to declare themselves, and a time to look forward hopefully to the next year rather than sorrowfully back on the year that had gone.
In spite of the book’s many invocations of God and of Jesus as part of Christmas’ “sacred name and origin”, I think it presents an essentially humanistic approach. The main idea is of humans working together. The book is full of concern for the poor, but the concern is for their well-being here and now, not for their future salvation. Scrooge is asked to donate to a group providing “Christian cheer” for the poor, but it is humans who are actually organising it. And when the ghost of Jacob Marley talks about the Christmas star, it was not as a reminder of a world in need of saviour Jesus. Instead, the star should have led the rich to the houses of the poor and destitute so they could help them.
By the end of the book, Tiny Tim has become an embodiment of the nameless poor. While they were just a statistic Scrooge could dismiss their deaths as “decreasing the surplus population”. He could not do the same with a loveable child in need.
Tiny Tim looked towards Jesus as the one “who made lame beggars walk, and blind men see”. But it was really a changed Scrooge as his “second father” who saved his life. The book ends with Tim’s words “God Bless Us, Every One”, but truly there is no God required here.
Dickens didn’t want people to preach the true meaning of Christmas to others: he wanted them to live the Christmas spirit in their own lives all year round.
Some concerns with the Christian message
I think Dickens’ vision shows issues with the Christian message of Christmas. It is always presented by Christians as “good news”. Salvation is available. The world is in a mess right now, but Jesus provides something that can fix it. All you need to do is just accept him as your saviour.
If, as I have argued, there is no evidence of this miraculous birth or of this future salvation, this becomes pure wish fulfillment. I too see that there are problems in the world. I too would love something to just fix those problems. But if I have no reason to believe the magic solution is real, there is no benefit to accepting it in hope, and there may be harm.
One of the biggest problems with this view is that it requires us to accept that salvation must come from an external source. We are required to accept that we are all sinners, irredeemably broken, and that only Jesus’ sacrifice can reverse that. For many Christians, this means that some of the world’s problems are viewed as too big to try and solve, so they will just leave them for Jesus to fix.
To their credit, some believers let their Christian faith motivate them to try and fix some of the problems in the world now. And, in fairness, I must acknowledge that there are problems in this world I consider beyond my ability to fix, God or no God. But I see more credit in working together to try and improve the world as we find it than in waiting for a Deus Ex Machina to come fix all our problems any century now. It’s also more obviously useful: After all, anyone in Dickens’ time who waited for that promised saviour to fix the inequality in Victorian England has missed out.
It goes further, though: To truly understand the salvation the Christmas message offers, Christians need to look past the cute little baby in a manger and towards the man suffering and dying on a cross. Supposedly he was carrying all the sins of the world, and in some way his death was able to cancel or forgive all those sins (theologians still argue about the details of how that works and whether it is truly just). But, the story goes, that death was not the end: He was raised! The grave has no hold over him! Death itself can be conquered, and, whether just or not, through him we can have life! It’s a heady message (my take: developed later).
But what is the Christmas story ultimately looking towards? Luke has Gabriel predicting a powerful king, ruling over Israel by divine right forever. Doesn’t that sound like tyranny? After all, in this modern world powerful kings really aren’t our thing. Later, Paul talks about this king coming in fire, taking vengeance on people who don’t know God and obey Jesus. Like that, all the freedoms of religion which enlightened humans have fought for for hundreds of years are to be dissolved for ever - and that’s good news?
Not only are we being told that salvation has to come from outside our human endeavours, but that when it comes humans won’t have a choice in the matter. “Peace on earth” sounds a lot more peaceful when it doesn’t involve liquidating those who disturb the peace by disagreeing with it being imposed on them. And if you look carefully at the words of the angelic choir in Luke, peace is only promised among those God is pleased with, not to all mankind. This seems consistent with other passages about the exclusive nature of Christianity (I discussed some earlier this year asking whether compassion is the true essence of religion).
One final thought on this Christmas message: as well as “peace on Earth”, it also includes the massacre of the innocents. Yes, the Matthew story places the blame on Herod, but it is clear God chose to intervene to protect his son, but not any of the other children. Why not? The usual answer would be that we are just seeing a small part of God’s mighty plan, and it will all come right in the long run. I can understand why people want to believe that, but I just don’t think we have any good reason to believe it. Far better that we try and work together to solve the problems of the world than that we trust everything will be sorted out by God sometime in the distant future.
Christmas is an important part of our culture, and over the years it has grown many traditions. I’m not trying to eliminate the Christian version from the mix: I just don’t think it can be elevated as the “true meaning of Christmas”. And if I were to change anything about how we celebrate Christmas I’d be more likely to try and reduce the outright commercialism of modern Christmas.
I enjoy the family time, and I like seeing Christmas decorations around, whether they involve Christmas trees, Santa with his reindeer, shepherds, wise men, or a star. I also enjoy many Christmas carols, some Christian, some non-Christian. And I don’t think this shows any inconsistency: If our cultural heritage were to be limited to what we positively know to be true, we would be a lot poorer for it.
The message of peace and good will on earth is a laudable one, but I think it would be better achieved by working together as humans rather than trying to impose one religion’s story on all humanity.