One of the features of the Christmas season is the Christian reminder to “remember the real meaning of Christmas.” On its face, I kind of like the reminder. Anything that checks the cancerous corporatism that yearly creeps up on all holidays like Kudzu is a good thing, in my book.
Practicalities aside, what is Christmas about? What is the reason for the season? Why do we all gather together to spend time with friends and family, exchanging gifts, singing, and appreciating the warmth of hearth and home in the midst of winter?
Even Christians acknowledge that winter festivals of this variety, including Yule and Saturnalia. If the birth of Jesus is the reason for the season, how could the season exist prior to the birth of Jesus?
All of Europe — even parts of Southern Europe — experienced periods of harsh winter when the crops would not grow, when the wind and cold could kill, when the days were short and the unforgiving nights were long. The seasons required that winter be prepared for. When it was not, cold, hunger, and death might be the result.
Human festivals always celebrate plenty. The only differences are in commodity. With birthdays, it is time (one more year survived). With independence days, it is autonomy and freedom. Weddings and childbirths were celebrated an increase in life — a commodity of sorts, for the community, and for the lineage.
With St. Patrick’s day, the commodity is ostensibly Irishmen and their beer.
But the oldest and most important commodity — at least the one that seems to have inspired the most celebration — was food. Without food, people starved, if not to death, than to misery. This seems to have been a fairly common experience among our distant ancestors, particularly in the winter months when the crops stopped growing. So when a successful harvest led to a sufficient — or, ideally, overflowing — supply of food to last through winter, it would have been cause for celebration.
So it would make sense to have a post-harvest celebration of plenty and familial closeness (also something to celebrate in the face of cold and hunger) in the middle of winter. Gift-giving would not merely be a symbol of generosity, but also of plenty.
We can think of this as the secular story of Christmas: finding family and food to survive, and taking the time to enjoy the life that comes from these, despite being in the teeth of nature’s harshest season.
Now Christianity’s version of Christmas is also a celebration of a commodity — namely, that of saviors and spiritual salvation. Within the framework of a Christian worldview, this is not only a cause for celebration, but relatively speaking, perhaps the only thing worth celebrating.
So which of these two is the real meaning of Christmas?
Putting aside the obvious but irrelevant association of the holiday’s name (“Christmas” is explicitly Christian), I think that the general feeling of the holiday that people love is actually closer to the secular story than to the Christian story. While going to church, reading the nativity, and of course, the wonderful collection of Christian hymns for the season, all have value and build upon the general festive spirit of the season, I think that that festive spirit fundamentally derives from the secular story of family and food in the cold and dark of winter, and not from the story of Jesus’ birth.
This would not really be a point worth making, were it not for all of the Christians saying that the real meaning of Christmas is the birth of Jesus. I really don’t think that’s true, and worse, I think something is lost by making it all about Jesus. Some things are beautiful and noble and good in and of themselves. Given the harsh and brutal treatment that winter has given our species historically, the fact that we have found love and closeness in the midst of winter, and celebrate it, is a truly remarkable and beautiful thing. There is something thievish in redirecting this appreciation, and channeling it away from its origins, be it to God or to empty commercialism. The genuine joy at the heart of the season did not come from Christianity (not least because Jesus was not born on December 25), and I worry that without an understanding for the real heart of the season, the festivities themselves might lose their authenticity.
And of course, from the other side, there may be something thievish in taking a holiday about God and making it about ourselves and our family. I don’t mean thievish for stealing practices from pagan holidays, but merely for stealing attention and gratitude that would belong to God and placing it instead upon each other and in the “spirit of the season.” (Is there not something slightly theologically sinister in that very phrase?) I understand that Jehovah’s Witnesses are not exactly a theological majority, but I think of all the Christian denominations out there, they seem to have the most sensible prioritization of attention and the most consistent view of “worship,” where God is concerned.
But if there is anything that the Christian and non-Christian alike ought to agree upon, it is the unseemly commercialism that has crept over the holiday, and seems to seize it more completely each passing year. If I were to lay any blame for this trend, I would put it on the ambivalent splitting of the difference that more and more Americans take, where they try to give both Christianity and the winter their due. But this simply amounts to a stalwart refusal to remember the “reason for the season,” whichever reason that may be. They remain agnostic. And whenever value judgments are withheld, markets arbitrate. That means that for the Christmas season, agnostic ambivalence about the real meaning of the holiday will give the eventual victory to Wal-Mart, Samsung, and Berkshire Hathaway by default.
And if the feeling of Christmas is of value, that would be a loss for all of us, believers and unbelievers alike.