Coming from a Jewish home in Israel, Christmas simply didn’t feature in my childhood. Now I’m living in England, and am surrounded by people who celebrate it – and by arguments about how it should be celebrated, arguments I’d never been aware of before coming here.
This post isn’t about how I see it, it’s about how other people see it, about the various points of view I’ve heard, and some of the unhelpful attitudes I’ve come across.
Some of what I hear, both in face to face encounters and on the internet, includes:
- Christians grumbling that people are [allegedly] abusing what is supposed to be a celebration of the birth of Christ and turning it into something else altogether (overspending, overeating, getting drunk and misbehaving)
- Non-Christians grumbling about Christians shoving a lot of religious stuff down their throats instead of letting them enjoy a nice Christmas (trees with nice decorations, fun decorative lights, nice food, gifts, TV, time with family, fun parties)
- People in general grumbling about how it’s all got too commercialised (Christmas was so much better when we were kids)
I haven’t got much to say to group 3 – I expect they’re right and it has got more commercialised over time, but I’m new to this whole thing, my first experience of Christmas was as an adult, in 1989. I don’t know how it used to be before.
My interest is in group 1 and group 2, who seem to have a strong disagreement about what Christmas is about, with each group resenting the other group’s interpretation. The trouble is, each group has good grounds for its interpretation – if only they could see it, if only they could understand where the other group is coming from, maybe they could stop quarrelling about it.
The way I’m looking at what happens this time of year, it seems that there are two things going on at the same time, but confusingly they are both called by the same name: Christmas.
There are people who, in accordance with church tradition, regard 25 December as a celebration of an event which is, from the Christian point of view, an extremely important event – the point at which the Son of God came to earth as a human being, so that he could live amongst us as one of us in order for him to eventually die to save us. For people who view it as a celebration of the Incarnation, it is a very significant and joyful religious festival.
And some who feel strongly about it have been known to attempt to remind people that the word Christmas comes from the word Christ, and therefore, they say, it is wrong to leave him out of it. How can you take Christ out of Christmas, they say.
But then they get annoyed when people try to rename the festival, either making up modern terms like Winterval or going back to ancient terms such as Yule. I think it actually makes a huge amount of sense to call it something other than “Christ’s Mass” if you are not celebrating the birth of Christ. And isn’t Yule one of the names of the original festival that used to take place on 25 December before the church decided to take it over and rename it?
Disclaimer: I am a Christian. I believe Jesus is the Son of God and that he came to earth as a human being to live amongst us and to die for our salvation. I think what he did was wonderful, amazing, mind-bogglingly awesome – however, I know it very very very probably didn’t happen on, or anywhere around, 25 December, and I personally don’t believe it was a good idea for the church to attempt to take over a pagan festival and turn it into a celebration of an event which God didn’t tell us to celebrate and which very probably happened in autumn. And I don’t think Christians have any right whatsoever to attempt to dictate to the general population what to do on 25 December or what to call it. And this whole argument of “they’ve taken Christ out of Christmas” is totally the wrong way round – historically, it is the church that decided to put Christ into what was an established celebration of the rebirth of the sun god, and the church has no jurisdiction over people outside of it.
Confession: I used to be in that camp, trying to remind people around me “what Christmas is all about”, sending only cards with nativity scenes, and grumbling about the abundance of greeting cards with pictures of penguins or snowmen or all sorts of other things that have nothing whatsoever to do with the birth of Jesus. I now recognise that there is no one-size-fits-all answer to “what Christmas is all about” – hence the title of this post. To some it’s about celebrating the birth of Jesus, to some it’s an opportunity to have time off work and spend time with the family, to some it’s all about tradition, to some it’s about the gifts or the food or the parties or the nostalgia… or a mix of any of these factors and probably others I have omitted to mention. Somehow we have to inhabit this planet together, living side by side – sometimes even being part of the same family. I’d love to see a bit more peace and goodwill and a bit less attempts to hit each other over the head about this whole thing.
Happy whatever-you-want-to-call-it and enjoy whatever you do on 25 December.