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December 19, 2011
Christmas as a "Divine Gift"
There is an undeniable magic in the Christmas season, but Christmas Day by itself does not always live up to our expectations. In short, our preparations are often more exciting than what we actually do on Christmas Day. Leading up to Christmas, the days are alive with excitement and cheer; a festive mood, reflected in the variegated lights of city streets and private homes, even invades the usually sterile workplace. On the other hand, after the brief excitement of waking up to Santa Claus on Christmas morning, and opening gifts that leave the room knee-deep in wrapping paper, Christmas Day for adults is usually quiet, undisturbed, and almost dull.
In some ways, Christmas Day is similar to a rum cake. There are more "spirits" present in its preparation phase. When baked, however, the cake, like Christmas Day, may retain the slight taste of rum, but the "spirit" has lost its punch. Thus the question: What is really special about Christmas? Many of our modern Christmas traditions did not originate as Christian traditions. Mistletoe, for example, played a significant role in the ancient Celtic religion. The ancient Roman celebration of Saturnalia on December 17-24 included the giving of gifts and the lighting of candles. Even December 25th was first celebrated in the ancient world as the birthday of Mithras, the Persian god of light, whose mysteries competed with Christianity in the second and third centuries.
The earliest Christians did not originally celebrate the birth of Jesus on a special day. In fact the gospels of Mark and John are able to describe who Jesus was without ever mentioning his birth; so it is clear that with some early Christian groups the birth of Jesus did not have the significance it now receives. Aside from Easter and Pentecost, early Christians celebrated Epiphany on the sixth of January, which originally was a celebration of Jesus’ baptism as his public manifestation to the world as the Son of God. It was not until the middle of the fourth century that December 25th was taken over by Christians as a special day to celebrate Jesus' birth.
What Americans do at Christmas does not appear to be a religious celebration. We observe a festive season and Xmas day and connect them with the birth of Jesus, but the real emphasis in America as a whole is on gift giving and family gatherings rather than on religious celebration. For example, when Christmas falls on Sunday as it did in 1994 and as it will again this year, many churches tend to reduce their regularly scheduled Sunday activities, rather than making religious capital on the convergence of Sunday with Christmas Day—a concrete example of family over ritual!
These observations are not intended as criticism of modern Christmas practices. I particularly enjoy the commercialism of the season. Perhaps it is because I have spent too many Christmas seasons in countries where the major religion is not Christian.
As a result, I have come to think of our Christmas celebration as an assimilation of American culture to Christian faith. Or put in theological language: For good or ill, Christmas represents the secular symbolical incarnation of Christ in American culture.
In the trappings of our Christmas celebration, I find little that is uniquely Christian. I realize that traditionally religious folk deplore this situation, and reject the secular incarnation of Christ in American culture as illegitimately “Christian.” But the truth is that since the first century the largely unknown Jew, Jesus, has shown an amazing ability to blend with all sorts of ideas. The incarnation of Christ in American Christmas culture is just one more.
And yet I do find something very different and special in the celebrations of Christmas of all varieties. In the Christmas season the very air is charged with a sense of expectation, joy, hope, and goodwill. Except for Easter, I can think of no other day in the American national festive calendar that so unites nations and peoples throughout the world. If Jesus, an unlettered Jewish peasant, has done nothing more than lend his name to a day that brings families together and inspires the celebration of those noblest aspects of our human character — love, joy, hope, goodwill, benevolence, generosity and peace — it is a marvelous gift to humankind. One might even say a “divine gift.”
Expanded from House of Faith or Enchanted Forest (2009), 73-74; this essay first appeared in the Springfield News-Leader, December 25, 1994.
Charles W. Hedrick
Posted by Charles Hedrick at 6:00am