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Thursday, 16 December 2010

Why Non-Christians can celebrate Christmas

This year, as every year in December, you can read loads of opinions attacking Christmas and the way it is celebrated world-wide. They take a number of forms; firstly there are the committed Christians who denounce the secularisation and commercialisation of what they regard as a Christian feast, on the other hand there are the radical secularists who question whether a modern society should be celebrating a Christian feast at all. The irony here is, of course, that two groups, who are otherwise at loggerheads with each other, actually argue (at least partly) in the same direction. Maybe that’s the first effect of the season of goodwill! In my view, they’re both wrong; short-sighted religious killjoys and humourless over-pc humbuggers.

Let me deal with the Christians first. I will cheerfully agree that Christmas is a Christian festival – because, around the fourth century C.E., Christians started celebrating the birth of Jesus on December 25. There is no biblical evidence whatsoever for Jesus’ date of birth so they had a fairly free choice. There were a number of good reasons for choosing December 25 – the first being that it was based on an inaccuracy in the Roman calendar which put the winter solstice (actually December 21) on that day. The solstice is nine months after the spring equinox, which some regarded as the date of creation and thus a fitting day to celebrate the conception of Jesus. Moreover, the time at the end of December, and particularly the solstice was a general holiday time. The Romans celebrated the Saturnalia, a week-long holiday of feasting and giving gifts, starting on December 17, the solstice itself was the day to celebrate Sol Invictus (the undefeated sun), where the sun, having been almost defeated by darkness, triumphs and the days start to become longer again.

The winter solstice is, in fact, the core and kern of celebrations in the second half of December, particularly in Europe, prior to and independent of any Christian feast. It is, therefore, no surprise that many of the elements traditionally associated with Christmas have nothing to do with Christianity and are of pagan origin, mostly Germanic and Scandinavian. These include the giving of presents, the Christmas tree, Christmas stockings, holly, ivy and mistletoe, carol singing/wassailing and many elements incorporated in the modern Santa Claus myth. Five thousand years ago (five hundred years before the pyramid of Gizeh and a thousand years before Stonehenge), the Neolithic inhabitants of Ireland built the megalithic passage tomb mound of Newgrange. In a marvellous example of precise astronomical observation and exact engineering, once a year at the winter solstice the rising sun shines directly along a long passage to illuminate the inner chamber of the mound for around 17 minutes. The death and rising to new life of the sun at the winter solstice – a common theme in many religions – is practically celebrated in a deeply impressive fashion. In the middle of winter, when the days are so short, the weather so hostile and survival until spring so uncertain, people have for thousands of years celebrated hope and endurance by making holiday, feasting and giving each other gifts.

It is, then, completely understandable that Christians decided to celebrate the birth of the god-man at this time. The themes and memes surrounding the birth of Christ are complementary with the older themes in the cultures into which Christianity spread in Europe and this kind of religious syncretism is something quite common.

What is less easy to accept against this background, are the arguments of Christians that “their” festival has been hijacked or secularised (I could mutter something about those without sin and casting first stones, but I think I have made my point). Even the occasional attacks on the term Xmas and the campaigns to “put Christ back into Christmas” are profoundly unhistorical, given that the “X” in Xmas is really the Greek letter “Chi”, the first letter in the word “Christos” and a conventionally accepted abbreviation of the same.

I can, moreover, even sympathise with Christian criticisms of the unbridled consumerism involved in much of the celebration of Christmas nowadays – though not because it specifically offends against Christian teaching (and I would also observe in passing that a large number of Christians both propagate and participate in this orgy of consumption) but because it is unnecessary and in bad taste in a world where resources are limited and so many millions have neither the means nor the opportunity to participate in such excessive and superfluous gluttony.

But, leaving the lunatic exaggeration and frenzy of consumerism aside, there’s something basically positive about the idea of celebrating, feasting and giving mutual gifts in the middle of the hardest and most uncertain season of the year. It is an affirmation of the power of the human spirit, of the hope and assurance that spring will come, a refusal to succumb to pessimism and despair, a statement of faith in the best in our humanity. Of course we should be generous and loving to each other all year round, but this does not preclude expressing this in a special way on particular occasions – and what occasion is better than the period when the days are shortest and the cold nights longest?

The background behind all this is that Christmas is a festival of the Northern Hemisphere. I won’t go into this in detail again, as I have already written about it here, I will only comment that perhaps if I lived in Australia or South Africa – definitely if I lived in Southern Patagonia or on the Falkland/Malvinas Islands! – I would be thinking about the potential sense of celebrating Christmas in June.

Still, even if the claim to exclusive rights over Christmas made by some Christians can be shown to be seriously overstated, the Christian story is central to the way our cultural understanding of Christmas has historically developed and cannot be simply redacted away without losing much of what makes this holiday so special. Even for those of us who are not (or no longer regard ourselves as) Christians, the Nativity story contains wonderful elements, memes and insights, which fit in very well with the other themes of the midwinter festival. The one which strikes me above all is that of the preciousness of the fragile and the weak; birth in danger and under threat in inhospitable circumstances, the beauty of a baby unrecognised, even persecuted by the powerful but acclaimed by ordinary common witnesses (the shepherds), the royalty, divinity even, present in the wonder and innocence of helpless new life, the recognition and acceptance of which can bring peace on earth. There is very rich, deep human symbolism here, even if you don’t believe in the Christian man-god incarnation (or in God at all, come to that) and it’s well worth meditating somewhat on it – if such is your inclination – or just letting it work on you … atmospherically, subconsciously.

And so I will have no truck with those who want to banish the word “Christmas” and the Christian story from the midwinter festival, even if I don’t regard myself as a Christian. Personally I love the story, its deep echoing symbolism and its profound drama, and the questions regarding its historicity or theological implications don’t worry me so much any more. I will put up and decorate a Christmas tree, give and receive presents and sing carols – being moved by the old standards like Hark the Herald Angels Sing and Silent Night – cook a turkey and rejoice in the presence of my loved ones. I would even be prepared to make a Christmas pudding, only that my sometimes-much-too-German daughters regard it as an inedible abomination! This year, unless there is a major sustained rise in temperature (which the weather experts say is unlikely), we’ll probably even have a White Christmas. And I will continue to entertain and rejoice in that oldest and most wonderful of all Christmas wishes, “peace on earth and good will to all men.”


Christmas Eve: You may be interested in my other post on Christmas!

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