What goes around comes around, so it would seem. Christians took a pagan feast and sacralized it as an occasion to celebrate Jesus’ birthday, and now the secular world is returning the favor.
The decision to celebrate the birth of Jesus on December 25th was not based on careful calculations vis-à-vis the actual day that Jesus was born. Rather, it had these origins. In polytheistic Rome, December 25th was a celebration of the Unconquered Sun, marking the return of longer days. It followed Saturnalia, a festival where people feasted and exchanged gifts. The church in Rome began celebrating Christmas on December 25th (somewhere between 306-337) during the reign of Constantine the first Christian emperor, possibly to weaken pagan traditions.
Christians sacralized a pagan feast and today we are seeing the reverse. More and more the celebrations of Christmas are being shorn of all religious symbols and connotations: Santa has replaced the Christ Child; Rocking around the Christmas tree has replaced Come all ye faithful and I’m Dreaming of a White Christmas has replaced Silent Night. Merry Christmas has become Season’s Greetings. Why is this happening?
First, we are becoming ever more secularized as a society. Fewer people are drawn religiously to the Christmas story, even as they value the Christmas season as a very special time of year. They value the feast for its emphasis on love, gift-giving, color, specialness, and celebration, but prefer that the emphasis be precisely on these things without a reference to Christ.
However, within that secularization, there are a number of voices conspiring to positively strip the celebration of Christmas of its religious roots. Their fundamental critique goes this way. In essence, we are a secularized culture, not a Christian culture, and it is unfair to non-Christians to emphasize the religious (Christ) aspect of this feast. It is offensive to Jews, Moslems. Buddhists, agnostics, and non-believers. Given the pluralistic make-up of our society, saying “Merry Christmas” can be imperialistic, narrow, and not fully respectful of others.
How valid is this? It carries some legitimacy, though it is also deeply flawed. How so? First, this criticism doesn’t come mainly from Jews, Muslims, and the non-Christians. It arises mostly from some excessive and less-than-fully healthy sensitivities within Christians and ex-Christians. Yes, admittedly we are a secular, pluralistic culture. However, don’t Christians have a right to celebrate Christ’s birthday with all the appropriate language, symbols, and rituals? No one begrudges Jewish believers the right to celebrate Hanukkah or Muslims the right to celebrate Ramadan. Why should a Christian celebration be singled out?
And a critical question might be posed here. Is this expressed concern for fairness and the feelings of others being driven primarily by a genuine concern for the feelings of others or is it also being driven (however unconsciously) by certain feelings about ourselves, namely, by an unhealthy combination of self-hatred, hyper political correctness, and a certain adolescent grandiosity? It is easy to fall victim to a self-hatred, where we can be fair to every tradition except our own; to a hyper political correctness, where there are no common sense boundaries to our sensitivity; and to something that might be termed adolescent grandiosity, where we see only the faults in our parents and not their virtues or where we are indebted to them.
We need to be sensitive to others and realize and accept that we cannot impose a Christian celebration on those who don’t share our faith in Jesus Christ. But society must also be fair to us and allow us to celebrate Christ’s birthday as a religious feast. Indeed, there shouldn’t be any tension here. No one should begrudge another for saying Merry Christmas or Season’s Greetings. Silent Night can play alongside White Christmas. Jesus, no doubt, is on good terms with Santa. Love, joy, gift-giving, and colorful lights do their own work on the heart and what they do there is contingent upon what’s in that heart. To some hearts they will say, Merry Christmas, to other hearts they will say, Season’s Greetings, and to some hearts they will say both. We should be good with that.
So, Christians, let’s celebrate Christmas as Christ’s birthday without apologies or apologetics. The secular world doesn’t have a right to stop us from saying Merry Christmas and celebrating Christ’s birthday with the creches, carols, symbols and rituals that speak of Jesus’ birth. Our Christian celebrations don’t preclude the secular celebrations, the Christmas lights, the special decorations, the Santa parades, the gift-giving, the season’s parties, and rocking around the Christmas tree. These are legitimate and in their own way are good ways to celebrate Christmas. Hey, we stole this feast from the pagans, they have a right to reclaim parts of it. Moreover, paganism and Christianity sometimes make for a rich mix. And let us not forget that the world does measure time by Jesus’ birth. We are in the year 2023 since the time-altering event. Doesn’t such a monumental event merit a double celebration? Merry Christmas and Season’s Greetings.