It’s mid-morning on December 25. My kids have opened their presents, and they’re happily playing with new toys. We’re expecting extended family to arrive in a little while. It’s a lull in the excitement and the busyness of this queen of all holidays. And I’m thinking about the “true meaning of Christmas.” I’ve been inspired by this comic, from a site I love called “xkcd“.
I think there’s some truth to this. I think Christmas has become a “meta” holiday. For some (Fox News, anybody?), Christmas is about staking a claim about what Christmas is about — the point of Christmas is to make sure everybody knows the point of Christmas. And for some, it seems like their most cherished Christmas tradition is “remembering how Christmas used to be,” often accompanied by sadness or resentment about how it is now. For instance, people have been complaining about the commercialism of Christmas since at least the nineteenth century. We have this image of a Christmas long ago that was better, that meant something. We want to get it back, but we feel completely impotent in the face of modern Christmas.
And I’ll be honest, I succumb to this in my own way. As a pastor in a liturgical church, I insist every year that we honor both the Advent and Christmas seasons. We sing Advent songs in worship throughout the four weeks leading up to Christmas, and only begin singing Christmas carols on Christmas Eve; then we continue to sing Christmas carols until Epiphany. These are the real twelve days of Christmas, December 25 – January 6. I have always faced resistance from some parishioners; because the church season called Advent is simultaneous with the secular Christmas season, they want to celebrate Christmas in church before Christmas Day, not after. And I can get prickly about this. I can remember telling someone once that “the church invented Christmas, you know, not Hallmark.” Sometimes I pine for some halcyon day when the culture’s calendar was more in sync with the church’s.
But all this is probably a fool’s errand. There was no perfect Christmas once. There was no time when “everybody got it.” There’s just this feeling that we’ve lost something, that we’ve lost the “meaning,” whatever that is. And just this morning, I’ve developed a guess as to why that is. I think that Christmas is a solution for a problem we no longer have.
That problem is darkness. Let me explain.
There’s a way in which Christmas is not a unique holiday, but rather the Christian variation on a theme that transcends cultures and religions throughout Northern Hemisphere. It seems as though nearly every group of people north of the equator has a celebration in late December: Christmas, Hanukkah, Yule, Saturnalia, Kwanzaa, and some others that I know nothing about. (But thanks to Google, here are a few names for holidays from Asian countries: Dong Zhi, Shab-e Yalda, Toji.) And one thing that is common among these holidays is a focus on light. These holidays tend to have traditions of candles, or fire, or darkness and light, in one way or another. The holiday I’m familiar with, Christmas, is so filled with light and warmth: candles and baking; family and generosity; showing extravagant love to those close to us, and even to strangers. And I think that this all has very little to do with the story of Jesus’ birth. I think it has everything to do with astronomy. Before electric light, it was dark at this time of year. Really, really dark. And cold. And potentially deadly. You needed to do something to ward off the darkness.
- Pray to the gods that the light would return? Maybe.
- Huddle together with family for warmth? Maybe.
- Light candles all over the place, to enable yourselves to see? Maybe.
- Bake and bake and bake, to have warm food and also enjoy the extra heat the oven would offer? Maybe.
Show love in extravagant ways, to make sure you’ve done so, knowing that there was a good chance that some of you wouldn’t make it through the winter? Maybe.
And being the story-centered creatures we are, we have developed various ways to explain these tradtions. Various ways to find meaning in the darkness. The Christian church in the 4th century decided that the best way to make sense out of this solstice-time was to nail the Nativity of Our Lord there. The gospel-writer John wrote that Jesus was the light that shone in the darkness, and so the Christian solstice-holiday became Christmas, the celebration of the birth of Christ, the Light of the World.
And perhaps for centuries, all the traditions of Christmas, the traditions of solstice-tide, mingled and lived together. Perhaps there wasn’t time or inclination to argue and worry about the “true reason for the season,” because everyone was focused more on surviving the winter and being together. I don’t know — I’m no historian. But I just wonder this:
I wonder if the ubiquity and efficiency of electric light and reliable heating sources have enabled us to no longer even feel the connection with the darkness and cold of winter. I wonder if the meaning we keep looking for in Christmas is so hard to find because we no longer have the problem that Christmas was trying to address. Don’t get me wrong — I’m not saying that we no longer have the problem that Christ’s coming was trying to address. I certainly believe we need salvation and redemption. I’m talking about Christmas, the holiday. We no longer need it for what it was designed for. But we have it. So maybe it’s time to stop worrying about what it really means. Maybe it’s time to make a new meaning for it. I certainly don’t know what that is. I’m just thinking out loud here. What do you think?