I’ve come to understand that some Christians do not celebrate Christmas because it has some traditionally pagan aspects, and because it has become too secular and too commercialized. I do not deny either of these facts. In fact, there are things about the modern, mainly Western take on Christmas that thoroughly annoy me. However, there are reasons that I feel Christmas should be celebrated anyway. At its core, the purpose of Christmas is to commemorate the birth of Christ, and to acknowledge and enforce the hope we have for his second coming. Strip everything else away, and it is nothing more or less than that.
Christianity entered Europe in the first few centuries A.D. They wanted to convert Pagans to their religion, but they were also interested in their traditions and culture. I have heard the argument that this is dangerous. Prying too deeply into non-Christian ideas might lead one to believe in those ideas. However, what one believes in is ultimately a choice. There are many aspects to faith. Though it would be easier if it did not, it usually requires some form of evidence for its truth, but this evidence almost always comes after an initial willingness to believe in the first place. It needs to be relational, meaning that ideas and emotions and even messages go both ways between us and God. Most importantly, it needs to be intentional. There will always be conflicting ideas in the world, and yes, it is possible to be tempted to question one’s own faith. It is the choice to stay steadfast that makes it real, and makes it stronger. Studying other religions and ideas is not dangerous as long as one is capable of discerning what is fact and what is fiction.
However, there is a difference between studying other religions and incorporating some of those ideas into one’s own practices. Admittedly, this can be dangerous, and I think, has honestly become detrimental over time. Though it is still celebrated by Christians, Christmas has become a largely secular holiday. There are several reasons for this. While some traditions were adopted with good intentions, over time, they morphed into new ideas entirely. Saint Nicholas, who was a real, historical person, and a saint in the Catholic Church, eventually became known only as Santa Clause to many people. He is nothing more than a magical dude who hangs out with elves and brings presents to kids once per year. I do personally believe that this particular aspect of the modern rendition of Christmas is a problem because it takes the focus away from Christ and puts it on this character who, for kids, is generally more fun.
Music causes similar problems, at least for me. Many so-called Christmas songs are only about the secular aspects of Christmas–giving gifts, partying, etc. This is a very personal issue for me. Music and faith are very closely entwined in my mind, and I dislike songs that claim to be about Christmas, but have nothing spiritual about them. To be honest, it’s also just a matter of preference. The majority of them are musically annoying, and lyrically stupid, and I can’t help being a snobby art critic. However, this issue, and the issue of Santa Clause are personal issues for me. If I had kids I simply would not play secular holiday music or introduce the concept of Santa Clause. I would still get a tree, give gifts and eat too much food.
You might ask why things like the Christmas tree or the practice of giving gifts are not problematic. I do not see these as problematic because they are passive. They can be and symbolize whatever you want them to. In contrast, music actively introduces and perpetuates ideas, as do stories and fictional characters. A Christmas tree can symbolize life–the life that Christ promises to us. The lights and colorful decorations can symbolize hope and joy in an otherwise dark and cold time of year. The list goes on. Jesus received gifts at his birth, so why shouldn’t we give gifts to each other? Jesus loves us, and God is within all of us. Inventing your own symbolism for old ideas and concepts is absolutely permissible, and is exactly what the early Church did with Pagan ideas. For example, they celebrated a festival commemorating the birth of the New Sun, which we recognize as the Winter Solstice. The early Christians took this idea and used it to commemorate the birth of Christ. This made it understandable and relatable to their early converts.
Lastly, I would like to say that I do not condone the exploitation of a religious tradition for commercial gain, nor do I think it’s something that is worth getting totally stressed out about. I do not appreciate the trivialization by Western culture in general of something that is so beautiful and meaningful. However, I do not condemn the people who do these things. What they do is their business. Furthermore, I find that condemning people for what they believe is right, or at least permissible, is not productive. It only creates divisions and perpetuates the same problems. Take the Starbucks cups for example. Every year a handful of bored, militant atheists get worked up because Starbucks puts snowflakes on their cups, which simply is not a religious symbol. This year, Starbucks didn’t want to deal with it, so they made their cups plain red, which pissed off a bunch of bored, militant Christians. The most productive thing for Starbucks to do would be whatever they very well please. The snowflakes are kind of festive and fun, so if they want to, they should put them on the cups. They’re not going to go bankrupt because a few people with too much time on their hands are annoyed with them.
It literally does not matter what Starbucks puts on their cups, so Christians should have simply ignored the issue. There are certain things we simply cannot compromise about, but this is not one of them. We can be friends with a-religious peeps and Atheists, and Agnostics, and Muslims and Buddhists and people of any other religion while still not believing in or adhering to their faiths and practices. In fact, I argue that it is our duty as Christians to lead by example, and show people what it’s like to know Jesus. We can’t do that if we’re constantly fighting about trivialities. To bring this back to my original point, I would like to say that I don’t think there is one right way to celebrate Christmas, but I do think it should be celebrated because of its true purpose. Its pagan and secular aspects are not things that we need to necessarily be worried about. As I said, some things are problematic for me, so I personally ignore them. If they are not problematic for you, go ahead and enjoy.
For whatever reason there seems to be a sentiment around this time that tends to lead people to good thoughts and nice actions, whether they are religious or not. That alone is a good thing, and most likely ultimately stems from the original purpose of Christmas, whether people know it or not. There tends to be an increase in charitable donations. People tend to be more generous and more patient. Friends and family who often don’t see each other for months get together and enjoy each other’s company. People can stop and relax for a while. None of this is spiritual, but it’s all healthy and good for society in general. If you couple the warm and fuzzy feelings with a spiritual purpose, they can become permanent–not unbreakable, but more clearly defined, and purposeful far after Christmas is over. Christmas symbolizes a beginning, but what it began is still in progress, and we are a part of it. We need to remember that beginning, in part, to keep in mind where we’re going.
Because in my world guinea pigs can fly!