By Raj Attiken | 22 December 2020 |
Christmas, heralded by some as “the most wonderful time of the year,” routinely receives a bit of a bashing in Christian circles. The haranguing may be over such things as Christmas ads, decorations, greetings, songs, trees, shopping, and even the design on Starbucks holiday cups. There is a persistent fuss about paganism, materialism, and consumption.
Even the holiday cheer of those of us who love Christmas is occasionally tempered by the negativity.
I am among those who finds Christmas to be a wonderful time of the year. I find joy in the many traditions of Christmas, including its sights, sounds, smells and tastes and the creative opportunities they offer.
Some common anti-Christmas arguments predictably emerge at this time of year.
Let’s start with the “pagan origins” argument. Some Christians assert that because a few of our Christmas traditions had their origins in paganism, to adopt those traditions in any form today would be to acquiesce to paganism.
The evidence for the pagan origins of some of our Christmas traditions seems indisputable. What is absent in the argument is the recognition that even practices that are birthed in a pagan culture change in significance over time. Putting up a tree and decorating it, for example, does not symbolize tree worship. Perhaps it’s just the joy of having something green and fragrant in the house during a cold, dark time!
Over time, religious practices – not just those of pagan origin – merge into culture and lose their religious significance. This explains why traditions that have their roots in Hindu, Buddhist, Muslim and Jewish faiths have become cultural celebrations in various parts of the world. We do not object to using the names of the days of the week, despite their pagan origins. Nor have I met anyone who refuses to use the wheel because it was invented in a non-Christian culture. Among the earliest instances of democracy in a civilization are republics in ancient India, Greece, and Rome – all before the birth of Christianity. These and many other elements of pagan origin have long since shed their pagan implications as they have become part of culture, valued for what they are, not where they came from.
Some see a problem in the word “Christmas” itself, since it originated with the Mass of Christ in the Catholic Church, which was added to the church’s list of masses in 1038 CE.
Is this sufficient reason for not celebrating the birth story of Jesus?
Does the fact that the Catholic Church played a part in establishing the earliest biblical canon affect our reading of the Scriptures? Just because candles are used extensively in Catholic liturgy, should we eschew candles? How about listening to the London Symphony Orchestra’s rendition of Franz Schubert’s “Ellen’s Third Song” (adapted by the Roman Catholic Church to the prayer, Ave Maria)?
The date of Jesus’ birth has been a minor subject of dispute, sometimes used to discredit Christmas. One theory is that the date is linked to the pagan celebration of the Unconquered Sun (Sol Invictus) on December 25th following the Roman festival called the Saturnalia, during which people feasted and exchanged gifts.
But recently some scholars have questioned this. They have reminded us of a once-popular notion that great men died on the date of their conception. We know that Jesus died during Passover (March 25), so some think he must have been conceived in spring, so was born nine months later in December.
But the point is, we celebrate Christmas in December not because either of these theories, or any other explanation for a date, is sufficiently compelling, but because we rejoice in the birth of Jesus as a history-altering event. Who cares when we celebrate Jesus’ birth, as long as we do?
Adventists face another problem, and that is the uncertain voice with which Ellen White spoke about Christmas. She, along with many in her world, raised questions about it. (Jehovah’s Witnesses, who emerged from the same culture and eschatological impetus as Adventists did, banned Christmas altogether.) It is true that Ellen White said,
There is no divine sanctity resting upon the twenty-fifth of December; and it is not pleasing to God that anything that concerns the salvation of men through the infinite sacrifice made for them, should be so sadly perverted from its professed design. Christ should be the supreme object; but as Christmas has been observed, the glory is turned from Him to mortal man, whose sinful, defective character made it necessary for Him to come to our world.
Ellen White did, however, go on to offer tacit approval and encouragement for certain Christmas traditions (The Adventist Home, pp. 478-482). Ellen White acknowledged that children should not be entirely deprived of the joys of the season. She condoned gift giving, but only after the first and best gift (of money) was given to the church.
As gifts for others, she recommended books that would aid in understanding the Bible or increase love for its teachings. She wrote that it was fine to set up a Christmas tree in the church, as long as the decorations are with gifts of money. I have seen this done effectively in one church for the church building program, where the church school children made little envelopes to hand out in church. When the envelopes were filled, the children hung them on the tree.
But what of Ellen White’s objections to materialism? It’s hard to argue that Christmas has become hyper-commercialized, and people over-extend their means in gift giving and celebrating. Separating Christmas from the world of commerce is a daunting endeavor.
We are not without choices on how we can relate to the materialistic impulses in our Christmas celebrations as families. Christmas doesn’t have to be about accumulating more stuff. We can design ways to have a memorable (and gift-filled) holiday season, and still avoid the perils. Furthermore, we can break open the closed circle of exchange so that Christmas gifts also flow outward to those with profound needs.
Despite the problems associated with Christmas, I find the case for celebrating the birth story of Jesus to be compelling, including some strong biblical and theological rationales.
I maintained frequent contact for a time with a rabbi in Ohio, in an academic context. When he prepared for the “high holy days,” he would tell me about the power of rituals to keep sacred stories alive within contemporary Jewish families and communities. To be a Jew is to tell and retell stories, and rituals and festivals play a central role in keeping stories alive. Many of these festivals have their roots in Old Testament Jewish feasts. Among them were Passover (Unleavened Bread/Firstfruits), Pentecost (Weeks), Tabernacles (Ingathering) and Day of Atonement. The celebration of these feasts was detailed in the Law of Moses. They were intended to keep alive the memory of God’s presence and leading. Christians can, similarly, find in the celebration of Christmas and Easter meaningful opportunities to reflect on the meaning of the birth, life, and death of Jesus.
For Christians, Christmas is a celebration of the Incarnation, of God becoming incarnate through the birth of Jesus Christ. The Incarnation motif appears several times in the Bible. God’s first act of incarnation was the birth of the cosmos. In the Genesis account of creation, heaven and earth—the Creator and the created—are together.
The Incarnation is symbolized in the Sabbath, a sanctuary in time when the Divine and human meet. The incarnation is represented in the wilderness tabernacle and later the Temple, where the Divine and the human come together in the Tent of Meeting. In the birth of Jesus of Nazareth, heaven and earth come together and the Divine takes on humanity. The Divine-human relationship is at the core of our theological discussions regarding the church, redemption, and restoration. The birth story, therefore, has broad significance in that it announces that God’s redemptive purposes are being fulfilled through incarnation. Comprehending all of this can give Christmas a rich and meaningful texture.
St. Augustine, summing up the depth and breadth of the story of the Incarnation of Christ, said,
The maker of man became man, that He, the ruler of the stars, might be nourished at the breast; that He, the bread, might be hungry; that He, the fountain, might thirst; that He, the light, might sleep; that He, the way, might be wearied by the journey; that He, the truth, might be accused by false witnesses; that He, the judge of the living and the dead might be brought to trial by a corrupt mortal judge; that He, justice itself, might be condemned by the unjust; that He, discipline itself, might be scourged with whips; that He, the foundation, might be suspended upon a cross; that He, courage personified, might be weakened; and that He, security, might be wounded; and that He, the very life itself, might die.” (For the Feast of the Nativity, Sermon 191)
The birth of Jesus was a pivotal moment in the movement of history towards the fulfillment of the promise, “Behold, I make all things new.” Matthew and Luke tell the birth story with allusions to Old Testament history and prophecies, but it is Paul who details the meaning and theology of the Incarnation. In Philippians 2 he announces that because of the Incarnation the time will come when “at the name of Jesus every knee will bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue declare that Jesus Christ is Lord.” Christmas invites us not only to look back at the story of the Advent, but also look forward to the promise of a future Advent. Christmas helps us look forward to a time when there will be peace and joy in ways that we can only slightly taste now in comparison to the time when all things are renewed.
Christmas traditionally is a family celebration—and Adventists believe and celebrate the family as part of God’s design. It was as families that the major Jewish feasts were celebrated. It is with family that the young Jesus is at the temple during Passover (Luke 2:41, 42).
Christmas gives opportunities for families to create rituals and lasting memories, a pause from our exhausting routine of life, and gives us some inspiration to remember the important things and moments in life. We engage in the joys of life, such as food, song, play and laughter. We bond with our families over these things. Christmas rituals are not fixed: they are constructed and reconstructed over time, in the changing stages of a family’s life. When we celebrate Christmas with our families, we essentially place a mental bookmark on the experience, making it easier to remember and relive the experiences in years to come.
Sharing in culture
Christmas has become as much a cultural celebration as it is a religious one in cultures across the globe. Having observed Christmas celebrations in predominantly Buddhist and Hindu cultures, it seems to me that one Christmas practice that is widespread is that of gift giving. People associate Christmas with giving and generosity—it is, indeed, a season of giving. Christmas is a rare example of a celebration whose intention, at least, is goodness, peace, and benevolence. It draws from the original angelic announcement, “peace on earth and goodwill to all.”
Unlike other major holidays in the U.S., which solidify patriotic spirits in society by commemorating events of military or historical significance or of nation-building, Christmas speaks to altruistic ideals and values. It conveys a message of generosity to the moral consciousness of society. While the symbolism of popular Christmas celebrations presents some risk of misinterpretation in societies, it nevertheless reinforces certain positive values and motivations. Some of the music that has been inspired by the birth story of Jesus adds another dimension of reinforcement within societies of the message, values, and hopes of the Christmas story.
“Christmas comes even in the midst of rubble,” wrote Dietrich Bonhoeffer to his parents on November 29, 1940. Inside his letter, Bonhoeffer included an Advent card with the nativity scene painted by Albrecht Altdorfer in 1511. It shows Mary, Joseph, and the baby Jesus huddled together in a dilapidated house, which looks like a modern bomb shelter. It is a powerful interpretation of the world into which Jesus was born – a world of imperial oppression, widespread destitution, incurable diseases, hunger, and vulnerability. The portrayal could be fitting also to the fragility of our lives during the pandemic we are experiencing today and the massive disruption, isolation, sorrow, fear, and loss it has caused.
In the midst of all of this, Christmas is here. Why not create fresh rituals to celebrate the story of Jesus in ways that fit our current circumstances? Why not enjoy a kind of Christmas Charles Dickens described as
a good time; a kind, forgiving, charitable, pleasant time; the only time I know of, in the long calendar of the year, when men and women seem by one consent to open their shut-up hearts freely, and to think of people below them as if they really were fellow-passengers to the grave, and not another race of creatures bound on other journeys. (A Christmas Carol. Speech by Scrooge’s nephew, Fred).
Dr. Raj Attiken is an adjunct professor of religion at Kettering College, the Adventist higher education institution in Dayton, Ohio, and former president of the Ohio Conference.