Saturday, December 27, 2008
The True Meanings of Christmas, Part III
In almost every sermon in almost every Christian church each December, speakers encourage their listeners to remember "the true meaning of Christmas".
But there is no "true meaning of Christmas" in any objective sense. The closest thing we have to that are the facts of history:
Despite the holiness attrributed by Christians to this celebration, the fact is that there is no virtually no feature of Christmas which has a Christian, as oppposed to a pagan, provenance, other than the idea of it as a celebration of the birth of the supposed founder of Christianity. "Christmas" is a thoroughly pagan celebration with some Christian mythology imported in - the equivalent of giving some new Christian name to the old Roman drinking festivals called the bacchanalia, and then claiming that "Christianalia" is henceforth "really" a celebration of Jesus's first miracle (turning water into wine at the wedding in Cana). Nothing's changed; it's just that some mythology was retroactively inserted, and a new label stuck on top of the thing.
The tree, the gift-giving, the merrymaking, the foods, the holly, the lights, the charitable activity, the yule log...all these beloved features and more of Christmas existed in European winter celebrations (Roman Saturnalia and New Year, German and Scandinavian solstice celebrations, etc.) long before it ever occurred to Christians to start celebrating the birth of their religion's supposed founder sometime in the latter part of the 4th century A.D. In fact, it was the almost thoroughly pagan character of Christmas which, historically, motivated devout British and American Christians (the Puritans) to oppose Christmas for many years. In the 17th century in Boston, the Puritans even succeeded in legally banning Christmas for a few years altogether. A contemporary Christian might take theological issue with the Puritan view that Christmas, as but a thinly veiled pagan winter festival, is blasphemous; but they could never take issue with the historical basis of that judgment. It is just a matter of fact.
This all makes the ongoing fuss from Christians about "the world trying to take Christ out of Christmas" seem even sillier. They've got some nerve, don't they? Cynical politicians and party-loving Christians in a former age hijack a winter celebration spanning back innumerable centuries, which never had anything to do with a Jewish religious reformer which certain superstitious fanatics took to worshipping, and now their descendants complain that pagans are trying to hijack the "Christian" holiday of Christmas? AND, they complain about it when they themselves are still enjoying all the pagan features of that celebration?
Like I said, some nerve. The Puritans had a point: if Christians are serious about making Christmas as Christian as possible, they should stop mixing it into a pagan Winter Solstice celebration in December, and start celebrating it sometime in spring, which is when almost all scholars now believe Josh Josephson was born. AND, they should reject Christmas trees, holly boughs, mistletoe, gift-giving, Santa Claus visits, etc. They should reject every last feature of current Christmas celebrations which has a pagan provenance (basically all of them), and redo Christmas from the ground up. But...they'll never do that, so I can't take any of their complaints about the de-Christianizing of Christmas seriously. Just by celebrating it as they do, they themselves support a "deChristianized Christmas" nearly as much as any pagan.
Even more ignorant is the Christian fuss over the usage of the abbreviation "Xmas" for Christmas. It was, after all, educated devout Christians who started abbreviating "Christmas" in this way, hundreds of years ago. And no wonder - the "X" comes from the Greek letter X (which we transliterate as kh- or ch-), which is the first letter in the common Greek word Χριστός (christos), which we anglicize as "Christ".
"X" is Christ's initial, for Pete's sake. Evangelical Christians drive around with bumper stickers that say, "WWJD?", for "What Would Jesus Do?". "J" here is the initial for "Jesus" - in English. In Greek, the language of the New Testament, "X" is the initial for "christos". So Christians - why get upset over a Greek initial, but not an English initial? Another bizarre thing - Christians drive around with fish stickers on their car. But the fish represents an acronym, with each letter of the Greek word for fish (ΙΧΘΥΣ, or "ichthys") standing for the phrase "Ἰησοῦς Χριστός, Θεοῦ Υἱός, Σωτήρ": "Jesus Christ, God's Son, Savior".
So, Christians drive around with a Christian fish symbol on their back window, which only exists because the letter "X" is in the word "i(ch)thys" and also is the first letter in the word "Christos". But when they see a sign that says, "Merry Xmas" - the exact same initial - they see it as "an assault on Christianity"...Not sure how that makes any sense.
On the other hand, I'm also not sure, given all this, what sense it makes for anti-Christians to think they're scoring some big point by using "X" instead of "Christ" (though perhaps the fact that the usage antagonizes most Christians is really what matters to the anti-Christians). Besides, linguistically, there isn't anything unique about the word "christos" at all. It's just a word meaning "anointed". And if Joshua Josephson was a talented itinerant preacher but no more (which is what anti-Christians believe), there is nothing even historically or theologically unique about the word when applied to him, either - many people could have been anointed for all sorts of reasons. So there's no reason for anti-Christians not to use "Christmas". Moreover, their replacement of it is easily viewed by Christians as an inadvertent indication by anti-Christians that "deep down, they know there is something sacred about Jesus"; that is, as betraying some intuition similar to the belief which motivates orthodox Jews to refuse to spell out the word "God" (they write "G-d"), which they do to indicate reverence.
And lastly, as I mentioned last year on this blog, if anti-Christians use "X" instead of Christ because they don't want to dignify the concept of a supernatural deity, then they should start saying "Xbye", since "Goodbye" is a contraction of "God be with ye".
Hmm...where was I before I started upsetting everyone? :P Oh yes - the true meaning of Christmas.
Where I'm going with this, if it is not already screamingly obvious, is that as far as I can tell...there IS no "one, true meaning of Christmas". There are only true meanings of Christmas, of winter celebrations...as many meanings as there are individuals to discover and create meanings. In a sense, all the history I mentioned above doesn't really matter (except maybe insofar as it calms the fanatics down...).
I think what matters vis-a-vis Christmas is what matters every other day of the year...and I think what that is, is...
Who we really are, and what our lives are about...who we share them with, and more importantly, how we share...and how we find and create love and trust, joy and light, friendship and solace, meaning and purpose, in a world which does not seem to readily provide those things.
A famous musician friend of mine - a lifelong bachelor - pulled me aside one day a few years ago when I was feeling low about a personal situation, and said, "Tal - you know it's all about you, don't you? You do what you need to do to be happy, and that's what it is".
I said, "What about when you have kids?"
He repeated, "It is all about you".
Is it? I was not able to believe that then, and I can't believe it now, notwithstanding the selfish things I have sometimes done. And I guess, in a way, I don't want to believe it. I want to believe "it" is about far more than me. I want to believe life is about doing great things with others, and for others, and belonging and "being a part of"...
Christmas, for me, has become a time to stop to evaluate all those things, and especially, where I am going with my children...who they are, and how I can help them grow and be everything they can be. It's become a time to hang out with them, reading stories and going out for adventures, hiking or skating or swimming, planning for the year to come, and keeping everyone close. What else is there?
For me, that has become "the true meaning of Christmas"....And I know that, facts of history aside (which ultimately probably don't matter anyway), that everyone else has their own "one true meanings", which are sacred to them, which help them live their lives as best they can...
And now that I think about it, maybe that is "the one true meaning of Christmas" :)
Merry Christmas, Solstice, Yule, etc.