Saturday, December 27, 2008

The True Meanings of Christmas, Part III

So, Christmas.

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 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.



Kris said...

Christmas is in the eye of the beholder.

For Christians such as myself, it is a time to celebrate the birth of Christ.

And while we are smart enough to know that the actual time of birth was not December 24th, we celebrate because we are called to. We want to. It is a time we set aside to celebrate the Holy.

And not all of us are hung up on the nit-picky details of it all. We do not fall under certain mandates of "musts". We know where trees come from, Santa Claus, and all the trimmings, so to speak. And I don't remember reading the rule of sipping hot-buttered rums as I am wont to do. Though a mandate for that is not the worst idea. :o)

It is what it is. Celebrate what you believe, and take from it what you can. Find the peace of the season.

Tal said...

Well said, Kris!

Marque and Sarah said...


Thanks for this entry. I appreciate the detail to the historical facts surrounding Christmas, but I also appreciate the tender side of what Christmas means to you. Whatever the true meaning is to each beholder that defines "Christmas", it is a special time of year. Many hearts are softened and many think more selflessly. To me, this is the meaning of Christmas.


heather said...

Yeah Kris, well said. And I like how you celebrate the season Tal, that's what it's about isn't it? Spending time with loved ones and making memories etc, religious/personal celebrations aside. And I completely disagree with your bachelor friend. I don't believe it's all about "you" once you have kids. That kind of thinking just doesn't end well when kids are involved. Yeah, I understand the whole thinking that if a parent is unhappy then so are the kids, blah blah blah...but there is a lot of tricky ground there, a very fine line to walk.

rachael said...

Great post.

Kris, nicely put.

I am with Heather in regards to the 'bachelor's' advice. Once I became a mother, it was no longer just about me.

At the end of the day Tal, its nice to see that after all of that, the most important thing is your kids/family.

Tyson said...

Brilliant post. It would be refreshing if Christians would become educated as to the history (And my recollection is that "midnight mass" is the only original christian event). I think it would only help everyone respect each others family traditions. Plus, I can understand what Rachael and Heather are saying, but I think THEY want their kids to be happy and prosperous, just as YOU want your kids to, and I want my kids to. I think it's just the best of us that wants the best for others.

Brilliant post Tal.....

Matthew said...

The true meaning of Christmas in 2008? Simple: $$$.

Ron said...

If you quote something written by an author,could you please tell us where we can find the quote in order that we can see it for ourselves.If you quote historical "facts", could you please tell us where we can also go to see this information?Thanks.

Anonymous said...

I think it is fair to say that most Christians understand that Christmas traditions are mixed with Pagan traditions.Obviously the Bible account of Christ's birth does not mention decorated Christmas trees,etc.What the Christians mean when they say remember the true meaning of Christmas is that we need to remember His birth and what he taught us to do and put less emphasis in buying expensive gifts,partying,and all other Christmas worldly traditions that we get hung up in doing and that cause us to forget to love one another etc. The day to celebrate being Dec 25 was not the day Christ was born but was set by the Romans, I believe,to combine several celebrations onto one day.

Taking the bread and wine during the sacrament is what He told us to do to remember that he gave his body and blood for our sakes , to atone for our sins. Saying it is cannibalism is ridiculous.

Tal said...

Hi Anonymous

I didn't say it was literal cannibalism, but that it is a symbolic cannibalistic rite. This IS how Jesus himself explains it, after all:

"And as they were eating, Jesus took bread, and blessed it, and brake it, and gave it to the disciples, and said, Take, eat; THIS IS MY BODY.

"And he took the cup, and gave thanks, and gave it to them, saying, Drink ye all of it; For THIS IS MY BLOOD..." (from Matt. 26).

What did you think communion/the sacrament was, Anonymous? Just an everday little snack? Jesus himself lays down its symbolically cannibalistic nature in the Bible. Or haven't you read it?

By the way, since you seem not to have noticed, the biggest Christian church out there (the Roman Catholic), has actually made communion not just symbolically cannibalistic, but *literally* cannibalistic! The doctrine of "transubstantiation" claims that the bread and wine *literally* transform into the actual flesh and blood of Jesus Christ.

Wikipedia does a pretty good of summarizing this. Look up the article yourself if you want. Here's an excerpt:

"In Roman Catholic theology, transubstantiation (in Latin, transsubstantiatio, in Greek μετουσίωσις (metousiosis)) is the change of the substance of bread and wine into the Body and Blood of Christ occurring in the Eucharist while all that is accessible to the senses remain as before.


"In 1215, the Fourth Council of the Lateran spoke of the bread and wine as 'transubstantiated' into the body and blood of Christ: 'His body and blood are truly contained in the sacrament of the altar under the forms of bread and wine, the bread and wine having been transubstantiated, by God's power, into his body and blood.'

"The Council of Trent defined transubstantiation as 'that wonderful and singular conversion of the whole substance of the bread into the Body, and of the whole substance of the wine into the Blood – the species only of the bread and wine remaining – which conversion indeed the Catholic Church most aptly calls Transubstantiation'.

"This council thus officially approved use of the term "transubstantiation" to express the Church's teaching on the subject of the conversion of the bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ in the Eucharist,[5] with the aim of safeguarding the literal truth of Christ's Presence while emphasizing the fact that there is no change in the empirical appearances of the bread and wine".

Wake up, Anonymous.

Anonymous said...

I don't agree with the Catholic view as to the bread and wine.Yes,I have read the Bible several times and I still say that Jesus wanted us to remember his sacrifice by the tangible bread and wine. Your comment is just nuts to me.I say YOU wake up.
What you say is an odd interpretation and ...well, just plain nuts.

Tal said...

Anonymous - Not sure I'm following you here. You keep repeating that the purpose of communion is to bring to remembrance the sacrifice of Jesus. Well, yeah - but that's never been in dispute, has it? The point is what the bread and wine, which Christians consume, symbolize.

By the way, since you seem to think Jesus's description of what the bread and wine represent is so wrong (though for some reason you attribute his description to me), please take the opportunity here to reveal what you think the bread and wine actually represent, if not what Jesus says they represent in Matthew 26.

I await your reply.

Anonymous said...

Coming your way once I have the time to research it.

Ashtonicus said...

I didn't think so.

Ashtonicus said...

No comment from Anonymous.