Wednesday, 14 December 2016

Owning Christmas

It being the run-up to Christmas, there are the inevitable and usually well-intentioned calls to ‘put Christ back in Christmas’ or the excruciating messages about ‘reason for the season’, and the equally inevitable and seemingly increasingly common response from a lot of people, primarily atheists, that Christmas is actually a pagan festival, and that therefore any Christian claims to the event are spurious and can be ignored.  They claim that Christians ‘stole’ Christmas from the pagans, and therefore Christians have no right to complain about the secularisation of the festival.

It’s fairly obvious to most people that Christmas has indeed now been almost wholly secularised, with only a few vestigial religious trimmings in the houses and minds of the vast majority of people, certainly in the UK.  However, the claim that Christmas is a pagan festival seems a strange one to me.  I mean, the clue’s in the name isn’t it?  Christmas is the festival celebrating the birth of Christ, the incarnation of God; I fail to see how this can be considered as anything other than a Christian holiday.

Of course, there are plenty of questions regarding the date, the time of year and the specific customs involved in the modern celebration of Christmas.  Was Christ born on the 25th of December?  Almost certainly not.  However, since we don’t know on what date he actually was born, any date is as good as any other when it comes to celebrating his birth.

The Roman festivals of Saturnalia and Die Natalis Solis Invicti (although this latter only seems to have started well within the Christian era) and the Germanic festival of Yule both occurred around midwinter, and so the festival for the birth of Christ was plugged into the existing holiday season to facilitate conversions, and because even the early Christians liked an excuse for a party).  No-one would ever claim that Saturnalia or Yule are Christian holidays, but then they are not the same thing as Christmas.  Indeed, I will happily agree that Christ is not ‘the reason for the season’ (ugh!).  However, I will maintain that he is the reason for Christmas.

Regarding many Christmas customs, a great many of them are indeed pagan in origin.  Christmas trees, wreaths etc. are a hangover from those former festivals, let alone the more obvious ones like Yule logs (again, the clue’s in the name) but Christmas is (or is supposed to be) a celebration, and decorating the house for it seems entirely proper.  If these decorations are pagan in origin, I think Christmas has successfully adopted and repurposed them to celebrate the birth of Christ.  Gift-giving occurred during Saturnalia, but Christmas has taken this and repurposed it to reflect the gifts of the wise men.  That does not in any way make Christmas ‘pagan’ in and of itself.  Plus, I like giving and receiving gifts, so i think we'll keep it in any case.

Should we try and ‘put the Christ back in Christmas’?  It seems like a good idea to me, but not in the way in which some people seem to mean it.  It does not mean denying a midwinter festival to anyone else, or even telling people that they’re not allowed to refer to their holiday as Christmas unless it has Christ in it.  The copyright for the name has long since expired, although perhaps the secularists might like to think of a new one (and one better than the cringe-inducing ‘Winterval’).  Instead, as others have suggested, perhaps putting the Christ in Christmas should mean trying a little bit harder to put Christ’s instructions into action; give to the poor, feed the hungry, cloth the naked, heal the sick, welcome the stranger, shelter the homeless, love those who hate you, bless those who curse you, and to ponder on the incredible, mind-bending idea that the infinite, eternal and all-powerful being that created and sustains the universe could become human and be born into the world as a tiny baby.

I don’t know if I’ll fit in another blog post before heading up to Scotland to celebrate Christmas with my in-laws, so if not, I hope, dear reader, that you have a very happy Christmas (with Christ in it or otherwise), or if it’s more your sort of thing, a happy Yule, Saturnalia, Solis Invicti, or Solstice or other winter festival of your choice.  If you celebrate none of the above, I wish you a very pleasant Sunday.

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