Many in the Christian community are vexed because of the use of Christmas by the culture at large, and more especially troubled by the use of Christmas themes for purposes that are not thought to be congruent with Christian values. As a Christian minister (specifically, an Episcopalian) for half a century, I have heard this cri de coeur over and over again and never found it persuasive.
The defensive action against secular or non-Christian encroachment on Christmas is almost certainly fruitless. Anyone who travels in Asia, particularly Japan and Taiwan, can witness the enthusiastic embrace of Christmas that is even further removed from Christianity. In countries where Christians are a small fraction of the population many celebrate Christmas, especially in Asia, with hardly any idea what Christianity might represent for Christians. Since American culture currently dominates world culture there is no way to extract the exportation of Christmas from the exportation of American culture generally.
There are some very good reasons why Christians should give up the fight to reassert ownership of Christmas and to stop resisting its so-called secularization.
Neither Christmas nor anything it stands for originated in the Jesus movement or in the early Christian Church. There is nothing of Christmas in the Bible, and the stories of Jesus’ birth in the gospels of Matthew and Luke–not considered historical by scholars—contain nothing that links them intrinsically to December or January. Nor are the values of Christmas specifically Christian values in the first place.
Christmas was adopted by Christianity late, by some three hundred years. It was incorporated into Christianity in the 4th century, the same way Friday fish-eating was incorporated and during the same time. (Imperial Romans ate fish on Fridays to honor Venus, the goddess of love, fish being the food of love and sex.) The venerial fish-eating was simply co-opted by Christianity and given a revised rationale, namely that Jesus died on Friday, so one should abstain from eating meat on Friday.
In imperial Rome, the December 25 feast in honor of the Invincible Sun, Sol Invictus, was accompanied by the exchange of gifts, cutting of greens, lighting of candles, and public festivals commemorating new life. The sun, after all, had turned in the sky and was rising earlier and setting later, after the winter solstice. Rome on December 25, before Christianity, looked very much like New York on December 25 after Christianity.
In the 4th century, the Christian Church, having been adopted by the Emperor Constantine, was rather suddenly transformed from a persecuted minority into the official imperial religion of Rome. The Church responded by importing the Jesus’ birth narratives of Matthew and Luke into the feast of Sol Invictus and erased every reference to the pagan gods. It could be argued that Christians, with the authority of the Roman emperors behind them, stole Christmas from pagan society. Now perhaps it is time to give it back.
The 16th century Protestant reformer, John Calvin, the Reformation father of Presbyterianism, abolished Christmas altogether in Geneva. He was attempting to eliminate the later Constantinian accretions that had distorted the original content of the Jesus movement. Latter day Protestants decided Christmas was too good to abandon.
Christmas is a wonderful season. The lighting of candles, the giving of gifts (even the ‘exchanging of gifts’) and remembering the resurgence of the natural world, the sun and the green plants, are activities that everyone of any religion can rightfully take delight and comfort in. One need not be a Christian to do so.
Christians who attempt to build a Christian fence around Christmas, protecting it from secular and non-Christian influence, actually give the impression of stinginess and hostility towards the non-Christian world.
It is time to take Christ out of Christmas, and encourage the whole world to celebrate the renewal of the life-giving sun (in the northern hemisphere at least) through candle light, the cutting of greens, and gift-giving, and to show generosity to others, especially to those in need. None of these activities require one to be a Christian, nor even to understand anything about Christianity.
To liberate Christmas from the clutches of Christianity would demonstrate a generosity of spirit on the part of Christians that would set a good example in these times of increasing strife between the various religions of the world.
RAYMOND J. LAWRENCE is an Episcopal cleric for 46 years, recently retired Director of Pastoral Care, New York Presbyterian Hospital, and author of numerous opinion pieces in newspapers in the U.S., and author of the recently published, Sexual Liberation: The Scandal of Christendom (Praeger).