A good deal of what we associate with Christmas, people have made up along the way. Some of those inventions have helped to amplify its meaning; others have served to twist or even hide what the birth of Jesus should signify for us.
First, the date. That was decided upon fairly early on, as European Christians usurped the existing feast of the winter solstice. There was thought to be good symbolism in that, and there probably was: light and hope in the middle of the darkest and coldest month of the year. At least in the northern hemisphere. But, really, we have no way of knowing when Jesus’s birthday was. Nor does it matter much. What matters is that he had one.
There was no crib-like scene. St Francis of Assisi thought up that one in the thirteenth century. Not a bad idea. Cribs and nativity paintings – good ones – can help to ground Jesus’ birth in time and place: a real birth, a real mother, a real baby. Kitch imagery of the nativity can, on the other hand, cheapen it to something fanciful. It can turn it into a fairy tale for kids.
Christmas trees came later and decorations later again. Perhaps the Germans gave us those. And presents, although in some cultures, such as Italian, the presents wait until the Feast of the Epiphany on 6th January. Nothing wrong with presents whenever we get them, you may say, but what they have to do with raising our minds to the meaning of Christmas can be a little difficult to establish, especially when they are given to people who already have a lot already – which is most of us. They can have the opposite effect. Certainly, the idea that a child should earn the right to a present by ‘being good’ for the past year, runs somewhat against the Gospel account of Jesus’ birth, where the angels announced it to shepherds before anyone else. Shepherds were the lowest rung on the social ladder, often of dubious morals and well outside the practice of any religion.
Then, of course, we have the commercialisation of the whole thing that exploded in the twentieth century – with Santa, red-suits, bells jingling, and loads of tinsel. All about getting us to spend money, and often getting us looking everywhere other than at Jesus or the Scriptural account of his birth.
Christmas carols are good, though. Many of them, anyway. The better ones carry rich lyrics, with deep human sentiments of joy, peace and hope. And some great tunes. We can, nonetheless, end up with some curious juxtapositions when we sing carols with deep theology in one breath, then launch into ‘Santa’s coming to town’ in the next.
We often hear it said that Christmas is a special time for children. It is well that it is. There can be a magic in it for them, a time of anticipation, wonder and excitement. But if we leave Christmas with children, we have missed the main game. The Gospels – from which we have gradually confected much of today’s Christmas tradition – were not written for children. They are not about make-believe or other-worldly escapism.
That Jesus was born in time and place roots Christmas at the very core of the human condition, in what it means to be human, to live. In the very heart of who each of us is. That God-with-us lived and breathed, felt pain and joy and every other emotion, hungered and feasted, befriended and was betrayed, wept and celebrated, loved, is something profound, unfathomably so. It gives us a perspective on life that can be transformative.
So, sure, let the children play at Christmas. But what about us? Let us be neither facile about it by turning it into something primarily for kids, not let us tame it. Christmas is for us. It is so deeply for us, indeed to liberate the deepest truth in us.