The so-called Christmas holidays are really a rather complex thing – they are three different holidays happening simultaneously.
WINTER SOLSTICE. This is certainly the first and oldest of the reasons to celebrate at this time of the year. Of course, for a Christian, the coming of Christ is more important, but historically, there was a B. C. (Before Christ) but there has not been a Before the Winter Solstice in a billion years or so. It is perfectly legitimate to commemorate this natural event.
A really odd experience I had a few years ago was celebrating these holidays in Australia. There, of course, they do not coincide with the winter solstice, but with the summer solstice, the longest day of the year. It gave us an eerie but delightful feeling to experience long days and sunlit evenings in the context of Christmas. One striking thing I noticed is, that because it is the summer solstice, outdoor Christmas decorations there depend much less on artificial light and are brightly polychromed to be seen in full daylight, much more so than we would do.
JESUS’ BIRTHDAY. This is a holiday historically second to Good Friday – Easter in the Christian cycle; the pull of the third holiday, Cargo Cult Festival, has contributed to making it a far bigger holiday than Easter in many lands. The same pull has elevated Hanukkah from a relatively minor Jewish festival into a major one in the same lands. Also I wonder whether the British Isles and Europe’s northwest were inclined to make a greater deal out of the Solstice because in those regions, because they are so far north, the difference in length of day between summer and winter is extremely radical, but the difference in temperature between summer and winter is not all that great compared to the eastern United States; if anything, the difference in temperature is probably less than that of California’s Inland Empire!
Jesus’ Birthday is of course primary for believers. It was set at this time partly because the Romans were distracted with their own festivities at that time; because the cult of the Unconquered Sun had its feast day this day; and because the symbolism of light beginning to return to the world at the beginning of the Incarnation was too good to pass up. The Church has never held, as a dogma, as far as I know, that Jesus was born on December 24-25. It did set a number of other festivals commemorating events in Jesus’ infancy to when they should be celebrated if He had been in fact born on this date:
The Annunciation or Lady Day, March 25.
John the Baptist, June 24.
The Circumcision or Holy Name, January 1.
The Presentation or Candlemas, February 2.
What is interesting and amusing to Christians at this time of the year is to have all these carols played on public loudspeakers with extremely explicit lyrics. “He rules the world with truth and grace.” “Who hath made heaven and earth of naught, and with His blood mankind has bought.” “You know that Christ our Saviour was born on Christmas Day to save us all from Satan’s power when we were gone astray.” Just a selection; there’s more where that came from. This we hear over loudspeakers in our public square. If any politician were ever to voice such opinions as these near a microphone, the vanity-storm that would break out would be of hurricane proportions. It’s amazing what we get away with, for just this one month out of the year!
Of course, a lot of people are celebrating not the Christian Jesus, but the Jesus of popular culture and myth (though the carols don’t support them). The Jesus of popular culture does not bring forgiveness and mercy, but “tolerance” and “acceptance”; does not affirm the Bible, but rejects it except for the words he himself spoke, and then even rejects some of those (especially the ones in the Gospel of John, like “I am the way, the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father but through me”); and validates any lifestyle that he does not personally denounce. This Jesus may be the Son of God, but can’t be God, because if he was God, then the implication is that “Jesus says” everything in the Bible.
CARGO CULT FESTIVAL. There is an area in the Southwest Pacific, either in the Solomon Islands or in Vanuatu – I forget which – where many adults believe in a version of Santa Claus. Except, they call him John Frum, and that if they periodically dress up in fake World War II era US Army uniforms and march around with fake carved wooden rifles, that some day John Frum will come with Jeeps and other “cargo” of the sort that abounded in the wondrous days of yore, long ago, when the US military brought much “cargo” to these lands to defend them against the Japanese almost 70 years ago.
In the US, however, literal belief in the cargo cult deity Santa Claus is mostly confined to large numbers of small children; most adult practitioners of the cult take a very liberal view, seeing Santa Claus as primarily symbolic or metaphorical. The cult, however, and the practice of buying gifts for everyone that grows out of it, have made the season the biggest event of the year for the retail world and a bellwether for the economy in general. And as I said above, it is what has caused “Christmas” to surge far past Easter in cultural importance, and drag Hanukkah along with it. I for one have never been persuaded that belief in Santa Claus, whether literal or metaphorical, bore any positive fruits of moral character for the believer or anyone else. Jesus, of course, is another matter entirely. But how many adolescents, having been forced by reality to move from a literal to a metaphorical view of Santa Claus, have then done the same with Jesus? It would seem obvious to me.
I wish you all a Happy Holidays in all three forms. I think if I wish you a Prosperous New Year, as I do, I am incorporating the best even of the Cargo Cult tradition. There is nothing wrong with wishing people prosperity!