Over the centuries, Christmas has been reinvented and repackaged, promoted and pummeled, like the cookie dough we cut into festive shapes and decorate every year in December. Christmas is a mass of contradictions.
The day was chosen to honor the birth of a king in a lowly manger — a king who ultimately advocated a life of humility and charity. Yet today the holiday is celebrated more as a buying frenzy than as the birthday of a humble messiah.
Then again, Christmas is a mirror reflecting our culture.
As author Bill McKibben explains in Hundred Dollar Holiday (Simon and Schuster), “Christmas has been, and always will be, a product of its time, shaped to fit the particular needs of people, society, and faith in particular moments of history. And nowhere is that clearer than at the very beginning.”
Historians can’t certify the exact date of Christ’s birth. Christian church leaders decreed in the fourth century that the Feast of the Nativity would be observed December 25 — originally a pagan holiday.
The date was deliberately selected to replace the rowdy winter solstice festivals held in those days. On the old Julian calendar, December 25 was the longest night of the year, which partly explains why the torch-carrying pagans had chosen it to glorify the sun. As church leaders hoped, Christianity took root, and by the end of the thirteenth century, most Europeans celebrated the birth of Jesus. But the pagan aspects of Christmas never were completely snuffed out.
Today, the weeks between Thanksgiving and New Year’s serve as an extended invitation to indulge our national craving for activity and entertainment. We’ve forgotten that the sentimental Christmas we long for, as McKibben explains in his book, evolved during the 1840s when Americans “were mostly poor, worked with their hands, and lived with large, extended families.” Today it would be impossible to re-create such a Christmas in suburban America.
“More and more, that old Christmas finally feels played out,” McKibben writes. If we’ve grown ambivalent about the holiday – or even disappointed in it — that’s partly why.
Still, at its heart, Christmas remains a celebration of light’s triumph over darkness. A celebration of miracles.
Light is also the enduring symbol of Hanukkah, the annual Jewish festival that coincides with the Christian holiday season. Hanukkah marks the rededication of the Temple of Jerusalem and the ceremonial oil that burned miraculously for eight days. With the ritual lighting of the menorah at its core, Hanukkah prevails as a tribute to religious freedom.
It’s sobering to remember, especially now, that many people still struggle for the right to worship as they choose. In Ireland, the Middle East, and other parts of the world, many have lost their lives in the names of conflicting gods or warring denominations. Even here, in our own community, we’re not totally free of violence, poverty, hunger or hypocrisy. We know it’s not enough to donate last year’s coats to the poor, or to serve meals at a soup kitchen, but we still haven’t figured out how to solve the dilemma of our homeless and needy. And our personal difficulties pale in comparison.
Yet Christmas can be, to borrow from Luke 1:79, “a lamp to give light to those who sit in darkness.”
So tonight we rekindle the embers of our faith.
Like pagan revelers, we build fires and throw one last party before surrendering to winter’s chill. Like hopeful Magi, we track the glimmer of a distant star, trusting there is something wondrous and good at the end of our most difficult journey. We plug in the lights on the Christmas tree and leave the porch light on for Santa. In church, we light the last candle of Advent to invoke the Divine.
And we still believe in miracles.