There is something reassuring about the passage of time. Perhaps the operation of the cycle is the one constant we can count on in a changing universe. Humans have been marking time for millennia, giving names to periods of time (days and months) as a way of organizing human activity, synchronizing it with the movements of either the moon or the sun.
Christmas demonstrably marks the passage of time for many of us. It comes again and again for Christian adherents and for those who are indifferent to its religious significance. The nativity story in Luke’s Gospel chronicles an event more likely to have occurred in the spring time. However, the designation of December 25 as the date of Jesus’ birth was a matter of ecclesiastical expedience. The date was fixed, probably some time in the fourth century of the Common Era in order to correspond with the winter solstice, and perhaps to co-opt some of the revelry attached to the Roman feast of Saturnalia.
Even now, the certainty of the arrival of Christmas each December 25 creates a recognizable benchmark for all sorts of phenomena in individual lives as well as in world events. One confidently declares that “the troops will be home by Christmas,” or “I’ll get that promotion by Christmas.” Campaigning for Barry Goldwater in 1964, Ronald Reagan advocated declaring war on North Vietnam, asserting that “we could pave the whole country and put parking stripes on it, and still be home by Christmas.”
Time marches on, and the arrival of Christmas is a universally recognized square on the calendar. Perhaps, though, it is something more than that.
Over the years, the American observance of Christmas has taken on a number of attributes—much of it revolving around Santa Claus and gift-giving. But despite its commercialization, the very notion of Christmas retains a certain genuineness of spirit and an implicit belief in the human family that actually transcends religion and culture.
The skeptic may well regard the historical development of Christmas in its religious context as evidence of a self-serving church hierarchy intent on replacing the older mythologies with the newer Christianity, and that would be accurate in some ways. However, the gradual assimilation of ancient Celtic Yuletide practices into Christian rituals, for example, may well have been less intentional than some would assert. The interplay of cultures always involves some synchronicity, and ancient wisdom has a way of resisting its own annihilation.
For at least a third of the world’s population, Christmas is more than just a date on the calendar. Christian adherents now live in diverse regions of the planet, such that there is no longer one identifiable center of global Christianity. Collectively, there are many more Muslims, Jews, Hindus, Jains, Buddhists, Bahá’ís, and Sikhs living on the earth, a reality that seems to elude many westerners, religious or not. To the extent that all religions embody wisdom and truth, the Christian experience stands as one among many, but it is an authentic experience nonetheless.
While many Old Testament scholars doubt the existence of certain “historical” figures, like Abraham, Moses, or Jacob, the essential “truth” of the on-going saga of God’s people cannot be denied. Similarly, while Christmas ostensibly commemorates the nativity of Jesus, the ontological truth it conveys surprisingly is not limited to the Christian tradition. Although it does not a represent a genuinely historical event, it teaches all of us something about the goodness of God and God’s “peace toward those whom he favors” (NRSV).
The celebration of Christmas in America—and I suspect in most other contexts—is as much about cultural traditions as it is about religious customs. To the extent that neither wisdom nor enduring truth are limited by religion or culture—and recognizing that the theological message of Christmas is one of Immanuel (“God with us”), we would be hard-pressed to deny the presence of the transcendent God in any facet of human existence—even in those which are not expressly Christian!
The Judeo-Christian tradition has long held onto the notion of God’s active and intimate involvement in human history. In classical Christian thought, Christmas recalls the moment of divine Incarnation—not as a one-dimensional historical event, but as something that cannot be contained in time or space—nor constrained by religious dogma or cultural considerations. Some of us think that’s worth waiting for and celebrating—year after year after year.