A Tale of Two Christmases

There are two holidays that are celebrated on December 25.

One is the twelve-day Christian feast of the Nativity, celebrating the birth of Jesus Christ. It begins with a vigil on the evening of December 24 and runs through until the feast of the Epiphany on January 6. It is a time of feasting and merry-making, singing carols and visiting family and friends. As a sign of God’s generously giving himself to the world in Jesus, gifts are exchanged, and the poor are served by the more fortunate. This twelve-day holiday is preceded by four weeks of introspection in anticipation of the arrival of Christ known as Advent.

The other celebration on December 25 is a consumer-capitalist holiday which, although it is dipped in the flavor of the religious holiday, has only its aroma. This secular “holy” day makes some reference to generosity, but mostly in the guise of buying and giving consumer goods. It, too, has habits of feasting and merry-making. It generally begins after Halloween and ends abruptly on December 25.

Many people find it confusing that both holidays are called “Christmas.”

I respect those celebrating the capitalist holiday, though I understand it to be completely different from the Christian one. Not worse, just different.

The capitalist celebration of Christmas has something to recommend it. Secular people with no connection to religious tradition or community have the opportunity to spend time reflecting on the season’s themes: light in the darkness, generosity, new life, birth, the blessings of children and family, magic. Many donate time and money to charitable organizations.

More often than not, individuals unconsciously act out family traditions (decorating the home, bringing an evergreen tree into the house, putting presents underneath the tree, making certain recipes) without thinking too much about it. Is this a religious observance? Tradition? Why are we doing this?

A hero of this consumerist holiday is Santa Claus, the jolly white-bearded man who lives hidden in an enchanted workshop at the north pole and magically distributes gifts to children by coming down the chimney while they sleep. He is a symbol of the capitalist Christmas, embodying the generous, gift-giving spirit of the holiday.

The symbol of the Christian holiday is a little newborn baby.

The two different stories of Jesus Christ’s birth found in the New Testament each act as an overture to the gospel that follows. One represents Jesus as the new Moses, fulfilling prophecies of a new divinely appointed leader (Matthew), and the other that a leader has come for the lowest, most outcast of the world, Jewish and non-Jewish (Luke).

These birth stories are theological reflections, meant to convey who and what Jesus is and was to the communities out of which these gospels were formed. Reading and reflecting on these two narratives—the sheep herders, the animal stall, the star, the magi and the wicked ruler—and understanding what is being conveyed can be a meaningful exercise once a year.

The Christian church adopted a pagan holiday to celebrate the birth of Christ as it developed its liturgical year. The winter solstice (broadly, Saturnalia in southern Europe, Yule in northern Europe) celebrates the return or rebirth of the sun in the darkest time of the year. This fit the Christian understanding of the person of Jesus Christ – his birth and life were like divine light dawning on a darkened world.

Christians who get upset by the “commercialization” of Christmas may be helped to know that the capitalist Christmas is a different celebration from their own and is entirely commercial—commercialism is, in fact, its raison d’être.

Christians who want to “put the Christ back into Christmas” have my sympathy. But rather than judging others (wait, didn’t somebody wise say something about judging others?) for not celebrating the Christian holiday, it may be more helpful to practice one’s own holiday with integrity and spirit. Before you remove the speck in your neighbor’s eye, maybe it’s time to pluck out the Yule log stuck in your own!

Those who celebrate the birth of Christ in December may want to ask ourselves what is the best way to do so.

  • Is it by trampling people to death at the shopping mall?
  • Stressing out about buying (or making) presents for loved ones?
  • Becoming apoplectic about travelling, decorating, baking, entertaining, shopping?
  • Getting snotty about other people celebrating holidays at this time of year? (and yes, “happy holidays,” because there are a number of festivals being celebrated this time of year—Thanksgiving, Hanukkah, winter solstice, Yule, New Year’s, among others, as well as both Christmases).

In what ways is the Christian observance of Christmas exactly similar to the capitalist observance? In what ways is the Christian celebration different from the commercial one? In what ways are practicing Christians smooshing the two together?

I don’t celebrate the capitalist holiday. I haven’t for years. For a while, my only celebration at this time of year was New Year’s. But now I see the wisdom of observing a threefold religious occasion—Advent, Nativity, Epiphany.

I try not to use “Christmas” language, because I like to distinguish what I’m doing from the capitalist holiday. Rather than reclaim “Christmas,” I call what I do by other names, even as the capitalists begin to relinquish “Christmas” in favor of “holiday” or “winter.”

I invite practicing Christians to consider withdrawing their support for the capitalist version of Christmas and finding ways of celebrating the birth of Christ with integrity and spirit.

  • Remember that Advent is a time for reflection, not crazy making. What about taking up a spiritual discipline of meditation or vigil keeping or prayer or journaling? What are some of your most significant hopes? What calls forth your forbearance and patience?
  • Remember that Christmas (the Feast of the Nativity) is a twelve-day celebration. Merry-making, visits, singing, gift-giving, baking… why not spread it out over the twelve days? Why not choose an activity to do with the members of your household, friends, and family for each of the twelve days? What about serving the poor and disenfranchised in some way?
  • Remember that Epiphany is also a holiday. Sometimes called Twelfth Night, some traditions include “king’s cake,” a cake with a coin baked into it, and progressive dinners.

Rather than grumbling that the cashier at the store didn’t say “Merry Christmas” while you handed over fistfuls of money, why not get out of the stores altogether?

Put the Christ back into Christmas by putting your cash and your credit card back in your wallet.

Spend less time at the mall and more time at church, with your loved ones, and with the poor and oppressed people in your community.

There are lots of resources for having a more simple, meaningful and joy-filled Christmas. Visit  Buy Nothing Christmas and the Advent Conspiracy for inspiration and resources. There is so much out there!

(And by the way, you don’t have to be Christian to want to change the way you experience the December holiday season. Many of us unconsciously go through the motions, perpetuating family customs and traditions we haven’t really paid much attention to and may even find joyless or meaningless. You, too, may want to withdraw your support from the capitalist Christmas and find some more authentic ways of celebrating the themes of the season).

Many Christians are having a hard time adjusting to living in a post-Christendom world. Christianity is no longer the established religion, seamlessly woven together with civic society and political governance. That sucks for some Christians and they get all crankypants about not being the definitive, dominant culture. That’s how I experience the resentful complaining of a so-called “war on Christmas.”

As much as it is a loss, the fall of Christendom is also an opportunity for followers of Jesus to bear authentic witness to his life and teachings. Cultural accretions that have nothing to do with—or are antithetical to—his gospel message can be stripped away.

It’s hard when in-groups get pushed to the margin. It requires humility and grace. But the margin is a good place to do religion, especially if your religion actually teaches humility and grace.

In fact, that reminds me of a story. A young unwed woman, under the rule of an empire that taxed and oppressed ordinary people, gives birth to a baby in a squalid barn, heralded only by homeless ruffians… and angels…


5 thoughts on “A Tale of Two Christmases

  1. Peter, I’d love to share this essay on my WordPress site. I will link it to your blog.
    Great writing! I am now one of your “followers.”
    (We met years ago at UU minister days at GA)

  2. Peter, what a beautiful invitation for us to celebrate the Christmas season with more heart and soul. Celebrating a threefold religious occasion — Advent, Nativity and Epiphany –creates huge space to create anew. And, I totally love the expression “getting all crankypants”!

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