I am aware that December 25 has much more to do with the Roman Saturnalia, the Winter Solstice, the birth of the Zoroastrian Deity Mithra, and other non-Christian rites than it does with the miraculous birth of Jesus, which Biblical scholars calculate likely happened during the harvest-time Feast of Booths, or maybe in spring at lambing time. The Gospels of Mark and John make no mention of the birth of Jesus, and there is no hint in the Canonical Scriptures that the disciples or the earliest Judaeo-Christians celebrated Jesus’s birthday. I’m fairly certain that Jesus never saw snow, evergreens, or mistletoe, never tasted gingerbread, eggnog, or peppermint candy, never mentioned red and green as His special colors. The Wise Men didn’t have glitter paper or wire ribbons, but their presentations of gold, frankincense, and myrrh surely were made in something more elegant than old socks, and there’s no denying that Christmas trees, candles, yule logs, holly and mistletoe are the legacy of our pagan ancestors.
The first Christ-Mass celebrations almost four centuries after the glorious event were so rooted in pre-Christian traditions that centuries later they were outlawed by our Puritan ancestors. Nowadays the veneer of Christianity added to pagan solstice rituals looks thin and shabby in the glare of globalized Mammonization and giant Christmas trees in giant shopping malls. I’m pretty sure that a lot of contemporary fa-la-la-ing has much more to do with bottom lines than with Nativity, and I abhor the new “holiday tradition” of Black Friday and the human sacrifices that the God Mammon has claimed since this new pagan holiday was dreamed up by twenty-first century Scrooges who see the profit potential in less humbug and more ho-ho-ho.
I know all this, but I can’t see that throwing out Christmas would make the world a better place or me a better person. If I had bad Christmas memories or no Christmas memories, I might, in a quest for piety, ignore the whole thing, but I have my Christmas memories, beautiful memories, woven into the fabric of my soul. No matter how hard I try, no matter how I want to get past the commercialism, I can’t throw Christmas out.
My imperfect but loving parents and grandparents told me elaborate lies about Santa Claus and reindeer. They suspended domestic order for a few days, allowed me to stay up much later and eat more treats than any child should, and, disguised as that Jolly Old Elf, gave me at least one thing every year that fulfilled my heart’s desire. A few years later I knew that Santa Claus meant my parents had sacrificed their own comfort at Christmases past to show their love and to bring some magic into my life. I loved helping create that magic for my baby sister and eventually for my own children.
My Christmas memories are a mosaic of sights, sounds, and smells: decorating a tree that made a plain little house look pretty and smell wonderful for a few weeks; helping make and deliver Mama’s holiday candy boxes to friends and neighbors; driving around town to see twinkling colored lights everywhere and other people’s Christmas trees shining through windows; gathering with grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins, to eat until we could eat no more. Christmas is a lump in my throat when I hear “Silent Night” or “White Christmas” and when my grown-up son sings “O Holy Night” at church. Christmas is wide-eyed wonder on my children’s and grandchildren’s faces as rituals of my childhood are re-enacted.
Christmas is gathering on the coldest, darkest nights of the year to banish the dark and the cold and the primitive fear that the sun might not return by lighting candles and Christmas trees and fireplace logs. Christmas is giving and receiving gifts to affirm the love that makes the darkness bearable.
I don’t always think about God in the middle of Christmas busy-ness, but when I do, I am moved with gratitude for all the awesomeness around me: Messiah, life, light, family, friends, food, fun, and the beautiful fear and wonder in all of that.
There was more of magic than of faith in our family Christmas rituals, but my folks lived the love preached by the One whose miraculous birth we did our best to celebrate.