#32: Celebrating Christmas

This is mark Joseph “young” blog entry #32, on the subject of Celebrating Christmas.

I can remember wondering whether Jesus was born on Christmas Eve or on Christmas Night.  After all, it is obvious from the accounts that he was born during the night, and if he was born on Christmas, by our way of reckoning, that would be Christmas Night.  But it always seemed that Christmas Eve was the time that was celebrated, so maybe he was actually born on Christmas Eve, but after midnight, so it was already Christmas Day.  It all made more sense when I learned that the Jewish way of identifying days started them at sunset (nice to think that you start your day by getting some sleep), and thus what we call Christmas Eve would have been the night that is part of Christmas Day, and what we call Christmas Night would have been the beginning of the day after Christmas, what is variously called Boxing Day or the Feast of St. Steven (yes, mentioned in the carol “Good King Wenceslas”, which is actually a Boxing Day Carol, not a Christmas Carol).  So that would suggest that He was born on Christmas Day during the nighttime hours that came before sunrise.

Of course, he wasn’t.  Our Jehovah’s Witnesses friends are correct in their assertion that Christmas is not a biblical holy day.  The Bible does not specify when He was born, but we know that shepherds don’t tend their flocks in fields in late December in Palestine, and they do do that in our spring, say, April.  So if we know that our date for Jesus’ birth is entirely wrong, why do we celebrate it?  And particularly, why do we sing all those silly songs about snow lying on the ground on Christmas night when Jesus was born?

img0032Winter

If we mean why do we celebrate it on December 25th, the answer is simple:  for a couple of very pragmatic reasons.

The first any pagan can tell you:  it was already a holiday.  For the Romans, it was Saturnalia, but since it was the winter solstice nearly every culture in the world had a holiday marking the astronomical event of the sun reaching its southernmost point and starting to return north.  For some, this is a fatal accusation:  we are celebrating a pagan holiday and trying to Christianize it.  However, this was actually pretty smart of the church.  People want their celebrations.  If you say, “don’t celebrate because this day has been set aside to celebrate something that Christians should not celebrate,” you wind up with a lot of people celebrating whatever-it-is anyway (a problem with the objections to Halloween, which even has a Christianized name).  The better answer is to give them something else to celebrate at the same time.  We don’t celebrate an astronomical event or a supposed tie between that event and a pagan god (nor even, really, between the astronomical event and God–in that sense, the astronomical event is incidental).  We celebrate something about which Christians can rejoice, while others are celebrating whatever they choose.

The second pragmatic reason has to do with the church calendar.  After all, we are given something like a date for Easter–not exactly a date, but a connection to Passover, which is fixed to the Jewish calendar.  We don’t really celebrate it on the right date because we’ve disconnected it from both calendars and connected it to astronomical events and a specific day of the week, but we do retain the fact that Easter is celebrated in the Spring, and it would be a bit of a crowded calendar to put the birth, death, and resurrection of Jesus all within a few days of each other.  We also have a pretty well established date for Pentecost, and so to put everything in some kind of orderly fashion it makes good sense to celebrate the birth of Jesus a few months before the celebration of his death, so we have time for other things like Lent, and for some time that is not really connected to a holiday.  Besides, there is a poetic benefit to having this joyous holiday mark the winter solstice, in the notion of the best thing to come to humanity coming at the darkest time of the year.  (It doesn’t work that way in Australia, of course, but it’s only an incidental.)  It’s a good time to celebrate it.

But the more fundamental question is why we celebrate the event at all.  It is clear that our first century predecessors did not do so; if they knew the date they chose not to record it, and only two of the four biographers give us any information about that birth at all.  The day that God became man was not particularly important to them.

However, the fact that God became man was of paramount importance.  John’s Gospel does not tell us anything about the birth of Jesus, but this:  “The Word became flesh, and dwelt among us, and we beheld His glory, glory as of the only begotten of the Father.”  God became man–a turning point in all that God was doing for man–and that was something to celebrate every single day.

We, however, are not all that good at celebrating something every single day.  The very concept of a “celebration” to us requires that it be a divergence from the norm.  Many of us celebrate a Sabbath, even if we have moved the Sabbath to the day after the Sabbath, in part because we need the reminder that our time is God’s time, in part because having that moment of specific devotion helps to refocus us on the ordinary devotion that should permeate the rest of our lives.  In something of the same way, celebrating the coming of God into the world on a specific day brings it forward afresh, so that we are a bit better able to celebrate it every day.

The snow and the cold?  Well, that’s just because these are the conditions which accompany our celebration.  It reminds us that Jesus came into our lives–there might never have been snow in Palestine during His entire life, but there is snow in our lives, and He comes into those lives where we are, as we celebrate where we are, in the midst of our own situations and conditions.  I live in the snow and the cold, and Jesus came into my life, which I am celebrating.  If I lived in Australia, I’m sure I’d sing Christmas carols about shrimp on the barbee and swimming in the billabong, because those would be my life situations during the celebration.  Jesus joins us in our lives, as he did in Bethlehem two millennia ago.  That is what we celebrate; that is why.

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