This is the last of five articles in my “The War on Christmas?” series, entitled “The Birth of the Christ.” I hope that readers of this series will be able to distinguish the “true meaning of Christmas” from all the accretions that have been added to this celebration throughout the centuries (and consequently come to realize how silly the notion of a “war on Christmas” really is).
When all is said and done, what is the “true meaning of Christmas?” Christmas (Christ Mass) is a liturgical celebration of the Christian Church that commemorates the appearance of God in human flesh and blood and his manifestation to the world. It is not an historical event, and as such, the celebration cannot be properly understood or appreciated outside of the Christian Church’s liturgical calendar. Once you discard the liturgical calendar, you might as well discard Christmas, because it then has only social significance (bring on Santa and his reindeer!).
In the context of the liturgical calendar, Christmas was not the most important, nor the first celebration recognized by the early Christian Church. The principal commemoration in the calendar is, of course, the death and resurrection of Jesus — linked historically and in meaning to the Jewish Passover — by which he came to be recognized as the Messiah (the Christ or the ‘anointed’).
The second oldest and most important celebration of the liturgical calendar was not Christmas, but the Epiphany or ‘manifestation’ of the Word of God to the world, celebrated on January 6. The eastern Christian Church (with its center at Constantinople) had a different focus on the Epiphany than the western Church (with its center at Rome). The eastern Church commemorated the baptism of Jesus in the Jordan, where Jesus was first manifest as the Christ.1 The western Church derived the same meaning from the Gospel account of the coming of the Magi:2 the world (both the Jewish and the pagan world in this case) came to recognize the identity of Jesus.
Evidently, the early Christian community was far more interested in the meaning of Jesus’ birth, ministry, death, and resurrection than in trying to establish some sort of time-line. It was only much later that the western Church began celebrating the birth of Jesus, tying the coming of the Son with the festival of the return of the sun — the Saturnalia. In the west at that time, the move away from the mystical appreciation of the events toward an attempt to historicize Jesus’ life was already starting, while the east maintained its properly mystical approach to the meaning of Jesus’ mission.
In the western Christian Church, Christmas is both a liturgical moment (celebrated from sundown on December 24 to sundown on December 25) and a liturgical season. That season begins with the feast of Christmas (on sundown of December 24) and goes through sundown of the feast of the Epiphany, January 6.3 This is the glad season of Christmas, when the liturgy expresses its joy in the Incarnation, the coming of the Messiah, and his manifestation to the world. These are the famous “12 days of Christmas.”
The Christmas season is preceded by the liturgical season of Advent, encompassing the four Sundays before Christmas. It is a traditional time of preparation for the feast and the season of Christmas. The secularization of Christmas in the United States, however, has turned the time between Thanksgiving (or even Halloween) and Christmas day into the “Christmas season.” It’s not. The celebration of Christmas and the true meaning of Christmas (the manifestation of the Messiah to the world) begins on Christmas eve and continues for the 12 days thereafter. So, if you take down your Christmas decorations on December 26, you’re not really celebrating the season of Christmas, you’re participating in its secularization. Think about it.
One final note on the “war on Christmas:” recently, Texas Agricultural Commissioner Sid Miller threatened to slap the next person who wished him “Happy Holidays.”4 I cannot imagine a more perfect example of a “war on Christmas.” In defense of all the many accretions and misunderstandings surrounding this very special day and season of the liturgical year, this fellow issues threats against his brothers and sisters in the name of the Prince of Peace! Because this season not only includes the feast of Christmas but also the solstice and our new year celebrations, and because it’s recognized as a joyful season of renewal for people of many faiths and traditions, “Happy Holidays” is probably the best expression of our good will toward others — especially when we have no idea how or why they may join us in our celebrating.
The true meaning of Christmas is that God has made his love for the world manifest in human form. God has become willing to get his hands dirty with our very messy humanity — especially the smallest and poorest and weakest among us. Despising others, making sure we get ours while turning our backs on them, blaming them for their troubles, are the attitudes that truly represent a war on Christmas. The Almighty allowed himself to be born as a helpless infant so that we could learn that in caring for the helpless, we worship our God. This is more than just contributing to our favorite charity; this means recognizing the Christ in the sufferings of those around us, particularly those we hate or or fear or despise the most. God doesn’t have enemies. Why should we?
Have this attitude in yourselves
which was also in Christ Jesus,
who, although He existed in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped,
but emptied Himself,
taking the form of a bond-servant,
and being made in the likeness of men.
Being found in appearance as a man,
He humbled Himself
by becoming obedient to the point of death,
even death on a cross.
For this reason also, God highly exalted Him,
and bestowed on Him the name
which is above every name,
so that at the name of Jesus every knee will bow,
of those who are in heaven and on earth
and under the earth,
and that every tongue will confess
that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father.5
2See Matthew 2:1-12.
3In 1970, the Roman Catholic Church revised its liturgical calendar and moved the feast of the Epiphany from its traditional date, January 6, to the Sunday after New Year’s. This was apparently an attempt to heighten the liturgical focus on the feast. Many other western Christian communities that follow the liturgical calendar followed suit, but not so much in the eastern churches that maintain the traditional date. Some eastern Christian communities still follow the Julian calendar which introduces yet another date: January 6 in the Julian calendar is now 13 days later (January 19) than the Gregorian calendar that we currently follow.
5The “Kenotic Hymn” from Paul’s letter to the Philippians 2:5-11.