My old friend Nicholas wished me a “merry non-culturally-specific winter festival” on Facebook. I appreciate the gesture, and I happily returned the sentiment, but as I walked past the giant, light-up creche in front of my neighbour’s house last night, I reflected that this winter festival is very culturally-specific, indeed.
There is a “reason for the season” that goes well beyond eggnog, giftwrap, and red-nosed reindeers, as the culture warriors at Fox News and subway preachers never tire of reminding us. Paula White, the prosperity pastor, and White House spiritual advisor, praised the President for “putting Christ back in Christmas” last year. There can be no mistaking it.
The notion is absurd, of course: He (the Christian saviour) was never really gone from the holiday. Any non-Christian can tell you about that feeling of discomfort – a slightly and not-so-slightly queasy sensation – that we get around this time of year when we sing along with the carols that exhort us to “remember Christ our saviour” or imagine “the little lord Jesus” laying down his sweet head.
Many people make an effort to find something non-Christian in Christmas to make the holiday more inclusive for themselves and their friends. We are reminded that the birthdate of a historical Jesus would have been in the late summer or early fall (when shepherds were tending their flocks), and that St. Hippolytus only settled on December 25th sometime around AD 230, to make it coincide with pagan solstice festivals like the Saturnalia. So it’s really a non-Christian winter festival!
And there are any number of social media memes offering proof that Santa Claus, Sinterklaas, Father Christmas, or whatever you want to call the jolly old elf, is really an ephemerized representation of the Norse sky god, Odin. So we should be okay, right? Christmas, as it is celebrated on December 25th in the 21st century, is simply the contemporary iteration of a universal winter festival with primordial roots!
Well… not really. We only celebrate that festival today because Christianity incorporated its various versions into its practice and liturgy in its long march from a fringe cult in Judea to the hegemonic intellectual and cultural force in what would become known as Christendom. Christianity owed its success to its syncretism, its ability to incorporate ideas and rituals from diverse faiths and practices wherever it has spread. Jesus became a white dude when Christianity incorporated white dudes into its community; his birthday began to fall on the solstice when people who once worshipped a sun-god traded up for the son-of-God.
Christmas is no more “truly pagan” than the Trinity is “truly Sumerian,” or Christian messianic eschatology is “truly Jewish.” Hell, by that standard, the God of Judaism is both “truly Sumerian” (which would have surprised Abraham) and “truly Egyptian” (which would have shocked Moses). While that’s the kind of thing that Joseph Campbell and James Frazer loved ranting on about, bless their souls, it isn’t actually relevant to the Christ in Christmas in the 21st century.
The bottom line is that the only thing that makes Christmas a universal, secular holiday are the universalizing ambitions – and arrogance – of Christianity that have produced a very Christian secularism. The rhythms of the “secular” calendar march in lockstep with the Christian religious calendar. I remember, with little fondness, being the Jew in grade school who explained Chanukah to my classmates because this very minor holiday, which only sometimes falls at the same time as the festival of the Nativity, was “the Jewish Christmas.”
Only it isn’t. Everything is closed for Christmas, a national holiday, but not for Chanukah unless the dates coincide (and Chanukah isn’t even the kind of holiday that you take off from work). No “secular” business, office, or institution closes for Yom Kippur, or Pesach, or Eid-al-Fitr, or Diwali. Only Christian holidays are national holidays because – your non-Christian neighbours are only too-aware – this is a Christian country.
But it’s hard to stand by when a party is going on, even if that party celebrates the birth of a God-king whose very existence – if you believe in it – denies the validity of any and all competing belief systems. To be a Christian, you must believe that Jesus was born the saviour of all humanity and that salvation is only possible through his grace. The often-quoted John 14:6 is pretty clear: “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”
So we join the party, but not without misgivings and considerable conflict. Most of our friends are Christians; many of us are married to, or in committed relationships with Christians. For many years, I have celebrated Christmas with my Christian partner’s family, sharing vicariously in their joy, and accepting that they offer their generosity and hospitality in the same spirit with which I would welcome a gentile to my Passover Seder or Shabbat dinner. I have been delighted to share their holiday because I recognize that it is their holiday.
Yet, it is an often-complex negotiation, and it is not always easy. This Christmas has been more difficult than most. The six weeks of tinsel, and “Jingle Bells,” and enforced gaiety that culminated on this day in 2018 have been hard. It has been difficult to sing along after seeing children caged at the border by the President celebrated for “putting Christ back in Christmas…” After devout Christians cheered his nakedly racist, homophobic, and transphobic policies… After being told that American Jews are loyal to a different country… After saying Kaddish for the eleven dead in Pittsburgh.
As much as I love my Christian friends and family, I needed to take a break from Christmas this year, so when the opportunity came to stay home while my partner travelled to her hometown for her family’s Christmas celebration, I took it. This year, I simply don’t have it in me to “Joyful, all ye nations, rise!” and I do not want to ruin what is, after all, their holiday, and not mine.
This has been the quiet, restful, reflective day that I needed. I hope to be able to join my partner’s family next year, to share vicariously in their joy, to enjoy and return their abundant generosity, to embrace them in love and fellowship.
But this year, I am simply grateful for the day off.
Photo © Matthew Friedman