They call him “the reason for the season.” They are Christians, and they’re talking about Christ. But the truth is that you don’t need to give a good goddamn about Jesus to love Christmas, because the true spirit of Christmas is in no way necessarily tied to religiosity.
No disrespect to the man or his most devout fans. Jesus was a real cool cat, a rebel rebel. He was no elitist. He cared about the disenfranchised. He challenged the oppression of the establishment. He disavowed the value of money and property.
He also hated hypocrisy and had no use for outward displays of so-called piety. “When you pray, be not to be like the hypocrites, for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and on the street corners so that they may be seen by men,” we hear him preach in Matthew 6:5–6. “Truly I say to you, they have their reward in full. But you, when you pray, go into your inner room, close your door and pray to your Father who is in secret, and your Father who sees what is done in secret will reward you.”
The point he’s making is less about reward than sincerity. Transport Jesus to these times, and you can almost hear him saying, “Don’t talk the talk, but walk the walk.”
Today’s Christians who make a big show of whining about Christmas’s being a secular holiday would have annoyed the shit out of that guy. For starters, he would point out, it’s silly to say Christmas is a celebration of Christ’s birth, since scholars agree that, although the exact day or even time of year cannot be determined by the accounts the one thing that’s clear is that he wasn’t born in winter. Whatever the significance of December 25th, the birth of Christ isn’t part of it.
But that’s trivia. What really would have steamed old INRI is that those whining about the secularism of Xmas are ignoring what’s most important: that it evokes more than enough warmth and charity to roast chestnuts by.
Obviously there are many ugly aspects to Christmastime in these United States, most all of which are tied to the crass commercialism we see in TV ads for all kinds of crap and people storming stores for Black Friday deals to get it. But let’s be honest: that ugliness is more about American-style capitalism (or perhaps something far more deep-seated in Homo sapiens sapiens) than the holiday season. Such greed is always present; we’re just not always so on the lookout for it.
What Xmas brings that is unique comes at the other end of the intentional spectrum. Consider all those fab holiday gatherings, both large and intimate, this time of year. Somebody is holding them, and they’re using Xmas as an excuse to get us together in groups—a tradition sorely needed in a world where technology, for all its ability to connect us, makes it increasingly easier to isolate oneself from face-to-face interaction.
On the individual level, many of us get more generous as the calendar becomes just one page. I know I’m a case in point. Not to imply that I would be nominated for the Nobel Prize for Generosity were I wealthy, but it’s the financial facts of my existence that dictate I’m rarely standing a round at the pub. But come Christmastime I’m all about giving gifts despite my modest means. It’s not out of a sense of obligation: it’s that Xmastime is my excuse to loosen the purse strings a bit. I enjoy the process of trying to come up with something useful or enjoyable that I can afford for my loved ones. I don’t know whether it’s better to give than to receive, but it’s pretty damn good.
And it seems I’m not alone, and not just when it comes to personal gifts. A recent study finds, 30% of all annual giving online occurs in December, while another finds that 18% of all charitable donations are made in the same month.
Even our simple house decorations shed light on the subject. Sure, we do it for ourselves, but it’s also for others to enjoy. Even in sunny Southern California, during this subseason the landscape changes, with lights and other festoonery at every turn. It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas, everywhere you go….
Face it, zealots: you can take the Christ out of Christmas, and the holiday is no worse for wear.
That’s no dig on the way you celebrate. An idea crystallized for me by Richard Rorty, my philosophical hero, is that belief matters only insofar as its use. Some of my best friends are Christians, as are some of the worst people I’ve known. Whether or not you believe Jesus to be the Son of God and that Christmas is about celebrating His birth doesn’t contribute inherently to, nor is a necessary indicator of, how happy of a person you are, how kind, how generous, how good a friend or neighbor or citizen. And it’s those things that matter to me. If tying Christ to Christmas is helping to make you a happy and giving person, good for all of us. But not all of us need that reason.
I love Christmastime because on balance people are celebratory. Together, we rejoice, we revel in the season. Some of us, at least. I feel sad for those who find it a stressful time or who are soured by their own cynicism. Like so many things under heaven, Xmas is what you make of it.
And like so many things, the what of Xmas matters more than the why. So I’m offering this simple phrase for kids from 1 to 92 (and beyond): may you have a good what this Christmas. Find your own reason for the season, and join the rest of us who have already found it. Because Xmas is truly a case of: the more, the merrier.
Love and formic acid,