Should we give up on Christmas?
In years past, the Starbucks chain of coffee shops used paper cups at year-end that were decorated with snowflakes, fir trees, wreathes, snowmen and such. This year’s cups are plain red, without any decoration.
In response, some Christians in the United States called for a boycott of the chain because of its supposedly anti-Christmas stance. The connection between snowmen and the birth of the Messiah escapes me, but apparently for some people snowflakes are an essential Christian symbol and their absence is a denial of, or even attack upon, Christianity.
One year, I was flabbergasted to find that during an Advent Mass, the hymn during the preparation of the gifts was “I’m Dreaming of a White Christmas.” Those Catholics dreaming of Christmas snow just like they “used to know” came, in fact, from a snowless tropical country. I made it a point from then on to always check the hymn list before the liturgy started.
A lay missionary I met in an almost totally non-Christian country thought an important part of his mission was to ride around the city on his motorbike on Christmas Day while dressed in a Santa Claus costume. I don’t know what the locals thought of his display, but I doubt that Jesus Christ was the first thing that came to their minds.
A Protestant church in the United States reportedly does not have services on Christmas because doing so would interfere with what should be primarily a “family day.”
Obviously, campaigns to remind us that “Jesus is the reason for the season” are not very effective even among Christians.
Of course, Jesus never was the reason for the season. The winter solstice in the Northern Hemisphere is the reason for the season. It has been a special time ever since paleolithic people realized that the sun had stopped its decline in the sky and was beginning to return north, bringing longer days and warmth.
So far as scholars can tell, the church originally celebrated three feasts: Resurrection, Pentecost and Epiphany (manifestation). Epiphany celebrated several major manifestations of Jesus, including his birth, the adoration of the magi, his baptism by John and his first miracle at the wedding in Cana. What all those events have in common is that they were “introductions” of Jesus to the world.
The Western church later marked the feast in three parts, now celebrated as Christmas, Epiphany (limited to the magi) and the baptism of the Lord. Eastern churches have, for the most part, retained the ancient multifaceted aspect and a date different from Dec. 25.
We do not, of course, know the birthday of Jesus. In fact, Jesus himself might not have known — there are many cultures where birth dates are not remembered or celebrated. In any case, the celebration of his birth need not be tied to any particular date such as Dec. 25. Though in ancient times his birth was marked on various dates (in some places, it was in the spring), eventually the already festive time of the solstice became the time to mark Jesus’ birth.
So, Western Christianity in some ways co-opted a more ancient festival. The two celebrations have coexisted uneasily ever since. Churches are decorated with pagan Teutonic trees symbolizing fertility and wreathes that evoke the sun god. Those trees were not even a big part of celebrations in Rome until they were introduced by Pope John Paul II. Meanwhile, people celebrating the seasonal holiday, including nonbelievers, are attacked by some Christians for not including Christian elements in their decorations, celebrations and greetings.
Nowadays, it appears more and more that the solstice festivities are crowding out the Nativity ones. In effect, paganism is reclaiming its own.
Perhaps it is time for the church to withdraw from the competition and leave the solstice to be celebrated without guilty feelings about ignoring Christ and without crusading Christians trying to get Hindus, Jews and Muslims to erect stables and say “Merry Christmas” instead of “Happy Holidays.”
We could re-adopt the ancient multifaceted feast of Epiphany. Or, we could just move the celebration of the Nativity to some other point on the calendar. Ideally, perhaps, such a change should be made ecumenically, but the fact that the Eastern and Western churches manage to coexist with different feasts shows that uniformity is not essential. The Orthodox churches that celebrate according to the Julian calendar in January manage to avoid the conflict altogether. The celebration of Jesus’ birth might even take place at different times in different cultures.
Unfortunately, nothing like that is likely to happen. And so, two festivals, Christmas and Yule, will continue their uneasy coexistence on the calendar.
However, that need not mean an uneasy coexistence in the hearts of Christians. We can put up our holiday trees and sing about white Christmases (though not in the liturgy, please). At the same time, but separately in our minds and hearts, we can celebrate the manifestation of Jesus, whose coming shows God’s decision to be part of the world’s celebrations and pains, its joys and woes.
Recognizing that we are involved in two celebrations should make possible joyful coexistence with those who celebrate only one or the other.
Father William Grimm, M.M., is publisher of and based in Tokyo.

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  1. When I was a student in the Netherlands the eve of the feast of St. Nicholas, celebrated on December 6th, was the time for exchanging gifts, having festive family parties, parades through cities, towns and villages of someone dressed up as Bishop St. Nicholas etc.
    Christmas Day was a Holy Day of Obligation to celebrate the incarnation of Jesus the Christ,devoid of all the trappings, carols and consumerism of Christmas as celebrated by in America, Ireland,the Uk and many other European countries. Perhaps that would be a useful model to follow, although I don’t know if the Dutch have managed to preserve their tradition against the onslaught of American culture and world-wide consumerism.

  2. This piece seems to highlight the weakness of the teaching offered to young people. Young Catholics in the main go to “Catholic” schools. Catholic parents (mostly) are said to want to have their children in such church schools because of their “Catholic ethos”. Presumably such schools have some sort of quality certification from the church. In addition, priests have a monopoly on preaching according to canon law. As regards inappropriate songs offered in churches you can hear toe-curling stuff being foisted on congregations more often than not. Parish priests seem oblivious. A well known Dublin city centre church appears to have a congregation which includes many refugees from their local church. The music is well performed, but the congregation are not allowed to participate except to sing the occasional Amen. Otherwise as a passive audience being entertained. I guess people have to settle for the least worst option.

  3. Mícheál says:

    I can’t see how this piece highlights anything about Catholic schools or the teaching offered to young people. There is a problem with music in the liturgy in many churches but has a multitude of causes: these might include tone deaf clergy, but in my experience it has been the music providers — choir directors, musicians, cantors — who have been the biggest obstacle to quality. I have heard choir director’s insist that only Latin motets be sung, or the people’s responses in Latin in four parts, or the Our Father in a variation known only to the choir. Equally I have come across clergy who will not allow any hymn later than 1950 to be played, and organists whose repertoire is limited to a few traditional hymns. But I don’t see what this has to do with the articles question : should we give up on Christmas?
    Whether we like it or not, Christmas has sacred and secular connotations which overlap. It is still a day when many who do not otherwise attend church come along. It is, therefore, a moment of great pastoral opportunity. One priest I know of began each Christmas Mass with the statement “If you havn’t been here since last year, you should leave now.”
    I like good liturgy, I welcome excellent preaching, I am uplifted by beautiful church music but I recognise that not every liturgy I attend will provide all these things. Likewise I note that when I go to church I am not part of a group with identical mindsets, one in heart and mind. Those who seek such purity in the church (perhaps including those who are ‘refugees from their local church,) really want a smaller church. Me, I want as broad a church as possible, so that all can come to know the one who came that we might have life and have to to the full. Sometimes a full life means messiness, loose ends, moments of discomfort. But that’s OK too.

  4. Bob Hayes says:

    John – no.2 – raises very pertinent matters. To what extent has the desire for secular ‘relevance’ led the clergy into all sorts of dead ends?

  5. Kevin Walters says:

    Mícheál @3
    Likewise I note that when I go to church I am not part of a group with identical mindsets, one in heart and mind. Those who seek such purity in the church (perhaps including those who are ‘refugees from their local church,) really want a smaller church. Me, I want as broad a church as possible, so that all can come to know the one who came that we might have life and have to to the full. Sometimes a full life means messiness, loose ends, moments of discomfort. But that’s OK too.
    Mícheál, the Church I am advocating is a Church with its doors wide open to all, no matter what their state so that they too may come to know the Heart/Mind of Jesus Christ and have life to the full
    “The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full”
    Jesus came to give us life abundantly, a life that serves Him, “Wells up into eternal l life”.
    The doors are wide open and all are welcome but the gate (His way) is narrow it can only be entered (Lived) in humility, the one mind-set of all the faithful.
    “Enter through the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the way is broad that leads to destruction, and there are many who enter through it. “For the gate is small and the way is narrow that leads to life, and there are few who find it”.
    kevin your brother
    In Christ

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