The True Meaning of Christmas?

Daylie Chainmayle
The use of a Nativity scene on the CRE’s Christmas Card is an interesting and contemporary choice. It is at this time of the year, every year, that the ‘Political Correctness’ phoenix rears its ugly head, and indeed Jamie Doward’s article about the card in The Observer veers onto precisely that reserve. We hear from the Archbishop of York, who complains that “crib is in danger of being thrown out of Christmas” and it is secularists who are being blamed for this decline. On Saturday, The Daily Mail found that only 3% of Christmas cards now carry a ‘traditional’ message – that is, some depcition of the Christian Nativity:

Religious groups and MPs last night warned that the multi-million pound Christmas card industry was losing sight of the real reason for celebrating the festive period. … Conservative MP Philip Davies said card manufacturers who ditched Christmas symbols were falling victim to “politically correct madness”.

No. It is the MPs who are falling victim to the propaganda put out by the religious groups. In fact, it is the Christian establishment who are peddling the politically correct line here. And, just like the worst examples of ‘PC gone mad’ which infuriates so many people, they frame themselves as the victims of prejudice. Then they demand everyone else make changes to fit their (Christian) agenda.
And so we endure this sanctimonious talk about Christmas, and its “true meaning”. The complainers forget that a Winter Festival long pre-dates the celebration of Christ’s birth. There were pagan, ‘Yuletide’ festivals held in the winter anyway. Indeed, a feast period during the coldest days of the year is hardly an innovation unique to the followers of the Nazarene! I tell you what: If I was the founding father of some cult or culture, then I reckon this month would be ideal for a festival of some sort. Now is the perfectly logical time to take stock of the year gone by, (and in agricultural communities, literally ‘take stock’), make plans and resolutions for the year to come, and, with my family, welcome the light and prosperity promised by spring.
And, Lo! In this age of technology, mass communication and commercialisation, this is precisely what we do. For all the whines about us ignoring that Bethlehem story, we still see most people in this country spending time with their family, feasting, and spending some of the hard earned fruits of their labour. Sure, in pagan times, these were actual fruits and other farm produce. That in today’s world, the fruits happen to take the form of, say, a Nintendo Wii is, I think, merely a matter of detail… I wish people would stop forcing upon us the lie that this is, in itself, a bad thing.
We should remember that for the past thousand years or so, the dominant religion has succeeded in labelling “The Winter Festival” with the brand-name “Christmas”. On the surface, the focus was narrowed to just the Nativity… but all the while, up-and-down the continent, ordinary people also retained the wider traditions of family, feasting, and welcoming the new season. Festivals can and do have more than one meaning.
In the twenty-first century, we see the older meanings bubble back up to the surface. Some will sneer, and label these values ‘secularist’; I call these values simply ‘human’ and inclusive. The pious, exclusive dogma is marginalised. No wonder those who see their power, influence and world-view on the wane are beginning to complain. Their own re-branding excercise, imposed by the Christian Roman Emperors, is now being reversed, and “Christmas” once again becomes “Winter Festival”.
It is nevertheless ironic that they complain about this. By lobbying to retain the Christian label for what has clearly become a secular festival, it is Christianity that is undermined. “Christ Mass” is obviously a word invented by Christians, with a specific meaning. If people really want to celebrate this ‘true’ meaning (i.e. The Birth of their Saviour, Jesus Christ) then perhaps they should do so on December 7th, along with their friends in the Orthodox Church. Free of the guilt that their chosen religion inexplicably ladles onto their heads, they could then celebrate a more generic festive season on 25th December with the rest of us.
Adherents of minority religions have been doing this for centuries. Jewish people celebrate Hannukah at some point in December (this year, I believe it begins this Saturday, 16th December). This observance does not stop them enjoying the festive season with the rest of us, indulging in an excessive feast just like everyone else. They do not winge that their neighbours’ conception of this time of year might be diffferent from theirs.
So, it is actually all these MPs, Bishops, and Stephen Greens who miss the point of these imminent celebrations. Worse, they seek to hi-jack it, by trying to define for everyone else what the winter festival is for. This impedes and bores the rest of us, who are just trying to have a bit of fun with our family and friends.
Update: Pickled Politics points out a couple of good links on this subject. Oliver Burkeman at The Guardian explodes the ‘War on Christmas’ myth, while Wordblog says that the shrill campaigns for Christmas fosters division and Islamophobia at a time that is supposed to mean ‘goodwill to all men’…

19 Replies to “The True Meaning of Christmas?”

  1. I don’t really see what your point is here Robert. The argument about christmas losing it’s “true” meaning has been going on as long as I can remember. I think most people, like me, see it as some time off work, and an opportunity to chill out, get drunk and watch crappy tv, they don’t go anywhere near a church and couldn’t care less what is on their christmas card (apart from the dreadfull, culture free and tasteless “winterval”). Yes christmas was tacked onto an existing festival, but so what ? That’s probably true to some extent of most ostensibly religious festivals, religions aren’t propagated in a big bang, they evolve and spread, so you would expect them to be absorbed slowly into existing culture. You seem to position christians as being unreasonable in trying to maintain the christian element of christmas, but as it has been a christian festival of sorts since Roman times, to be fair, I think they have a point. I mean would you point the same accusations at muslims maintaining the orthodox meaning of Ramadan, Sikhs with Diwali, or Jews with passover ?

  2. I am objecting to them taking the moral high ground. I do not think they have any right to it, and I think it is counter productive to their own agenda.
    I think the point is precisely that because there is a certain amount of evolution of traditions and festivals, it is unreasonable for the Christians to attempt to halt that evolution. As it happens, I think ‘Feasting and Family’ is a perfectly good ‘True Meaning’.
    I also think it is blinkered of them to drone on about it, when most people are like you, and have a different conception of what the winter festival is for. As I say, I detect the worst aspects of Politically Correct control-freakery in their rhetoric! As Oliver Burkeman pointed out, the vanguard to change the name of Christmas is non-existent. But I am surprised that Christians are not at the head of such a vanguard. If they were, then their festival could retain a similar status to Ramadan, Diwali or Pessach. As it is, they are losing it to the secularists, and their attempts to change the way other people view the festival are pitiful.

  3. Very excellent and thought-provoking Rob, as usual. I’ve got to make a remark about “feasting” though, especially as you say it is so central to your concept of Christmas.
    In the present climate of plentiful and diverse food all year round in and out of season, and in the present climate of rising obesity, and given that the human stomach is of limited capacity anyway, I’m not really sure what “feasting” means in this context, apart from “eating”, which we do anyway, several times a day, all year round, and without contextual or enviromental limitation. Except for the fact that some foods are shaped into “festive” shapes, and the packaging is more “Christmassy”, which facts to me are rather shallow and irrelevant, albeit quite nice.
    Also, family members exist all year round as well, and I would hazard a guess that your family gatherings are not limited solely to the christmas period. Which tells me that Christmas for you must be about something more than just eating and family. I wonder what that something could be, even if it isn’t Jesus.

  4. But it was ever thus ! Christians have been complaining about the commercialisation/secularisation of chrismas for as long as I can remember (I’m 41) and probably before that. The point about it is that it involves the old and the familiar, it is a reminder of permamancy, of both the past and the future, something that existed before me and will exist after me, this is why it’s a complete anathema to the change everything liberal/left who don’t like anything that existed before 1965.
    The PC bridage, for want of a better term, are employing kiddology by arguing they are not asking for it to be rebranded. No one would be stupid enough to directly say that, so instead we get the familiar range of indirect PC attacks (it’s offensive, it contravenes health and safety, it opens your employer up to litigation etc etc) which will eventually make it so problematic that no one can be bothered.
    It’s a bit like my girlfriend saying “I’m ok with you going to the football, really” and then complaining about all the “problems” that it causes, hoping that eventually I will weigh up the pros and cons, decide its too much hassle and stop going, and she’ll have won.

  5. I think you’re quite right though Rob, that the secular and commercial “festival” that gets called Christmas doesn’t have the right to call itself Christmas if it isn’t primarily about Christ, and that Christians should be at the spear-head of any campaign in this direction.
    But to speak of “changing the name of Christmas” is problematic, since to Christians, that name refers to the Christian midwinter festival that celebrates Christ’s birth. The name belongs to Christians, and secular people and institutions have no right to first co-opt it and then decide to over-write it. The problem is that the word “Christmas” seems now to have two usages that get conflated: the sacred and the secular. Yes, this is how language evolves, but strictly speaking, the second usage is inaccurate and could understandably cause offence to those who keep the first usage.
    “Winterval” would be the more apt term to use for those people to whom christmas means nothing more than excessive consumption and enforced leisure/familial encounters. So you and Matt Munro are not only welcome, but should be obliged to call it that.
    But it is interesting that Matt objects to this as being “dreadful, culture-free and tasteless”. Well, that’s his problem, I guess. You can’t have your cake and eat it too. If it’s not a religious festival for you, then why do you need the religious name? I don’t think Muslims would like it very much if non-muslims started using the word “Ramadan” to refer to their own activities.
    I think that the poor dwindling Christians maybe hoped that they could use “Christmas” as a crowd-puller to keep their numbers going, and that’s why they didn’t seek to protect their brand sooner. But they didn’t reckon on human free will, or on people’s capacity for hypocrisy, which one really might have thought that they would, given their business.

  6. Clarice – In response to your first comment: I mean “feasting” in a general consumptive sense, as well as actual eating: c.f. my note above about fruits of labour, taking stock, renewal, etcetera.
    Sure, family members do exist all year round. But they often live far away, and the ritual of Christmas is what brings them gome. Even if they live around the corner, the ritual is still important. “Another year over, a new one just begun” and all that.

  7. Yes, it was ever thus. Kiddology is a new one on me, I like it. What does it mean?
    I don’t think it’s the case that a direct request for re-branding would be “stupid”, rather that it would be brave, because if you take the Christ-Mass out of Christmas, what’s left is, as you say, shallow, vacuous, culture-free and distasteful, and the Christians know that non-Christians are riding on their backs by celebrating a non-Christ christmas and using the slightest of nods towards the christian festival bestows an air of dignity and justification to the whole thing. It takes courage to stand up to bullying and abuse you know, especially when the whole weight of the commercial establishment is against you, and your numbers are dwindling as it is.

  8. I agree with Matt that “Winterval” sounds lame. It really DOES sound like a rebranding excerise. Please note that I did not suggest that we use this term to replace Christmas (I didn’t suggest any).
    Although I did not take it into account in my original post above, the Burkeman article in the Observer is pretty important to this debate about “Winterval”. The council in question used it, for a couple of years, to refer to the shopping season from November to January! There was never a concerted push to re-brand Christmas. And I think the assertion that this debate is actually pretty one-sided only backs up my point. Matt need not worry about PC rebrands, because no-one at all is fighting that corner.
    what’s left is, as you say, shallow, vacuous, culture-free and distasteful, and the Christians know that non-Christians are riding on their backs by celebrating a non-Christ christmas and using the slightest of nods towards the christian festival bestows an air of dignity and justification to the whole thing.
    Now this is what I am challenging. I don’t think it is particularly distasteful. We see the public part of everyone else’s Christmas – the Christmas shopping and the parties – and we declare it ‘vaccuous’ and ‘distasteful’. We do not see them at home with their loved ones. My Christmases are fairly tasteful, thankyouverymuch, and I expect everyone else’s will be too.
    But in any case, what is wrong with a few parties, a meal with friends and family you may not see all year? Again, c.f. fruits of labour, I am not convinced that the rampant commercialisation of Christmas is a bad thing in itself (although I do wish people would stop buying shite music singles for the Christmas No 1).
    If anything, the Christians are riding on the backs of our end-of-year catharsis. They catch us while we are drunk, and tell us stories about Virgin pregnancies, men from the East burning incense in a stable… oh yeah: and a child holocaust.

  9. Yes, Rob. I think both you and Matt have both now identified that Christmas is about something more than consumption and family, namely ritual, and connecting with the past and the future.
    I want to lay aside for a moment the massive carbon foot-print that the feasting aspect of “Christmas” has come to entail, and the part that “Christmas” has come to play in the economy, which I would say is a far greater motivater than Jesus ever was. But I can’t. If excessive consumption (“feasting”) is such an integral part of Christmas for you, then is that not rather elitist and disturbing? And if your rituals entail destroying the planet at a specially accelerated rate, even as hurricanes and freak weather abound, are such rituals ethically defensible?
    I think there are two points to be made here:
    1. It isn’t fair to co-opt other people’s religious festivals. If you don’t believe in Christ, then why do you need to call it Christmas?
    2. What are the ethical parameters of “Winterval”? Isn’t it possible to have ritual and connection and to acknowledge the seasons and the passage of time without alienating others and harming the environment in quite such a focussed way?

  10. Now this is what I am challenging. I don’t think it is particularly distasteful.
    Well, that is good. I am inclined to agree with you, especially your point about the public/private distinction. It doesn’t really matter to me, since I shall be retaining “Christmas” for myself. Each to their own, and all that.

  11. I think there’s a bit of a false dichotomy operating here, you are either Christian and you celebrate Christmas, or you aren’t and you don’t ? I certanly don’t agree that there is an easily definable line between church and state and therefore between religious festivals and public holidays in a country whose constitutional lead is head of the church of england. Therefore I don’t see how practicing christianity is a necessary pre requisite for celebrating Christmas, doubly so as very little of the culture or symbology is religious anyway, just a slightly more intense form of the 24/7 consumerism culture that we live in, as such it doesn’t NEED a justification.
    Christianity is deeply embedded in our culture, but we do not routinely subject that culture to a the test of religious justification, many of our extant laws are underpinned by a christian morality, but no one would suggest that they should only apply to christians so why single christmas out for special scrutiny ?
    Clarice: “Kiddology” probably isn’t an official word but it means feigning ignorance or stupidity esp as a form of bluff
    I imagine many people living in say Turkey, who do not consider themselves practicing muslims, still take part in religious festivals. Otherwise you are putting forward the absurd proposition that on christmas day you must either go to church or go to work ? We don’t seek to justify every aspect of our culture on the grounds of religious orthodoxy, so why christmas ?

  12. We don’t seek to justify every aspect of our culture on the grounds of religious orthodoxy, so why christmas ?
    Matt, is that comment directed at me, or Clarice? I’m pretty sure that you and I agree: We should not have to conform to what religious leaders tell us is the ‘true meaning’ of a festival.

  13. An interesting debate although I am not sure I follow all the ramifications. I would just like to say that it seems to me that Christmas is a bit more than feasting and family whether you profess to be a Christian or not. First its a celebration of something, its about children, its about wonder and its about giving and sharing and about hope for the future. For Christians these have a special meaning but lots of Christians don’t mind anyone celebrating these things and calling them Christmas.

  14. Hi Matt
    I think there is a false dichotomy, though not the one you describe. You are either Christian and you celebrate Christmas, or you aren’t and you may or may not celebrate “Winterval” (which Christians may or may not do also). You may or may not work on Christmas day, but whatever you do, if you’re not christian, then you shouldn’t really say that you’re “celebrating Christmas”, now that an alternative name for what you’re doing has gained some cultural currency.
    If you’re not a christian, you may well get the day off on Good Friday, and you may well enjoy easter eggs, but unless you believe in the religion, how can you be said to be “celebrating” easter? Clearly one cannot celebrate Christ rising from the dead, if you don’t believe it even happened? Similarly, if you don’t believe that Jesus was the son of god, or even a prophet, then how exactly can you say that you’re “celebrating christmas”? What exactly are you celebrating?
    That very little of the culture is religious these days anyway does not speak to the question of whether “Christmas” in the religious sense is a religious festival, only whether what people do at Christmas-time is or isn’t a religious thing, which for most people I suspect it mostly isn’t. Each to their own.
    It’s true that many secular things (including laws) may well be underpinned by things consistent with, or evolved from christianity. But most of them don’t pretend to be religious. Calling a solely secular festival (which it is for many people) by the name of a religious festival (and a rather central one at that, for the religion in question) just seems strange and wrong to me.
    “Otherwise you are putting forward the absurd proposition that on christmas day you must either go to church or go to work ?”
    No. At Christmas, if you claim to be celebrating it, you should be an adherent of the religion in question, even if you are a lapsed one. You may or may not go to church, depending on your preference.
    On the other hand, if you are not a Christian, you may do what you jolly well like at Christmas-time, celebrate consumption and family and so forth, or not, as you see fit, but it’s not strictly accurate to say that you are “celebrating Christmas”.

  15. Clarice wrote,
    “I guess. You can’t have your cake and eat it too.”.
    Surely the fact that that you can and do is the essence of this festival, whatever you want to call it.

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