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The Big Question

Why is Christmas still such a big deal?

By James Christie

The world is just shy of the 50th anniversary of the first airing of A Charlie Brown Christmas. The Charles Schulz classic, which delighted me and my little sister, also delighted my own children, and now, the generation of their children. It endures. Anyone who has suffered a stunted spruce crookedly adorning their living room will recall Linus’s salvage of the original. And then there is Lucy Van Pelt: “We all know that Christmas is a big commercial racket. It’s run by a big eastern syndicate.”

Lucy’s cynicism isn’t misplaced. The Christmas we know in these early years of the 21st century owes rather more to culture than to Christ. For this we can thank three influences: Charles Dickens and his beloved fable, A Christmas Carol; Clement Moore’s poem ’Twas the Night Before Christmas; and the good folks at Coca-Cola, with their now iconic image of the jolly old elf.

Prior to the 19th century, Christmas was little more than a welcome mid-winter holiday; a festival of lights to brighten the darkness of the solstice. There was church for those inclined; feasting for those who could afford it. Christmas softened lives that, as philosopher Thomas Hobbes famously noted, were all too often “nasty, brutish and short.” We get that. Anyone who endures Canadian winters knows that without a little light and levity in mid-December, we teeter on the brink of sub-polar psychosis.

And why not enjoy a little light and levity? After all, there is a sense in which Jesus has never really been “the reason for the season.” Our Christian forebears, always alert to opportunity, saw a good thing in German Yule logs, Druid mistletoe and the convenient birthday of the popular Persian warrior god, Mithras. We appropriated other people’s holidays just as others happily enjoy ours today.

In fact, it is my non-Christian colleagues and friends who balk at the blancmange political correctness of “Happy Holidays!” Sikhs, Hindus, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists and Baha’i all greet me with a cheery “Merry Christmas!” They expect reciprocity.

While some Christians have grown jaundiced about the holiday, many non-Christians delight in its traditions, legends and decorations. Some stories even inspire, like the one about the ceasefire in the trenches on Dec. 24, 1914, when British and German troops laid down their weapons, exchanged tobacco and kicked a ball about. It still causes a curious prickling behind the eyes and a tightening in the throat. At Christmas, to borrow from Dr. Seuss, even the Grinch’s “small heart [grows] three sizes that day.”  

Still, we must never overlook the pain many feel at Christmas: the pain of loss, loneliness and the terrible stress of forced joyousness. That’s why Blue Christmas services are now customary at many churches. On a personal note, Christmas for me has included deep and tragic loss, broken relationship and illness, including cancer: my own and my child’s.

And yet, there is something about the spirit of the season. It isn’t theological or biblical. Neither Luke’s angel chorus nor Matthew’s magi are essential to the good news. Their purposes are apologetic, and even, in the context of the first century, more cultural than creedal.

But it’s Christmas; let’s leave it to the poets. W.H. Auden wrote, “A faith which held that the Son of God was born in a manger, associated himself with persons of humble station . . . died a slave’s death, yet did this to redeem all [people] required a completely new way of looking at human beings; if all are children of God . . . then all, irrespective of status or talent, vice or virtue, merit the serious attention of the poet, the novelist and the historian.”

What deal could be bigger, now or in any age?

Rev. James Christie is a professor of ecumenism and dialogue theology at the University of Winnipeg.

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