To me, Christmas means several things:
1. A time to celebrate Winter
2. A time to celebrate family and friendships
3. A time to celebrate the Nature-based “Pagan” solstice
4. A time to celebrate the birth of Christ
The only controversial items on this list, of course, relate to religion. Pagans may still constitute a minority in American religion, but they are not to be dismissed. After all, theirs is the oldest Winter celebration known in the Northern Hemisphere. Evergreen boughs are gathered; candles lit; trees are cut down, brought into homes, and decorated … all in an ancient Winter feast which, charmingly, also anticipates Summer’s return. As Doctor Who so recently commented, Yule is the time when we acknowledge that we have survived half of the dark months; and now we anticipate, with the sun’s ascendency, the great Greening. Yes, the sun has died on the year’s shortest day. But then it begins to rise again. In the darkest of Winter, Christmas – or Yuletide in Pagan terms – celebrates the sun’s resurrection. For most people who enjoy natural beauty and the change of seasons, Christmas as the Pagan Yule-solstice strikes deep chords of resonance, and all but the most cultish, hard-headed Abrahamists seriously object to it. It needs no deep or detailed explanation or apology.
However, Christmas as a religious celebration of Christ’s birth does not get by so easily in modern American society, bemused as it is with philosophical and economical materialism. A fashionable “new” atheism pounces on the holiday as an irrational, irresponsible reversion to archaic myth. The anti-Christmas sentiment, if not the “war against Christmas”, is so prevalent that public acknowledgments of Christmas, and even sometimes the well-meant expression “Merry Christmas” are often met with displeasure and uttered in fear of offending “non-Christmas” people. It has come to the supremely ironic point that celebrating Christ’s birth on the traditionally designated day is looked on as absurd – as an observance, which, simply because it is religious, is necessarily meaningless and silly, and ought to be embarrassing to those who do take it seriously.
I take Christmas seriously. I am not a Christian and have no significant connection to the organized Abrahamic faiths. I celebrate this holiday for all four of the reasons that begin this article. And I do not exclude the Christian perspective. When I – a non-Christian – celebrate the birth of Christ, I celebrate different things, inclusive of but not limited to the following.
1. The birth of a messianic leader, “messianic” in the sense that everyone who does “righteousness” is already participating in a messianic agenda. This dignified ideal of ancient Judaism found its way into Jesus’ sectarian movement and from there into the Gentile-Hellenistic world.
2. The birth of an enlightened sage who would teach a godly form of compassion and wisdom and establish in the world a community for embodying the virtues of his teachings – the founding of a heavenly kingdom on earth.
3. The birth of the Jesus of Nazareth who would embrace all people, but especially the ignorant, ill, crippled, “sinful” and socially unacceptable, and proclaim that they are the first to enter heaven’s kingdom.
4. The birth of Jesus, whose parables, in Robert Funk’s words, point to a fabulous “beyond” which is nevertheless embedded in the common reality in which we already participate: Jesus who said, “The Father’s kingdom is spread over the earth, but people do not see it.”
5. The birth of Jesus, whose infancy stories invert common social values and challenge unjust domination systems. If Christians have Jesus as their “Lord”, they cannot also have Caesar as their Lord-Emperor. The implications are obvious: Jesus taught his followers to trust in an ever-present divinity and living Spirit, not human socio-political institutions that all-too frequently exploit the poor for the sake of the rich. Even the infant Jesus, whom the “wise men” of the world once paid homage, was already a threat to Empire, then and now.
6. The birth of Jesus, a Jewish mystic in the stream of mystical Judaism, whose socio-religious reforms were founded in his experience of divine union. “The Father and I are one,” he said, adding “I pray that they all be one, even as you and I, Father, are one.” Jesus was confident that his experience of divine union and hence divine sonship could be shared with and known by others. Hence the second letter of Peter famously says that Jesus’ work was “to make us partakers in the divine nature”.
7. The birth of Jesus, who like the Buddha, taught a way of death followed by resurrection: “To find yourself, you must lose yourself”; “Take up your cross daily, and follow me”; “To lose your life for the Kingdom is to gain eternal life”. A daily dying to self (the false self or ego defined as “the anxious, grasping self”), will, in Jesus’ view, result in entry into the Kingdom. Similarly, dying to ego will, in the Buddha’s view, result in entry into Bodhi. For both enlightened teachers, ego is at the root of all discontent, blindness, and selfishness. For both, “salvation” consists in a “dying” to an old self and a “rising” into a new self. Inasmuch as I affirm and value the Buddha’s path, so too do I affirm and value Jesus’ path: the path of ego-transcendence and spiritual transformation.
8. The birth of Jesus, whose spiritual and ethical teachings, if rightly applied, could bring a new measure of real peace on earth. Jesus is not called “the Prince of Peace” for poetic and religio-political rationales alone. If Christians and others practiced what Jesus preached, it is possible that our current society would be far less enmeshed in the final spasms of a fading empire, and more open to sharing with, rather than dominating, the world. And that consideration alone is a sufficiently meaningful to prompt celebration of his birth.