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Funny Thing about Christmas

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Nowhere in the Bible are Christians commanded to observe Christ’s birthday. It is as if God said to man, 'Make of this event what you will.'

Editor’s note: this article first appeared in THE AMERICAN in 2011.

Funny thing about Christmas… how it just is… how it just persists.

Some people try to ignore it. Some people try to change it, or rename it, or pretend it’s something else. But in the end it’s still Christmas, the celebration of the birth of Christ.

We are told that there are approximately 2 billion Christians all over the world. Many hundreds of millions of them are celebrating Christmas with great joy, hope, and devotion—most of them openly, but some in secret and in fear for their lives.

They are joined by hundreds of millions more people – nominal Christians and non-Christians—who enjoy the parties, candies, family traditions, special foods, gifts, music, decorations, days-off—all the emoluments, meeds, and premiums, all the glow, if you will, of the Christmas season. They bask in the pleasures of the holiday but remain indifferent to or uninterested in the fact that God is at the center of the thing.

There are many, too, who love the idea of Christmas, but are a bit uneasy or even scandalized by the concept of God entering history as a baby. Crèches give them heartburn. And they are a bit miffed at the way the Hallelujah Chorus wafting over the car radio stirs up something in them, though they dare not admit it. Christmas music is quite subversive that way.

Many hundreds of millions of Christians are celebrating Christmas with great joy, hope, and devotion – most of them openly, but some in secret and in fear for their lives.

These folks enjoy the “season” but try to keep it on the level of Santa Claus, singing chipmunks, sleigh rides, and festooned pine trees. They enjoy the joy, but doggedly insist that they are participating in a “happy holiday,” a celebration of the solstice, a winter festival, a secular or at least theologically homogenized and sanitized something which (they hasten to insist) predates Christ’s birth, pays homage to pagan gods and myths, and speaks mainly to man’s ancient need to relieve winter’s rigors with a good party.

Well, fine. Enjoy. And Merry Christmas to you!

Some Christians do get a little defensive about Christmas and urge one and all to remember “the reason for the season.” They are weary, you see, of all the movies and books and TV programs that mock them as hypocrites and deride or dismiss the Christmas spirit as something forced, trumped up, and a little phony.

They know in their hearts that there is nothing forced about the celebration of Christmas. Indeed, although it has become an indelible part of the calendar, it is at its root the most spontaneous of all holidays.

Nowhere—nowhere—in the Bible are Christians commanded to observe Christ’s birthday.

They are simply given the facts concerning his birth: the manner of it, its place in man’s history, and its implications for man’s destiny. The event is recorded in only two places, the gospels of Matthew and Luke. It is described in a spare and straightforward narrative using remarkably chaste language: Angels without exaggeration; a heavenly host without hyperbole. And although we are given its historical context—the Augustan census taken between 6 and 4 B.C. for purposes of military service and taxation—we are not given the exact date or even time of year of the birth.

It is almost as if God said to man, “Make of this event what you will.”

There are many, too, who love the idea of Christmas, but are a bit uneasy or even scandalized by the concept of God entering history as a baby.

And the result has been a spontaneous celebration, heartfelt and lasting; an expression of joy—a peculiarly infectious joy—that has echoed down through the centuries. History has judged the event astounding and the implications profound—God’s entry into human history for the purpose of delivering his most loved creation from the consequences of their own behavior. This birthday, fixed by tradition at the close of the year, has literally brought joy to the world, changed the way man keeps track of time, and inspired some of the greatest and most beautiful music, art, and literature of all time.

That’s the funny thing, the cool thing, if you will, about Christmas—that spontaneous and overwhelming desire to celebrate. That’s what Christians really mean by Christmas cheer. Joseph Addison once made an exquisite observation: “I have always preferred cheerfulness to mirth. The latter I consider as an act, the former as a habit of the mind. Mirth is short and transient. Cheerfulness fixed and permanent.”

True Christians are by nature cheerful (although they sometimes forget to be) and this birth in Bethlehem is the reason. For two thousand years the joy of its promise has survived cynicism and hypocrisy and every effort at extermination. Christmas, like Christianity itself, has never been imposed from above (such imposition, well-meaning or not, has always been the work of men and institutions). It has, rather, been something offered—a gift to the world. No rule, no command, only an invitation: Enjoy! Have a Merry Christmas!

Ralph Kinney Bennett is a contributing writer to THE AMERICAN.

FURTHER READING: Bennett also writes “Remembering: With Pain, Anger, and Vigilance,” “This Astounding Enterprise,” and “Fallen Heroes, Never Forgotten.”

Image by Rob Green/Bergman Group

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