I’ve always had a tough time with Christmas. Growing up, I felt that capitalism and Christianity were deeply incompatible, so I think I was looking for excuses to bash the ultimate example of capitalism’s perversion of my faith. I complained about it for a million different reasons: We don’t know exactly when Jesus was born, but we pretty much know that it wasn’t on December 25 (or at least the odds are 1:365.4); Christmas was really a pagan holiday that the early Imperial Church invented; Christmas isn’t even important to Jesus’ ministry or death and resurrection.
Complaints about capitalism aside, I’ve made my peace with Christmas. After a lot of prayer, I think Jesus actually wants us to celebrate Christmas precisely because it’s not about him—it’s about us!
Here’s the point: Christmas isn’t really about Jesus’ coming into existence (in the beginning there was the Word), but his becoming human. We have every Sunday, and really every day, to celebrate Jesus’ divine nature, but this is one day we can focus in on that part of him that was equally human.
Sure it’s pagan, but there’s really nothing wrong with where Christmas came from. People in northern Europe wanted to set some trees ablaze to bring light into the winter darkness. Others wanted to celebrate the fact that December 25 is the first day you can see the days are getting longer without sophisticated astronomical equipment. In Rome, people needed an excuse to recklessly feast on their precious winter stores and take a break from work.
21st Century Christians haven’t changed much. We recklessly accumulate debt to buy presents we can’t really afford. We endure long lines at the airports to travel to see relatives and friends. We cash in on vacation days so that we can enjoy some time off during the most miserable snowstorms of the year.
What’s the payoff to all of this ridiculous behavior? It’s precisely what it means to be human. We’re ultimately pretty silly beings, and Christmas is a day to remember that God became a human and did all of this silliness with us.
We dress it up in a Christian wrapping paper, but Christmas is really all about being human. We make a big excuse of it, but it’s ultimately a chance to relax, to see our friends and family, and to eat a delicious meal. Jesus did the same thing when he was walking around Galilee, so as far as I’m concerned, God sanctioned this nonsense (again, capitalism aside).
If there’s any group that failed to see the Christian forest for the trees, it was the Puritans. So, it should be a pretty strong hint that it was the Puritans who first attacked Christmas in the name of Jesus. In the mid 17th Century, Oliver Cromwell’s puritan parliament banned Christmas in England as a “popish festival with no biblical justification.” That puts it right up there with Thanksgiving and the Super Bowl—two days on which I tend to feel particularly close to my community and God (notably more so if the Giants win).
Puritans (of any stripe, not just the English Roundheads) are obsessed with purity (duh), and being human is by definition pretty impure. In fact, it’s a filthy practice, and God doomed all of us who take it up, despite our good intentions. Fortunately, God also decided to redeem us. Christmas (or whatever day Jesus was actually born) was the day when God decided that it was necessary to take the form of a man named Jesus and deal with things like tooth aches and diarrhea, because that’s what it would take to save humanity.
I’m no puritan, and that’s ultimately why I’ve come to love Christmas. There’s a lot that could be done to perfect it (fair-trade and hand-made gifts only, more hospitality shown to the least of Christ’s brothers and sisters, some sort of award for best costume, and a mandatory Giants home game); but I’m content to enjoy my family, my humanity, and get on with the popish festival with no biblical justification that is Christmas! Praise Jesus!
Bill Przylucki is a community organizer in Westside Los Angeles. He is a former Jesuit Volunteer and a graduate of Boston College. He believes that you gotta pray like only God can do it, and act like only you can do it.