Tuesday, December 11, 2007

The "True Meaning" of Christmas

One of my biggest pet peeves in December (besides the fact that "Happy Holidays" is no longer just a way to add some variety to your greetings, but is apparently a huge political statement) is the way people toss around the phrase "the true meaning of Christmas."

People usually use the phrase when talking about something--anything--that is less selfish and commercial than expensive presents, elaborate decorations, or the insane stress people feel to create the "perfect" old-fashioned family Christmas. You hear it a lot on the radio, during sentimental little reflections in between "Frosty the Snowman" and "O Holy Night":

"Family... that's the true meaning of Christmas"
"Love... that's the true meaning of Christmas"
"Giving... that's the true meaning of Christmas"

Fighting the urge to say, "No! The TRUE meaning of Christmas is________," and perhaps miss the mark as much as these radio DJs do, I do feel obligated to point out (just in case we forgot) that Christmas is, at its core, a religious celebration--one of the high holy days of the Christian year. It is the day (well, 12 days actually--December 25 to January 5) when Christians celebrate the birth of the Messiah, Jesus Christ. Whatever theological nuances one wants to argue about concerning the Virgin Birth, the Incarnation, and/or the significance of Christ's life and death, the one simple point we can't get around is that Christmas is the celebration of Jesus' birthday.

I've often thought that when I have children, we will have a family tradition of making a birthday cake for Jesus on Christmas Day, singing "Happy Birthday," and blowing out the candles (assuming a divine ruach does not come blowing through our kitchen to do it itself). My hope is that such a tradition will help my kids really grasp the concept, and get excited about celebrating Jesus' birth, not just about getting presents for themselves.

Family, love, and giving are wonderful things, of course, and not entirely unrelated to Christ's birth, in terms of it being God's gift to humanity, the embodiment of love, or remembering the story of the Holy Family, but I wouldn't consider them the "true meaning" of Christmas by any means. I would be lying if I said I didn't enjoy giving and receiving gifts, spending time with family, and all the other fun, festive stuff that goes on at Christmastime, and sometimes I struggle to reconcile our cultural celebrations of the holiday with its religious meaning. I don't want to give up the cookies and the tree and all that, but neither do I want to let the holiday pass without real contemplation and worship of the one we are celebrating this time of year.

I've wondered if Christ would consider us to be "abusing" Christmas, using his birthday as an excuse for our own self-indulgence. But then, I realize it's kind of fitting, for a guy who put everyone else ahead of himself. He was holy, but made himself a servant, washing the feet of his own disciples. He was innocent, but willingly died a criminal's death.

It's Jesus' birthday, but we get all the presents. Isn't that just like Jesus?

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