Spending Christmas in Hawaii for the first time in twenty years has poignantly reminded me that most Christmas customs have pagan origins linked to the winter solstice and cold weather rather than to the birth of Jesus. Similarly, the gospel accounts of Jesus' birth reflect a mixture of sources that are mostly unrelated to anything Jesus taught or lived (cf. John Spong's Born of a Woman for a fuller exposition of this).
Jesus was born. That statement seems irrefutable to me. Claiming that the entirety of Jesus' life, teachings, and the Christian movement that emerged after his death has no factual basis, whatsoever, is ludicrous.
However, claiming to know much more than Jesus was born also seems ludicrous. The authors of the four gospels, the four biographies of Jesus included in the New Testament, wrote theological treatises intended to support their religious beliefs. The gospels do not contain history, if by history one means the chronological recording of factual events.
If Christianity is to be credible in the twenty-first century, then Christians should stop literalizing the gospels. No Roman census brought Jesus' parents to Bethlehem, Jesus was not born in a manger, shepherds did not rejoice in the fields, and magi did not visit.
Instead of trivializing the Christmas story by insisting on its factual accuracy, the real meaning of Christmas lies in the messages that the gospel authors intended to convey. For example, the authors wanted to emphasize Jesus' identity as a descendant of King David (the census took the Holy Family to Bethlehem), Jesus' humility (born in a manger), the joy that people who know God's love experience (the shepherds rejoice), and the universality of God's love (the Gentile magi's visit).
Similarly, what is the Christianized meaning of the Christmas customs that you observe? For example,
- Snow (or a bright sunny day) may make the whole world seem new, for in Jesus Christians believe that they join God in singing a new song.
- Evergreen trees (even or perhaps especially artificial trees!) underscore that God's love for us is eternal.
- Decorations and festive dress communicate and enhance expressions of joy.
- Exchanging cards and gifts renews the bonds between people, bonds that extend to all people, which is why charitable giving is so prominent at Christmas.
May the story of Christmas – the story of God's love for us, present and active in our world – be part of your story this season and always. Mele Kalikimaka! (That's Hawaiian for Merry Christmas).