Point: Christmas Is a Holy Day
So the other day, a friend asked me a question that boiled down to this: Does Christmas have to be a religious holiday?
My immediate response — as a person of faith who follows Jesus and as an Episcopal priest — was, “Well, yeah …”
By The Rev. Dr. Lauren R. Stanley
I mean, what else would it be?
And then immediately I thought of all those people who are not believers who celebrate Christmas because society does, and do so without too many worries because, well … society celebrates it.
We have sales. We have sing-a-longs. We have trees. We have presents to give and to receive. We have parties.
So … in theory, no, it doesn’t have to be a religious holiday.
If it weren’t for the religious aspect, would we be doing all this celebrating?
If it weren’t for the fact that on Christmas, we celebrate the joyful news that God reached down into our messy, messed-up lives and became human, that God came to us as a little baby, innocent and in need of help, in order to show us a new way to live, a new way to love, a way to literally touch the face of God?
I realize that long before the birth of Jesus, the Winter Solstice was celebrated, but trust me, that celebration is nothing compared to how we celebrate Christmas, especially today, especially in the Western world.
So, in reality, yes, Christmas has to be a religious holy day. There’s no way around it.
Christmas is — and there’s no way around this — the celebration and commemoration of one of the holiest moments in humanity’s history. This child who was born turned the world upside down and inside out, and changed the trajectory of human history. No one else — no other person — has changed the world as much as Jesus — for good and for bad.
The fact that society has co-opted the holiday, in great part to make an obscene amount of money, doesn’t change the singular, defining fact of Christmas: This is a religious holy day.
The fact that many people who do not believe in Jesus celebrate it? That’s societal pressure. Because for most non-believers, the “celebration” is focused on parties, and decorating, and gift buying and gift giving and gift receiving, none of which has anything to do with the actual meaning of Christmas.
I know it’s sounds trite, but the reason for the season truly is … Jesus.
Don’t get me wrong: I’m no Scrooge. I’m happy to help people celebrate even if they don’t believe in Jesus. I wish Merry Christmas to total strangers. I’m delighted to ooh and aah over decorations. I like Christmas movies, and try to see the original “Grinch” each year. I help parents and grandparents pull off the Santa story every year.
But given half a chance to talk about the real meaning of Christmas, to talk about this incredible moment of God breaking into our lives in a way that was at once powerful and vulnerable, that allowed us to see God face to face, to touch God’s face, to demonstrate God’s love in new and earth-shattering ways?
You bet I will make my declaration, which is simple and to the point: Christmas is about God. Christmas is about God’s love. Christmas is a religious holy day.
Everything else in the season? All the stuff about Santa and Rudolph and parties and spending money and trees and lights? That stuff is nothing but gravy.
God’s love is the point of the season.
And the only way to understand that is to take the leap of faith to believe in God in the first place. So, please, do celebrate Christmas, especially this year, especially and even in defiance of the coronavirus pandemic. But please, remember: Jesus isthe reason for the season.
About the Author
The Rev. Dr. Lauren R. Stanley is superintending presbyter of the Rosebud Episcopal Mission (West) on the Rosebud Indian Reservation, South Dakota. She wrote this for InsideSources.com.
Counterpoint: The Greatest Gift This Season — Freedom Of Religion
Judging by the diversity of holidays observed this time of year, humans seem to have a need for a communal celebration in early winter. As the days grow shorter and cold weather grips much of the northern hemisphere, it’s comforting to be reminded that sunlight and warmth (and the crops they nourish) will return. Thus, many of these festivals, from the Saturnalia of pre-Christian Rome to today’s Christmas, often feature use of evergreens and lights and encourage merriment and gift-giving.
By Rob Boston
Winter festivals have evolved over time, and as the centuries passed, the way people celebrate them has also changed. In previous ages, government sought to compel people to behave in certain ways when it came to religion. Theocratic European states of the Middle Ages believed there was only one “correct” expression of Christianity and forced everyone to follow the national or local model. But the right of conscience could not be squelched forever. Dissent was inevitable, and it came with righteous fury and, unfortunately, a similar spirit of religious intolerance. America’s early Puritans made it illegal to celebrate Christmas, considering it “popish.”
After America’s revolution, our Founders decided to chart a different course: They disentangled religion and government, putting each on its own path to secure its own destiny and success. In doing so, they gave each of us a great gift: the power to decide for ourselves what faith, if any, we will follow and how we will practice it.
Today, there are some people who, like those old theocrats in Europe, are convinced that only their mode of worship is right and true. At this time of year, we often hear them complain about an alleged “war on Christmas.” What these people are really saying is that they are angry that not everyone chooses to celebrate the same way they do.
For millions of Americans, Christmas is a deeply religious holiday that marks the birth of Jesus. They attend religious services, pray, sing hymns and listen to scripture readings. For others, the holiday is primarily secular, with figures like Santa Claus, Frosty the Snowman and Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer taking front and center. And many Americans mix the secular with the sacred and embrace elements of both.
But there are other choices. Some Americans celebrate holidays such as Hanukkah, Kwanzaa or Diwali, and others don’t celebrate at all. It’s a wonderful time of the year, really, because we have the right to choose.
The Christian nationalists among us who enjoy playing the role of the “Christmas Police” would love nothing better than to compel the rest of us to celebrate the holiday in just one way — theirs. They press government officials to display Christmas symbols in public places. They seek to infuse our public schools with pageants and events that elevate the spiritual elements of Christmas — something better done in a church. They even complain when they fail to hear “Merry Christmas” from a clerk in a big-box store or their coffee cup doesn’t look Christmas-y enough.
These people seem to think that unless the government, culture and even big business are actively endorsing their faith, then it’s under attack. In fact, religion does best when left to prosper on its own; it does not need the interference of the state. America’s tradition of separation of church and state has gifted us a vibrant, diverse religious life marked by thousands of Christian and non-Christian faiths. You are free to choose one. You are free to create your own, highly personal spiritual experience. You are free to reject them all. You are also free to change your mind, to argue, to debate and to contend for your ideas. What you’re not permitted to do is employ the power of the government as your theological enforcer.
During this time of year, let’s reflect on one of the greatest gifts we, as a people, enjoy: complete religious freedom secured by our constitutional promise of separation between church and state. That freedom gives you the right to worship or not as you see fit, as long as your actions don’t harm others or take away their rights.
This means that Dec. 25 can be a deeply moving and profoundly spiritual experience — if that’s what you want. Or it can be a day to watch silly holiday movies and open presents. Or it can be just another day on the calendar.
Freedom of conscience gives us the right to make that choice. What a wonderful gift it is. Let’s be thankful for it all year ’round.
About the Author
Rob Boston is editor of Church & State magazine, published by Americans United for Separation of Church and State in Washington. He wrote this for InsideSources.com.