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Perhaps Christmas has outlived its purpose in both faith and culture: Phannenhour
BY DANIEL PHANNENHOUR
The first thing to remember about Christmas is that it is not a Christian festival.
At least it did not start out that way.
Those who object to the lack of religious symbolism in the season, and who campaign to “keep Christ in Christmas” tend to forget that Christmas was celebrated long before Jesus was born.
Of course, it was not called Christmas back when it was an ancient Roman festival marking the winter solstice.
Festivities of indulgence, featuring plenty of food and alcohol, nourished people to survive through the coming winter while they welcomed back a strengthening sun from six months of decline.
Early Christians overlaid their theology upon these celebrations when they assumed control of the faltering Empire in the Fourth Century.
They transformed the season into a celebration of the Incarnation of God in the birth of Jesus, a time to celebrate the birth of the Son (of God) instead of the return of the Sun (of Heaven).
As the Christian religion spread throughout Europe, the Christians were clever enough to incorporate other solstice practices and traditions from the cultures that they encountered.
They transformed the wheel of fire and tree of fire from the Germanic tribes to the north into the Advent Wreath and Christmas tree.
The gift-giving elf of generosity, who sought to restore the balance of wealth in the community so that all could survive the hard times of winter, was identified with Saint Nicholas of Smyrna, who later became Santa Claus.
Many other practices for marking the winter solstice were incorporated into Christmas celebrations, making it a festival rich in a variety of traditions.
The Christians soon realized, though, that a festival devoted to excessive consumption did little to develop the spiritual awareness of believers.
Consequently, a four-week period of preparation and quiet reflection was designed to precede the festival.
This season was called Advent, and served as a time of self-restraint and prayer before the festival of the nativity. The focus of this time was on the future.
The faithful were urged to expect with hope and joy the promised judgment and salvation at the end of time.
They were reminded that the time that spanned their lives was but a small morsel of experience within the larger arc of existence that belonged to the realm of God.
They could participate in time, but never comprehend its totality.
The wonder to be celebrated at the festival, then, was that the God, who created time and existence, had now come to participate in it with them.
The contemporary culture of North America has, unfortunately replaced a brief Advent restraint with an unrelenting three month commercial frenzy that masquerades as seasonal preparation.
This gutting of the spiritual in the interests of commerce leaves many people confused and resentful.
Some take offence at references to holiday trees and generic season’s greetings, because they appear to be robbing them of their faith traditions.
The alteration in the design of a coffee cup earlier this year raised deep questions about the appropriate role in the public sphere for traditions rooted in a particular faith.
Perhaps Christmas has outlived its purpose in both faith and culture.
In a world awash in electric light, we do not share in our ancestors’ anxieties over the seasonal decline in sunlight. Neither do we need to load up on calorie-dense food because adequate nutrition is readily available year-round.
A festival of indulgence that serves primarily to preserve an economy that is overly reliant on wasteful and excessive consumption is a prime candidate for renewal, if not for elimination.
Many Christians, who rarely practice their faith at other times of the year, seem to be more interested in preserving the traditions for the sake of familiarity and comfort than in engaging with the teachings the traditions are meant to uphold.
When lighting candles and singing carols takes precedence over engaging the presence of God in the midst of life and history, Christmas loses its deeper spiritual meaning, and becomes an exercise in empty sentimentality that fails to edify both faith and culture.
Why keep celebrating a season that has lost its purpose and meaning?
Two aspects of Christmas, however, make it worth preserving and celebrating as a public festival.
The first aspect is the rebalancing and redistributing of wealth.
Our society is in desperate need of any mechanism that will rebalance wealth toward greater equity.
The generosity of Christmas giving has the potential to lead us into such a future.
Also, in the midst of a culture that forgets the past and disregards the future, a festival that reminds us that we do not comprehend time, but only participate in it, has the potential to serve us up a healthy dose of humility.
The faithful can celebrate their continuing existence within the realm of time that God created and will bring to an end, and while the larger culture can discern the shape of its existence within the flow of time.
Do we look to learn from the past while building hope for the future, or are we simply exploiting the present time for all the gain that we can obtain without regard for those who have shared, and will share, in the totality of existence with us?
So let’s go ahead and wish each other an unabashed Merry Christmas, full of gratefulness for what has been, and full of hope for what is yet might become in the fullness of time.
Daniel Phannenhour (Pastor Dan) is an unretired Lutheran pastor and father to three lovely young women. He currently lives with his wife in the Oakville parsonage, and is exploring new ways of embodying the Christian faith while celebrating the multicultural and multifaith diversity of our community and nation.