If you insist to a friend that the ‘real meaning of Christmas’ is the birth of Jesus Christ, there are two kinds of response you’re likely to get.
If your friend is a traditionalist, they’ll probably agree with you. They might bemoan with you the fact that Christmas is becoming so commercial, and long for the good old days when the centre of nativity scenes was Mary and Joseph and baby Jesus rather than elves and Santa Claus. In that case, the traditions surrounding Christmas might give you a great opportunity to speak about the stunning implications of God becoming human in the person of Jesus.
But it’s also possible that your friend will disagree with you. They might tell you, for example, that what we now call ‘Christmas’ was originally a pagan midwinter festival which was ‘Christianised’ by the medieval catholic church. Or they might reply that they prefer to think of Christmas as a time of celebration, family, generosity and peace, and they don’t particularly need the religious element. If this is your friend’s response, then your claim that Christ is the ‘real meaning of Christmas’ might just seem to them like an out-of-touch religious traditionalism from a bygone era. Should you keep insisting on it?
Well, you’ve got to admit that the Bible won’t back you up. There’s no commandment in the Bible, “Thou shalt celebrate the incarnation on December 25th.” Nor does the Bible tell us the date of Jesus’ birthday; some people have even cheekily pointed out that midwinter is the least likely time for Jesus to be born, because there were shepherds in the fields at night. Anyway, the Bible warns us against making a big deal about festivals and seasons. An unhealthy obsession with seasons is, in fact, a sign that we’ve moved away from Christ himself (e.g. Gal 4:9-10, Col 2:16-17).
It’s also a bit hypocritical to argue that the word ‘Christmas’ is derived from ‘Christ’. After all, the word ‘Easter’ is derived from the pagan fertility goddess Ēostre, but we don’t insist that the ‘real meaning of Easter’ is an idolatrous fertility cult.
It’s not very easy to argue from history, either. Christmas has meant different things to different people at different times in history. In 17th century Cromwellian England, for example, Christmas was generally regarded as an excuse for drunkenness, greed and sexual abandon. This was one of the reasons that the ‘godly’ parliament of the time tried to clamp down on Christmas! In fact, historians point out that the modern Anglo-American obsession with Christmas as the most celebrated holiday festival of the year probably owes more to the likes of Charles Dickens and Prince Albert than to a long-standing church tradition.
So if you ever feel that you have to argue that Christ is the ‘real meaning of Christmas’, you’ve already lost the argument. Why not, instead, concentrate on Christ himself? Invite your friend to consider why, from your point of view, the birth of Jesus Christ is stupendously amazing, and why Christians continue to take the time each year to celebrate it. Christ’s coming into the world actually changes things for the better. When we take an honest look at the world around us, we can see that Christmas isn’t actually a time of celebration, family, generosity and peace. Without Christ, these are just hollow ideals. In reality, Christmas without Christ is a time of drunken office parties, stress, family bickering and rampant consumerism. What better time of the year, then, to celebrate the coming of God into our world? Jesus’ birth tells us that God has not abandoned us to our crazy messed-up lives. God himself has come to us. Through Jesus’ life and death, God has brought forgiveness, a relationship with God himself, transformation of our relationships with one another, and the hope of everlasting life and peace.
After all, we don’t just want to win people for Christmas. We want to win them for Christ.
I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some. I do it all for the sake of the gospel, that I may share with them in its blessings. (1 Corinthians 9:22-23)