(Pastor’s Reflection from monthly publication “Circuit Rider.”)
What is Christmas? Christmas, of course, is the time of year when we set out lights and buy one another gifts. Many of our children eagerly await Santa Claus to come bearing more gifts. So where do these traditions come from?
Many would say that these things are exclusively Christian traditions. While Christmas literally comes from Christ’s Mass of the Catholic Church, Christ’s birth is not all that is celebrated this holiday. Before and during the early Christian movement winter solstice festivals were routinely held. These festivals were especially popular for European Pagan cultures. The solstice is the longest night of the year and for Pagans such cosmological events were significant and marked in special occasion. The practice of gift giving, greenery, lights, and traditional meals all come from these cultures. As Christianity rose in popularity it simply swept up these traditions into now what we now know as “Christmas.”
These things became inseparable from what we know overtime; so much so that many people cannot distinguish those festive signs from Christ’s Mass itself. Earlier this year a large outrage followed after Starbuck’s took such festive signs off their coffee cups. The critics wrote and spoke of how the company was taking the Christ out of Christmas. Really they were simply taking the inherited Pagan festive signs off their cup. Christ was never actually on those cups since the appropriate colors for Christ’s Mass are white and gold. This goes to show how enthralled we can become in our things often overlooking, or completely forgetting, the non material value of the traditions we uphold in this life.
Over the years the face of Christmas has changed a lot. Even our customary songs that we sing about the occasion of Christ’s birth have changed. We sing of three kings that traveled so far and bearing gifts to match the tradition of gift giving that we now know; but, if you look closely you know that these people weren’t kings at all. Rather; they were magi, or desert dwelling wise men, mostly concerned with cosmological happenings and magical practices such as alchemy. These would be the modern day, mystical “hippies” who speak of oracles and collect fascinating stones for their luck and healing effects. But this image did not suit mainstream American culture’s taste for glamour.
Overly focused on the things that the magi brought Christ we twist the story so that it supports our neurotic necessity to flood each other in things. At the time it feels that this is a nice gesture and the stores appreciate when you move them into the profit margins on the Friday after Thanksgiving. (In the age of the internet it often occurs on the following Monday.) But after awhile these things break, or get lost/stolen, they lose their allure and are simply forgotten.
What we forget in this perverse retelling of the story is the real gift that was bestowed upon humanity. It is an idea. One that was so compelling we still somewhat celebrate it today in Christ’s Mass. It is the beautiful belief that God gave up god-self so that God could come be with us in the form of a child born at the fringes of two powerful kingdoms. (Rome and Jerusalem) It is the beautiful belief that God is with us; that we are not left alone to fend for ourselves in this vast cosmos of seemingly chaotic occurrences. And rather than a figure that rules over our every move we have a friend and companion that is willing to journey with us despite our lacking of love or significance in return. That is the true celebration of Christ’s Mass.
So this holiday I invite you to give a gift to someone that truly needs it. Give that gift to someone that couldn’t possibly do anything in return; someone that could benefit from knowing that they are not alone. After all many doctors, scholars and social scientist have hinted that people who spend their money on experience and share experience with one another are statistically happier than those that spend their money on things. This is because, unlike things, when friendships break they are simply in need of healing and ideas last forever.