There are fewer than two weeks until Christmas and the shopping season is in full swing, as judged by the difficulty in finding a parking spot at one of the malls or discount stores. There is something very special about this season on many different levels.
People tend to be more generous and more caring. At the same time, they can also be surlier than at any other time of year. For some, it’s the coming cold, bleak winter that has them down. For others, the crowds of people they have to put up with while shopping for meaningless gifts drive them off the deep end.
It’s a schizophrenic time of year. And that applies not only to people’s moods, but to the holiday itself.
What exactly is Christmas and why does it have an entire season devoted to it. Most holidays get a single day; Christmas gets a whole month.
Charlie Brown, that affable but misunderstood Peanuts character was struggling with that question in the 1960s cartoon classic. Near the end of the program, Linus, the most insecure of the Peanuts bunch, swallowed his insecurities long enough to march out on the stage, in the spotlight, and recite a bible verse from memory. It was the biblical account of the birth of Christ.
It was not, however, the Christmas story. Linus mentioned nothing about Christmas in his monologue. The bible mentions nothing about it anywhere in any of its verses. So what is it?
I would think the world was about to come to an end if I ever made it through the entire month of December without hearing someone say something like, “It’s time we started remembering the true meaning of Christmas,” or “Let’s put the Christ back in Christmas.” Others are appalled that we sometimes abbreviate Christmas as Xmas.
Of course, the people who say that are most likely not familiar with the history of the holiday. The Greek word for Christ begins with an X, and that is where the abbreviated form Xmas originally came from.
But when was Christ ever in Christmas? I mean, officially, it never happened if you go back to the source, the bible. Nothing in the bible tells us to honor Jesus’ birth. In fact, it was considered improper to celebrate anyone’s birth in the first centuries of the Common Era.
But the early Catholic Church was having some growing pains. The Romans celebrated their god Mithras back in those days to celebrate the return of the sun god in the sky. This happened in late December just after the winter solstice.
Church leaders were shrewd. They knew it would be difficult, if not impossible, to compete head on with such a well-established pagan practice. So they infiltrated it. They made up a holiday to commemorate the birth of Christ and called it Christ’s Mass. Never mind that Jesus was not born in winter, they needed it to coincide with the solstice.
So, originally, Christmas was a public relations ploy by the early church to infiltrate an already-established religious practice.
Now, let me quickly point out that I’m not against Christmas at all. It is still my favorite season of the year because it’s a time when families seem closer and the atmosphere is festive. What can be wrong with that?
But Christmas is, by and large, a secular holiday, not a religious one. It does not have its roots planted in the Christian bible. Churches embrace it because it presents an opportunity to provide outreach more so than at most other times of the year. But even most bible scholars will acknowledge the whole baby-in-a-manger story even as told in the bible is at least partly apocryphal.
So celebrate Christmas as you always would. But just keep in mind its true roots. They have more to do with public relations than with Jesus. That part of Christmas, which is really its true meaning, is still intact.