Saturday, December 10, 2016

A Few Semi-Random Thoughts On Christmas

I'm really trying to shut out the culture clash noise that's been reaching crescendo levels in the last month or so. Thankfully, with so much else to complain or crow about, depending on your views of the presidential election results, there seems to be somewhat less goofy stuff being posted about "Wars on Christmas." I tend to get irritated with that sort of stuff, not so much because of the truth or untruth of the "war," but more because so many alleged Christians know next to nothing about the circumstances of why Christmas is what it is.
Of course, they don't pay any attention or show any curiosity about the other details of their religion, so I guess I shouldn't be surprised. My own beliefs on the subject are that although I am not Christian as such--a defining tenet of Christianity, at least as I have understood it (and I've spent a lot of time and effort trying to), is that Jesus of Nazareth was God incarnate, and try as I might, I simply cannot believe that--, I do strongly believe that the Jesus that has come down to us through the gospels was a deeply spiritual man whose teachings, if followed, lead to a very fulfilling and purposeful life, and thus I have absolutely no problems with commemorating his birth. And not believing in his divinity frees me to look at the entire picture of Christmas with a rather detached eye. And honestly, not much of what is commonly held to be true actually is.
For starters, if the accounts in Matthew and Luke are correct, Jesus' birth took place in another time of the year, probably spring. Shepherds do not take their flocks out in the evening in the winter in Palestine. The census that is likely referred to in Luke took place in the spring of 6 CE. And that's another question that has no good answer, either--whatever year Jesus was born in, it wasn't 1 CE (and the way we reckon years is messed up, too; there is no year zero). 6 CE is the most likely date, but it could have been 4 BCE (the Star of Bethlehem was likely a bright planetary conjunction visible in that year), which is the year Herod died, if Matthew is your preferred source. One would think that if it were an actual event, the time frames would not have been so widely different.
And the other information given is rather sketchy and doesn't meet the tests of veracity, either. The massacre that Herod orders in Matthew simply did not happen. There are no other accounts in any other literature that corroborate the Magi story, either. And although it isn't necessarily an ironclad argument, my personal belief is that if you want to convince me that someone was God incarnate, that it would not be necessary to have information provided about him in historical contexts be false. God does not work through deceit and lies, bluntly.
The reason Christmas is celebrated at this time of year is that a major Roman festival took place in the last week of the year--and Christians of that time and place found the temptation to move their own major religious celebration to that time so that they were not drawing undue attention to themselves irresistible. While martyrs are the stuff of legend, almost no one is actually willing to become one, and so I completely understand why the birthday celebration was moved to late December. But it isn't historically accurate, and I do resent having to hear specious arguments every year that the story is.
And the two major elements now associated with Christmas have nothing to do with Jesus, either. The Christmas tree is a pagan symbol, taken from the Old Norse practices. And the gift exchange is derived from both the Roman festival of Saturnalia mentioned above and also the Feast of St. Nicholas, who lived in the fourth century. I don't mind the associations, at all, but again, they have nothing to do with the actual birth of Jesus of Nazareth, and I don't like having to hear incessantly that they do.
In a way, the inclusion of other things in the Christmas cultural celebration is an expression of the ideals of the holiday as we have come to celebrate it. Who really ought to care if a pagan symbol is used so freely? If it brings all of us closer together, and it does, isn't that the entire point of the "Christmas spirit?" This is my main issue, I guess, with the "War on Christmas" crowd--why does it have to be so narrow and exclusive? Peace on earth and good will toward men is a human, not just a Jesus-centered Christian, aspiration. If something serves that purpose, let it be.

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