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  • Timothy Larsen

The Many True Meanings of Christmas

Timothy Larsen on Christmas

While the season of Christmas often brings out the best in people, somehow the subject of Christmas does not. In fact, the holiday often elicits a taunting tendency. Discussions of Christmas are rife with the genetic fallacy. The supposed origins of things are weaponized in order to insist that they somehow contradict a person’s stated beliefs. People have a strange tendency to insist that Christmas cannot mean to you what, in fact, it does mean to you. Religious people are told that Christmas is really secular, and secular people that it is really religious. Christians are told it is pagan, and pagans are told it is Christian. Somehow the poor Christmas tree gets all these charges heaped upon it – it is, by turns, too religious, too secular, too pagan, and too Christian.

The genetic fallacy is especially misguided because so many features of Christmas are what are called “natural symbols” – connections that are so obvious to make that they are likely to recur in different cultures. No one has a copyright on the symbolic significance of light coming into the darkness – it belongs to Jews celebrating Hanukkah, pagans celebrating the Winter Solstice, Hindus celebrating Diwali, African Americans celebrating Kwanzaa, and more. Cultures across the globe and the centuries have marked time by the course of the sun and the moon. Passover, for instance, is dated by the Spring equinox. Genesis even declares that God created the sun and the moon in order “to mark out the sacred seasons.” Likewise, no one has proprietary claims over the significance of displaying evergreens during winter – these are natural symbols.

Even when a new way of life emerges, it inevitably expresses itself through the cultural resources to hand. A direct case of cultural borrowing does not necessarily tell us anything about something’s meaning in its new context. Take, for instance, the Fourth of July. Observers might notice innumerable cultural borrowings. The national colors of red, white, and blue are obviously adopted from Great Britain. Hearing “My Country, ‘Tis of Thee”, one might recognize the melody as that of the British national anthem. The fireworks might remind one of celebrations of the British monarchy, famously evoked in Handel’s Music for the Royal Fireworks. Observers might be baffled by the claim that apple pie—a traditional English dish—is somehow distinctively American. What all this demonstrates is that Britain preceded the United States. It would be absurd, however, to use these facts to claim that in our Fourth of July celebrations Americans are somehow reallyexpressing their loyalty to Britain and that if we want to be trulyAmerican we therefore must forsake the red, white, and blue, and the apple pie, and all the rest. Yet people routinely claim that when an elderly Lutheran woman puts up a Christmas tree in her home she is really doing something pagan or when a secular teenager gives his friends candy canes he is really endorsing Christianity, and endless other such mischievous assertions.

The Oxford Handbook of Christmas. Timothy Larsen, editor. Oxford University Press. 2020. 656 pages. $145.

The taunting aspect of all this is illustrated by the fact that people who are otherwise quick to make so much of origins never seem to notice the ways that Christmas draws upon Judaism. Yet the narrative of Christ’s Nativity is clearly influenced by the birth accounts of major figures in the Hebrew scriptures. The parallels between Hannah giving birth to Samuel and Mary giving birth to Jesus extend all the way to the songs of the two mothers – Mary’s Magnificat being noticeably influenced by Hannah’s prayer. Because Christians are generally comfortable with the Jewish roots of their faith, such connections somehow become not worth mentioning.

So many of the phrases that are used to describe the Christmas season are wielded as indictments. Consumerism and commercialism are examples. Those words can express real critiques of real problems. Gift-giving, however, is a way of fostering social bonds that has always existed across all human cultures, and thus it is bizarre to try to make people who do wish to give presents to feel ashamed simply for engaging in a universal custom. Nostalgia is another case in point. Of course, there is a nostalgic element in how many people approach Christmas. Nevertheless, other realities are often misguidedly subsumed under this label. True nostalgia is rooted in the belief that the past was better. Its purest form is a wish to be living in former times. The evocation of Christmas past, however, can be rooted in a human delight in tradition, in a desire to be reassured that change is tempered by continuity, and in a longing to make connections across time. The more discontinuity one is currently experiencing, the more meaningful traditions can become. Hence the ideal of having “an old-fashioned” Christmas. Out on an extreme sledging expedition in the Antarctic on Christmas 1902, Ernest Shackleton triumphantly produced a Christmas pudding he had hid away in a sock. Every Christmas has such moments when a connection with what endures makes the present more endurable.

Another much-abused catchphrase is “the invention of tradition.” Too often this becomes a charge which is intended to discredit. All traditions were invented at some point: the fact that one is not as old as people generally assume does not affect how significant it is for the people practicing it. An invented tradition is not automatically an illegitimate one. A custom is legitimate if you find it meaningful. Finally, “sentimentality” is another such word. Of course there is a valid version of that critique. Too often, however, it just seems to be a way to sneer at the genuine emotional lives and responses of ordinary people.

My appeal is simply that no one should bully you by insisting that Christmas somehow does not mean to you what it in fact does mean to you or that what it means to you is somehow illegitimate. Christmas, for you, is what you decide it will be – religious or secular; pagan or Christian; commercial or part of the Buy Nothing movement. There are many true meanings of Christmas. And there are other celebrations that one can choose to observe along with or instead of Christmas: Winter Solstice, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, and more. They too cannot have their significance dictated to you by others. May whatever holidays you celebrate enrich your life and the lives of those around you. As an expression of my Christian faith, Christmas, for me, will always primarily be a celebration of God becoming incarnate in Jesus Christ: “But the angel said to them, ‘Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. Today in the town of David a Saviour has been born to you.’”

Dear reader, it has been a wearying year and you deserve your rest. Peace and goodwill to all—and to all a good night.


Timothy Larsen is McManis Professor of Christian Thought, Wheaton College, and an Honorary Fellow at the University of Edinburgh. He is the author of eight books including, most recently, John Stuart Mill: A Secular Life (OUP, 2018), and the editor of a dozen volumes, including most recently, The Oxford Handbook of Christmas.

From The Oxford Handbook of Christmas edited by Timothy Larsen. Copyright © 2020 by Timothy Larsen and published by Oxford University Press. All rights reserved.


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