What’s So Good About Christmas?



I have a Jewish friend who is raising two young daughters right here in middle America.  Matters of religion are a bit unsettled in his house.  His wife isn’t Jewish, but doesn’t seem to be particularly Christian, either.  This friend said something to me years ago about his daughters being impressed with Christianity because “the Christian holidays are better than the Jewish ones.”  I didn’t pry into this.  I don’t want our friendship to become a contest between faiths, but the comment was striking to me.

When anyone makes reference to “Christian holidays,” particularly when that reference is to the opinions of two young girls here in the United States, they must be talking about Christmas.  After all, what other Christian holidays are there that might be familiar to kids who are not church goers?  Easter?  Maybe.   But what would there be about the celebration of Easter that would distinguish it in the eyes of children who are viewing things from the outside.  (Of course the story of Easter is the most remarkable story in the world, but I am talking here about the manner of celebrating it as that manner might be obvious to outsiders.)

What the girls surely had in mind in ranking the “Christian holidays” above the Jewish must have been Christmas and what impressed them was probably not the story itself but rather the substance and mode of its celebration.  That is what they’ve likely seen at school and on television and in the streets.

We are bombarded with sermons and articles telling us what is wrong with our modern celebration of Christmas, but the opinion of these two little girls got me thinking another way: what is right about the way we celebrate Christmas?  Why were the girls drawn to this celebration above all the others?

That celebration is complex and varied.  How much of it is musical.  The carols: some new, some ancient, some soothing, some joyous.   Here music that is overtly religious has entered the mainstream, secular culture like almost nowhere else. There are lots of segments of our society – some with power and influence – that will clinch and chafe at any sermon or comment referencing the Incarnation.  “Sectarian,” they will call it.  But lots of these same people, it seems to me, will not turn the dial when “O, Come All Ye Faithful” comes on the radio in mid-December. (They’ll rationalize this, saying “Well, that’s just a part of the culture,” but that is exactly what I mean.  Christmas celebration, even the most blatantly religious parts of that celebration,  has made its way into the American mainstream and seems to stay there even in this deeply divided world of ours.)

Back to the original question: why?  That is, why has the celebration of Christmas penetrated?  What is so good about it?  What distinguishes it from other religious holidays in the minds of these non-partisan little girls?

The music?  Well, yes.  Christmas music, lots of it anyway, is really good music, even by high-critical standards.  And the impulse that produced the carols has bled over into the world and inspired the writing of dozens of songs – not carols and not exactly religious – that celebrate the season in a way that, if not expressly embracing the underlying story, is at least suggestive of and not antithetical to it.

To cut to the chase here, even though these two little girls might be sophisticated enough to give more subtle answers, we who are older might suspect that what really attracts them about Christmas is the presents.  And the knee-jerk reaction of so many to such an emotion is that it is all wrong and has resulted in crass commercialization.  I want to argue the other way.

Christmas is a celebration of the Incarnation.  That means something real, something material, something we can touch.  Like real gifts, really there, under the tree, for you and me.  Christmas is wonderful for children because it unabashedly appeals to one of the great human needs and hungers – the satisfaction of our desires, here and now.

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