Some people think Christmas is all about the religious aspects that supposedly gave birth to the tradition in the first place. Others will have nothing to do with religion, yet enjoy the family holiday for what it is: a time of joy and warmth during the hard days of winter. Not everyone celebrates the birth of Jesus of Nazareth during Christmas; instead many find meaning elsewhere, in a deeper, more substantial and far more universal corner of humanity.
Sure, Christmas started as a religious tradition, but it has slowly been secularized over the past centuries. This progressive shift has been so noticeable since the 1800s that the Christian world began to fight back. It was then, in the mid-nineteenth century, that the phrase “the true meaning of Christmas” appeared. It was born as an effort to move away from the distractions of thanksgiving and the general secularization of society and back towards focusing on the Advent of the Christ and the celebrations of God’s son.
Many Christians will tell you that the true meaning of Christmas lies in celebrating and commemorating Jesus’ birth, the coming of Christ. They will argue that the use of evergreen plants in the tree and the advent wreaths are meant to represent the everlasting life brought through Jesus; that their circular shapes represent God’s infinity.
I often hear the (in)famous phrase “Jesus is the reason for the season” (yes, that tired slogan, immortalized by Kirk Franklin’s lyrics, that is used to criticize any feature of Christmas that distracts from exclusively celebrating the Christ). But if you were to strip Christmas of everything that wasn’t directly related to Jesus, only an unrecognizable skeleton of a holiday deprived of its most beloved and meaningful features would remain.
After all, Christianity has been prolific in stealing (or borrowing, if you prefer) several rites and customs from many pagan traditions for millennia. That could be fine if it was meant to honor those traditions, but it’s just outright hypocritical when strict Christians decry anything pagan.
And, if we’re being honest, in the end the Christmas we know and love is not really about the Christ. Not only was Jesus of Nazareth born on a different date, but most of what we’ve come to appreciate about the season (the tree, the lights, the gifts, the joy, and even Santa Claus) has nothing to do him.
The Christmas tree came from the practices of several ancient pagan cultures surrounding the winter solstice. The Christmas wreath was originally a pagan symbol for fertility, harvest, and animistic spiritual beliefs. Santa Claus was loosely inspired in the legend of St. Nicholas, but his modern-day figure as a fat and benevolent magical gift-giving being was popularized by the 1823 poem, A Visit from St. Nicholas (most commonly known as The Night Before Christmas), while his red-and-white image was cemented mostly by Coca Cola’s marketing campaigns.
Many atheists, non-religious or non-Christians gather with family and friends during this season to celebrate the year and enjoy company. They look to strengthen their ties, to spend significant moments with one another, to spread joy and goodwill, regardless of whether they believe in Christianity or not.
That they celebrate this holiday is no contradiction at all, since they certainly don’t claim to be celebrating Christ. Even for many Christians, the religious elements of Christmas are but an excuse to nurture a far deeper social virtue: their sense of community and friendship.
So no, Christmas is not about a particular thing. It doesn’t have just one true meaning. And if it did, it certainly would be a gross misunderstanding of the current version of the holiday to claim that its meaning is about Christ. If someone told me that the true meaning of Christmas doesn’t involve trees and lights and gifts and family and Santa Claus, and instead it was only about celebrating one Jesus of Nazareth, then I’d tell them we’re simply speaking about different things. For that’s certainly not what I mean by Christmas.
Whenever we talk about “true meanings,” we run the risk of generalizing in absolute terms, but that shouldn’t be the point of this kind of discussion. Christmas means different things for different people, and that’s okay. It’s great, in fact. What we should avoid, however, is projecting our rather particular source of meaning onto the holiday in itself and imposing it on others. Whatever significance we find in Christmas, whatever set of meanings it may have, one thing’s for certain: it goes far beyond religion, or any other single element.
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