The Light of the World

What makes Christmas special? Is it the Charlie Brown special, the caroling, or the birth of a baby?


What's the real meaning of Christmas? Like a lot of people who grew up in the sixties and seventies, I first learned about this question from the TV special, "A Charlie Brown Christmas." Year after year, I’d watch as Charlie Brown grew ever more dismayed at the yuletide attitudes of those around him, from Snoopy, with his extravagant doghouse decorations, to Sally with her request for Santa to forget the presents and just bring her cold hard cash. Finally, it takes Linus—and his famous recitation of the manger scene from the Gospel of Luke—to bring Charlie Brown around and make him see that, despite his and everyone else’s shortcomings, the Christmas spirit is alive and well.

Though I didn’t know it at the time, this question of what Christmas really means, and which Christmas rituals do or don’t measure up, is a very old one indeed. In fact, it’s as old as Christmas itself.

The story of the Christmas holiday begins with the winter solstice, which falls close to December 25, and is, in terms of the planets, the year’s great turning point. The earth, which spins at a slight angle as it circles the sun, passes through a subtle shift on the day of the solstice, so that instead of deflecting most of the sun’s rays, the surface of the northern hemisphere now absorbs them. The change is unnoticeable at first, but in the coming weeks it makes all the difference. The days, which had been getting ever shorter and colder, like a candle burning down, now grow stronger and brighter. Spring is on the way, and with it the earth’s return to life.


Centuries before there was any such thing as Christmas, the peoples of the ancient world celebrated this miraculous reversal with a kaleidoscopic variety of festivals and celebrations. Yule, Martinmas, Saturnalia…Many of the traditions we associate with Christmas today originally were borrowed from these ancient festivities built around that magical moment when the earth returns from death and darkness to light and life.

But for a long time, Christians were deeply troubled about the associations that came with the season of Jesus’ birth. It was no secret that many of the winter festivals featured decidedly unchristian elements. Even the more benign and joyous of them were open to criticism. Was celebration of any kind suited to so holy a moment as the birth of the world’s redeemer?

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Ptolemy Tompkins
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