Christmas, unlike any other Western holiday, is ubiquitous. It is as impossible for an inhabitant of the Western world to escape Christmas as it is impossible for a person to escape breathing while remaining alive.
For this reason, Christmas is a microscopic expression of Christianity’s relationship to the civilization to which it gave rise.
Both religious and irreligious alike celebrate Christmas. Few and far between are the residences, businesses, and even government buildings that aren’t adorned with at least some decorative reminders of the season. Christmas music can be heard emanating from every conceivable medium while many television networks and movie theaters are taken over by Christmas-themed programs and films.
While it is true that many of the most widely recognized holiday symbols—talking snowmen, flying reindeer, Christmas trees, candy canes, elves, and even Santa Claus—are “secularized,” the religious roots of the holiday are, or at least should be, unmistakable.
For starters, just the word “holiday” itself stems from holy day, a day that is supposed to be set aside for prayerful reflection. That, in the Western world, no holiday is as big of a deal as that of Christmas serves as a reminder, however subtle, of the significance of the holiness of the occasion.
Secondly, “Christmas” means the Mass of Christ. With every mention of the word, then, the name of Christ—the “reason for the season”—is invoked.
Thirdly, the very notion, expressed wherever there’s an expression of Christmas, that Christmas is a cause for celebration, a time for miracles, and a time to rejoice in song and gift-giving, derives from no other source other than the traditional Christian belief that God gave us the greatest gift of Himself through the miracle of the Incarnation. Christmas lights, the stars that we place at the tops of our trees, and even candy canes remind us of this: lights signify the Light of Christ; the Christmas tree star beckons back to the star that guided the Magi as they searched for the birth place of baby Jesus; and candy canes are designed to resemble the staff of Jesus, the Good Shepherd, its hardness signifying Jesus, the Rock, and its colors, red and white, pointing, respectively, toward the blood and purity of Christ.
Finally, we mustn’t forget that Santa Claus, the most popular and visible of all “secular” symbols of Christmas, is rooted in the historical person of Saint Nicholas, a fourth century Christian bishop who, inspired by the example of his Lord and Savior, lived a life of selflessness.
Just as the stuff of which Christmas is made hearken us back to its Christian roots, so too does the stuff of which contemporary Western civilization is made hearken us back to its Christian roots.
Below are just some of our taken-for-granted ideas and institutions that are unmistakably Christian in origin:
(1)Each and every human being, irrespective of circumstances, possesses an inviolable dignity by virtue of having been created in the image of God. This idea is the core of a moral vision that, unlike its predecessors, extended its liberties and duties to all human beings. The tribalism of old had been eclipsed.
(2)Because of (1), we have a duty to extend charity to all, including total strangers, and even enemies: Overwhelmingly, charity is a distinctively Christian virtue. This explains why, even at present, charity remains a predominantly Christian phenomenon.
Anthony Esolen, author of The Politically Incorrect Guide to Western Civilization, writes: “Hindus do not send holy men into foreign lands to feed the hungry and house the naked: they will not do so for the pariahs in their own land” (emphasis mine). He adds: “Buddhists, practicing benevolent detachment from the world, do not do so. Muslims, who conquer by force, and who reject natural law on the grounds that it ‘fetters’ Allah, are required to take care of their own, but they ignore everyone else.”
(3)The world (universe) is not cyclical, as the ancient pagans held, but rational and orderly. It is also not a vale of tears, but, as God declared it, “good.” Thus, nature could be explored and should be explored. From these Christian suppositions, science, with all of its wondrous, life-saving technologies, took flight.
(4)The separation of “Church” and “State” sprung from the Christian’s rejection of State worship and, of course, Jesus’ admonition to pay unto Caesar his due, while giving God what is owed to Him.
(5)Many of the West’s most historic philosophers, painters, composers, authors, and scientists derived their inspiration, their presuppositions regarding the characters of ultimate reality, knowledge, religion, and morality from the Christian worldview that they inherited. In the absence of Christianity, it is as inconceivable that our culture would be so much as remotely recognizable to itself as it is inconceivable that we would still be celebrating Christmas.
So, this Christmas, let’s not only remember that Jesus made possible the occasion for this holiday. Let’s remember as well that He made possible the very civilization, the most awesome of civilizations, that we call our own.