Why Christmas still matters

We all know that Christmas is not really Christmas. It is not Jesus’ birthday. In all likelihood, the date evolved from a combination of pagan festivals and Christian traditions centered on the winter solstice. Epiphany, which predates Christmas and is observed on Jan. 6, commemorates what might be thought of as Christianity’s spiritual birth. The origins of many of our Christmas traditions, including the exchanging of gifts, predate Christ.

One can only wonder what Jesus would think of a holiday in his honor whose most recognizable figure is a fat man in a red suit.

And that’s an improvement. In centuries past, Christmas was known more as a time of drunken revelry than religious contemplation. England’s seventeenth-century Puritan rulers outlawed the holiday, and it wasn’t generally celebrated in Boston until the 1850s. Even now, some Christians consider Christmas a blasphemy.

Today it sometimes seems as if Christmas’ primary purpose is sustaining the American economy. The annual tragic-comedy known as Black Friday — and its sanitized sequel, Cyber Monday — leaves one trying to envision the magi camping out in a Wal-Mart parking lot all night in order to get a good deal on gold, frankincense and myrrh.

Christmas has acquired a lot of baggage. It is used to sell luxury automobiles, milk chocolate snowmen and Victoria Secret lingerie. In honor of Christ’s birthday we eat too much, drink too much and fall asleep watching NBA tripleheaders on new 65-inch curved screen TVs.

And yet, with all the commercialization and crass exploitation, Christmas still matters. It matters because it reminds us that life is about more than ourselves. Christmas shopping serves its own strange greater purpose in our materialistic socieity: It makes us think about someone besides ourselves, even if it’s only to choose between the festive Dr. Seuss tie and a box of handkerchiefs for the office gift exchange.

Because that is the fundamental message of Christmas and the man it purports to celebrate. Life is not all about you. It is not about what you get, it is what you give. Stop and listen, in a checkout line or pew or middle of the night, and hear the whispers of a world — a universe and all that is, seen and unseen — that is bigger than any one of us, or even all of us.

And if that takes a sale on “Frozen” karaoke machines, so be it.

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