Christmas never was a purely Christian holiday. Like many religious rituals, it has roots in a deeply felt human response to a natural event, the winter solstice, the time when in the northern hemisphere we shift from long dark days to more sunshine. The sun wins out, a situation celebrated by the Romans on around December 25th as Sol Invictus, Sun Unconquered.
Are the rituals that developed around solstice religious? I don’t see how you could deny it. They are a deeply felt response to the myseriousness of this striking turning point in the year. They also represent an ancient insight: Things that happen outwardly in nature parallel developments inside us. Outdoors, the sun becomes more dominant after a period of darkness. In a similar natural pattern, we may rise up out of our depressive moods and thoughts and feel the sun return to our hearts. As above, so below, ancient astrologers would say.
The sun’s return blends with stories of Jesus’ birth. Together they point to an inspiring reality, a way out of the dark, violent ways of contemporary life. Jesus embodies a radical vision of human life as loving and friendly rather than self-serving and condemning.
In the Gospels, he calls himself the light of the world, and he was identified with the Unconquered Sun. The end of December gives way to sunnier days. The birth of Jesus, in culture and in our hearts, could make our lives brighter.
I think of the story of Jesus as profoundly secular with a sacred core. Institutional Christianity isn’t essential to it. I would say that as we approach the depths of this mystery of light, we are being both religious, in a deep, nondogmatic sense, and profoundly secular.
The distinction becomes unnecessary and misleading. The apparently secular ways we celebrate the birth of this hopeful vision—gifts, parties, food, song—are in fact deeply sacred, if you have an eye for the holy.
Celebrating the return of light, whether in Hannukah, solstice, or Christmas could help us dedicate ourselves to a better way of life.
So should we have nativity scenes in public places? Of course. If you take the institutionalism and dogma out of it, then there should be no slighting of other beliefs and practices. There are those who want the United States to be a Christian nation, ignoring the principle of religious freedom and not yet appreciative of our pluralistic society. Their approach is an offense to non-Christians who don’t want an official religion. But today most people, one hopes, know that times are changing and that we have to be sensitive to differences in belief and practice.
Another change is a gradual shift away from religious literalism toward a more nuanced understanding of religious images. We are at a time in our history when we are split into those who cherish the literal reading of sacred texts and those who find great meaning in the metaphorical level. Debates about which is correct don’t get far because of the many values encased in each. Literalists don’t want to reduce their faith to symbols and metaphors, and the more poetic types perhaps feel free of the literalistic illusions of their youth. At the moment there is room for both positions, and each could appreciate the contribution of the other.
In both cases, I suggest doing some study and looking with a penetrating poetic eye at all the images that are part of Christmas. You will find a richness that goes far beyond worries about who believes what or who should celebrate Christmas and where.
As I see it, Christmas is a beautiful expression of the hope that humanity will discover the secret of love as the law of life. The rituals many know well bring fellowship and shared experience to a level that goes so deep and touches on such essential factors in human survival that this secular vision proves to be religious in more sophisticated sense of the word.
Christmas asks you to open your heart, get past quick judgments and unnecessary divisions among people. If you can do that, you will stop asking whether Christmas is religious or secular and whether it should be displayed in public and whether it is an affront to alternative traditions.
People worldwide are drawn to Christmas because it does speak to every human heart. It speaks in its stories and images and traditions, but especially in its underlying vision of a world at peace.