The ‘true’ meaning of Christmas (it’s not what you think)

‘Twas the night before Christmas and all through the house
Not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse

Except in my house, I’m spending Christmas Eve browsing the internet and getting fired up by anti-Christmas spirit over on Penelope Trunk’s blog. She did this last year and the year before too and I know I should totally be zen about it but I feel compelled to respond. This year I thought she might let it go but instead she waited until Christmas Eve!

I like Penelope’s blog – she gives some career advice that’s solid and some that’s a little spurious but she’s a good writer and always entertaining. But I think she’s wrong about Christmas. I also think she’s got a bee in her bonnet and is being a little mean-spirited about it. I get that she’s a successful blogger and enjoys the attention – to a certain extent this is link and comment baiting – yet I do believe that she means what she says.

Her argument goes beyond saying that workplaces should not celebrate Christmas. She actually believes (or claims to believe) that 25 December should not be a public holiday at all. She believes that it’s a Christian holiday (a point that I would debate) and therefore shouldn’t have precedence over any other religious holiday.

Clearly Christmas is a religious holiday for millions of Christians around the world, from Utah to Uganda and Copenhagen to Chile. They believe Jesus is their saviour, or ‘Christ’, and they choose to celebrate his birth as a major religious festival. Some of them do it on 25 December, others on 7 January, but particularly for more committed Christians the religious significance is key. That’s fine. I am not trying to take Christmas away from them… but they do have to share.

The fact is that Christmas does not belong exclusively to Christians. I’m sorry, but it doesn’t. Another dimension to Christmas is that it’s a major cultural holiday. The most significant holiday on the Christian religious calendar is Good Friday but culturally this is insignificant compared with Christmas.

Christmas, as it is celebrated by most people in the English-speaking world, is not a Christian holiday. Just about the only thing that’s Christian about it is the name. The holiday has its roots in the Pagan festival of Yule or the Winter Solstice. Most of the traditions we associate with Christmas – Christmas trees, Santa Claus, foods such as mince pies and Christmas pudding, Christmas cards – are entirely cultural rather than religious in nature, or have deeper roots in Pagan or Roman culture. Christmas not only belongs to Christians around the world but to anyone whose culture has celebrated the holiday for hundreds of years.

While the holiday certainly has its downsides – our culture can be very materialistic and this seems particularly virulent at Christmas time – however the holiday has enough cultural significance and positivity that many non-Christians celebrate it. In both Australia and the UK, I know Jews, Buddhists, Atheists and Agnostics who celebrate Christmas. This includes people from Anglo backgrounds whose ancestors were probably Christian and it also includes people who’ve emigrated from countries such as Thailand and Singapore who retain their own beliefs but have chosen to adopt customs from their new homeland as well.

I don’t believe that they are choosing to celebrate a Christian holiday – unless of course they are going to church and singing religious carols. I believe they are celebrating a shared cultural tradition. This is especially important outside North America because we don’t have Thanksgiving to fulfil the same role. (Thanksgiving also has religious roots, by the way).

I do understand that the historical context can make it harder for some Jews to embrace Christmas – certainly in Europe, the Jewish people were oppressed by the Christian majority for hundreds of years. It’s probably easier for an Atheist with Catholic grandparents or a Thai Buddhist who lives in Sydney, for example, because they don’t have that historical baggage – however, I do know many secular Jews who celebrate the holiday. I also understand that some non-Christians have no hard feelings about Christmas but that the holiday simply doesn’t form part of their own family’s traditions. It’s a matter of personal choice.

Of course, I don’t believe anyone should be forced to celebrate Christmas. I also agree that the religious side of Christmas – nativity scenes and so on – are probably out of place in the workplace or public schools. But nor do I think a Christmas tree in the lobby of the office or even a store clerk wishing you “merry Christmas” is ‘forcing’ you to celebrate Christmas or in some way an insult. Certainly I fail to see how a day off work on 25 December is offensive, as long as you have provision to take time off when you need to, whether it be for your own religious holidays or simply because you want the time off.

It’s not cost-effective for offices to open on Christmas Day and the history of Sunday trading shows that the choice to work quickly becomes an obligation to work (just ask any retail worker if they have a choice about working Sundays). The fact that it’s a public holiday – just like New Year’s Day – is enough reason to close the office. The fact that Christmas is celebrated by a majority of people in any given country is enough reason for it to be a public holiday. But if you really want to work and you have a job that you can do from home without supervision then probably your employer should let you work and take a day off in lieu.

Our society needs more celebrations and festivals, not fewer. I would prefer to see more emphasis on other religious and secular holidays rather than a weakening of Christmas. More should be done to encourage inter-cultural exchange, both in the workplace and in the wider world. I would love to have more about Hannukah (or other Jewish high holidays such as Yom Kippur and Passover) rather than less about Christmas. In Australian public schools for example, children learn about several world religions, including secular humanism. I’ve heard priests, rabbis, Buddhist order members and Atheists giving the ‘Thought for the Day’ every morning on BBC Radio 4. These are steps in the right direction. But declaring war on Christmas is unfounded and, given its deep cultural roots, will only serve to antagonise people.