A short blog this week by Dr. Marcus Borg, a theologian from Oregon State University, articulated my half-formed thoughts (as he often does) on Christmas and brought clarity to the subject by identifying two types of Christmas.
Observing Christmas practices looks rather confusing. At one end of the scale, there are atheists, agnostics and non-Christians happily celebrating Christmas and at the other end, there are fundamentalists who fret about “Christ” being absent from Christmas. Superficially, it appears chaotic with non-religious celebrants of a religious holiday and religious celebrants engaging in it.
There are actually two kinds of Christmas: the “Cultural Christmas” and the “Religious Christmas”. There are overlaps, but by distinguishing between the two explains how non-Christians can celebrate Christmas and where the fundamentalists are coming from.
This is all about the season that recognizes and celebrates good will, generosity, family love and reuniting, peace and gift-giving. Rightly so, the complaint with Cultural Christmas is the overwhelming commercialization, yet the commercial side is still an integral part of the gift-giving in which people demonstrate their affection for one another through gifts, great or small. Cultural Christmas can be engaged in by anyone: atheist, agnostic, Jew, Muslim, Buddhist…..it is non-religious.
Largely, this type of Christmas tends to focus on the miraculous, particularly as reported regarding miracles around the birth of Christ: ie the virgin birth, the star, the wise men, the angel Gabriel, and so on.
Each type of Christmas celebration has its benefits and pitfalls. For the Cultural Christmas, it always risks getting swallowed up in commercialism, and leaving participants suffering from overspending and overindulgence of the celebrations.
For the Religious Christmas, the focus on the miraculous itself can swallow up palpable value of the season. As Dr.Borg points out, many, if not all, of the miracles of the birth may well be mythical, legendary stories designed to heighten the importance of Christ. By focusing on the miraculous which may or may not be literal and factual, religious Christmas celebrants risk losing sight of the real value of Christ: as a force of personal liberation, hope and a new way of life transcending the religious legalism that the world had become captive to.
In some ways, Cultural Christmas does a better job at putting “Christ” into Christmas than the Religious Christmas. While Cultural Christmas rarely refers to the name of Christ, the values of love, family, generosity, goodwill and peace ARE Christ…..and those values are all worth celebrating!
Certainly the non-Christians and the Christians may well be not so far apart when examining the underlying values of the Christmas celebration.