Christmas

It is Christmas Eve.  Merry Christmas.

It is the one holiday universally celebrated by Christians everywhere who celebrate holidays.  Although we all celebrate Easter, we have different ways of determining the date so we don’t all celebrate it at the same time.

We might count that peculiar, because the date is almost arbitrary and certainly incorrect, at least if we mean the night of Jesus’ birth.  I wondered, when I was younger, whether we meant that Jesus was born on Christmas Eve or on Christmas Night, which turns out to be a much more complicated question because the Jews start their days at sunset so Christmas Eve is the night of the twenty-fifth leading into the day of the twenty-fifth.  But it’s moot anyway.  Shepherds in Palestine didn’t tend their flocks by night in December; they did so in the spring.

I said the date is almost arbitrary; there are two reasons for it.

One is that despite our disagreements concerning the date of Easter (due largely because the western church was concerned to dissociate itself from Judaism and the eastern church was more interested in getting the date to coincide properly with Passover) we know it was in the spring, and were we to attempt to celebrate Jesus’ birth and death so close together it would create a rather crowded church calendar.  Certainly there were a lot of other times we could have chosen, but April would just have been complicated.  A fixed Christmas and a floating Easter might wind up on the same day, and obviously we would often have Advent overlapping Lent, which in traditional terms are simply incompatible.  Christmas had to be at another time.

The other reason our forefathers chose December is connected to a policy of what we might call “holiday replacement”.  We see it fairly obviously in connection with Halloween, in which we are accused of replacing the forgotten Celtic holiday of Samhain with Holy Evening or Reformation Day.  Arguably Christmas replaces Yule, and in spots imperfectly as the use of not only Yule traditions but the very word itself to describe the holiday time appears sporadically.  Yet it was not just Yule; every culture in the northern temperate climates of the globe recognized the winter solstice with some sort of ritual or celebration.  This was the time when the days stopped getting shorter and began once more to lengthen, and our ancestors recognized that.  It was celebrated, and the church knew you can’t deprive people of their celebrations.  You can at best give them something else to celebrate.  Thus the birth of Jesus was placed at the time everyone was celebrating the return of the sun, and we made a big deal of it, usurping the celebratory traditions of sun holidays throughout the world.

Yet it is in a very real sense an appropriate time for the celebration of this birth.  It is of course an irrelevant coincidence that the words “sun” and “son” are homonyms in modern English (they were not so as recently as Shakespeare), but that does not make it insignificant.  The winter solstice marks the beginning of the return of the light; while our astronomers declare it the beginning of winter it is in a very real sense the start of spring.  From this point forward for half a year each day is a little longer, a little brighter, a little more lit.  The light is coming into the world, a little bit at a time.

And so we celebrate a day two millennia ago when the light came into the world, and we choose to do so now, when we have reached our darkest days and the light is returning.

I, at least, cannot think of a better time metaphorically for this celebration.

Merry Christmas.

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