What are people ‘really’ doing at Christmas?

There’s been a lot of nonsense recently on the radio about what people are ‘really’ doing when they celebrate Christmas. There was a programme on Radio 4 exploring the origins of the tunes of carols. For example, the tune for Good King Wenceslas was originally a spring carol celebrating the fertility of nature. It is also commonly said that at Christmas we are ‘really’ celebrating Saturnalia, a Roman/pagan winter festival during which conventional social decorum was abandoned.

The renewal of light and the coming of the new year was celebrated in the later Roman Empire at the Dies Natalis of Sol Invictus, the “Birthday of the Unconquerable Sun,” on December 25.[6]

mosaic_1554475cI have heard it commented that when we put up a Christmas tree, we are ‘really’ participating in a pagan fertility rite, bringing something living indoors to counteract the death-dealing cold of winter. This idea of what we are ‘really’ doing has been given a positive spin this year, arguing that when people write ‘Xmas’ they are ‘really’ echoing the early Christian use of the Chi-Rho monogram, which stands for the name of Christ—they just don’t realise it.

But of course it is all nonsense. People aren’t ‘really’ doing things that they don’t know about—they cannot be. This is what is known as the ‘genetic fallacy’—thinking that the ‘meaning’ of things resides in their origin. If I describe my wife as a ‘lady’, I am not suggesting that she kneads dough, even though that is where the word comes from. When someone comments that a friends of theirs is a ‘law unto themselves’, they are not in fact quoting St Paul (Romans 2.14) nor making use of his argument that our consciences themselves demonstrate that there is an objective sense to right and wrong. (They usually mean precisely the opposite!) Neither is the church composed of ‘called-out ones’ because the Greek word for ‘church’ is ekklesia which comes from ek and kaleo. (If you have not heard this argument before, just be thankful.) The meaning of words is related to their use, and not their origins.

So what are people ‘really’ doing at Christmas, as they participate in the customary social rituals?

Well, firstly, they are doing just that: participating in customary social rituals. Conforming to repeated social rituals is a powerful thing, and it has the potential to give security and bind people together. We are not so much homo sapiens as homo liturgens; ritual patterns are more important to us than we often realise. If you don’t believe me, go to a football match. Or try to change a church tradition. Or ask Canon Simon Tatton-Brown who ‘ruined’ a whole school-full of children by telling them that Santa was ‘really’ St Nicholas. Even the bad jokes in Christmas crackers function to ‘bind people together’—and that is why they are so bad. If they were better, someone would not get the joke, and then they would be left out. And that gives another important insight into these rituals—anything that binds one group together is sure to leave others out. And if you don’t believe that, ask anyone for whom Christmas reminds them of a bereavement, or for whom their ‘family’ is not the one they wanted.

In our context in Western Europe, it is worth noting that shared rituals become more important when we have fewer other things in common. I think that is why some ‘traditions’ are defended with real animosity at times—these things are our last bastion for a sense of common humanity.

Secondly, these rituals express deep human needs. As the nights close in, and the days shorten, we long to see light. As the winter gets colder, we long for warmth. As nature around us seems strangled by death, we need signs of hope and life. And as the inconvenience of going out gets greater, and we are more isolated from friends and neighbours, we long for company. These are all natural human longings, and many of the rituals of Christmas are designed to meet these needs. That is why Saturnalia came to be celebrated in mid-winter, and that is why the early Christian evangelists were wise to take this festival over, rather than getting rid of it. Who can bring us light but the light of the world (John 8.12)? Who can bring us warmth but the one who has poured God’s love into our hearts (Rom 5.5)? Who gives us hope beyond death, but the one who not only tasted death for us but swallowed it up in victory (1 Cor 15.54)? And who else can bring us into friendship with God (2 Cor 5.18–19)?

That leads to the third truth about Christmas: these rituals have, at certain key moments, been taken over, ‘Christianised’ if you will, and in a polemical way. The reason why we are not celebrating Saturnalia is that the festival now points to (what Christians believe) is a truer reality. Within this there are two dynamics going on. One is the recognition that the questions being asked are real questions which need real answers. But  the other is that there is also tension, present in the conflict of beliefs about where we find trustworthy answers to these questions. It took courage, strength and a struggle to transform traditions in the past, and will take similar qualities if we are to bend contemporary traditions in the same way today. We need to do this if we are to rescue people from the all-pervading narrative of salvation by shopping that our culture runs on. It is a narrative that fails to deliver, because it cannot give the light, warmth, hope and friendship we need.

So the fourth thing people are doing at Christmas is putting themselves in a place of opportunity—opportunity to ask important questions and find dependable answers. The task of Christian ministry at this time of year, it seems to me, is to make the most of those opportunities in a way which builds bridges and opens doors.

Voice-over videos with graphic animation seem to be all the rage at the moment, and UCCF have produced one which aims to try and reclaim the true meaning of Christmas. That is great, though for me it feels just a bit too ‘preachy’ and perhaps just a little too negative about Christmas rituals. Here is an alternative, which does a good job of building on a common narrative to ask pertinent questions, from Glen Scrivener:

And I never failed to be amused and impressed by Milton Jones’ 4-thought on the meaning of Christmas.

Screen Shot 2013-12-20 at 14.03.55

‘Jesus of course was a very humble man, who said ‘I am God’. So, er, either he was God, or he wasn’t.’

How can a man say so much in so few words?




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7 thoughts on “What are people ‘really’ doing at Christmas?”

  1. I like this post Ian, you take on some good questions and issues. The one that bugs me at the moment, as I come to (only) my 9th Christmas as vicar, is about the questions we answer – or try to – in our Christmas services. Because the questions and issues raised by the people who only come once a year are so different from those who come every week. It would be great, one year, to do Christmas for Christians, a celebration of who we already know and his marvellous beginning; for a carol service to be a true service of worship for the majority, instead of the minority.

    But to ask those questions is to sound like I am saying I wish these people didn’t come, so I never ask them, because I am so glad they do. It is the joy and the specific wonder of being church of England, more than most denominations, that these people will come to us. We’re safe. Like Milton Jone’s knitting. But should we be?

  2. Thanks Kevin. I am sure that those who have done many years of Christmas find it hard to stay fresh. But three observations from me.

    1. I do find that I learn more every year. This year my blogging has led me to look in depth at Luke’s narrative, and I have learned a lot.

    2. Don’t forget that in the Christian calendar, the season only starts on Christmas day! So you have a good few weeks to explore with insiders after the visitors have gone…though if you whet appetites I guess some might stay to find out more. In fact, why do we give people all the info at once, rather than leave them wanting more?

    3. I guess theologically I don’t really go with the split between the gospel for insiders and outsiders. I don’t think I can see that in the NT. IF we really explain the grace of God, then I think whatever draws the outsiders should encourage the insiders too. ‘Profound’ should mean ‘insightful’ rather than ‘incomprehensible.’

    Does that make sense?

  3. Ian’s reply to Kevin makes sense to me. Especially point 3. I’ve been in church for over 50 years and still not at all sure I’ve got it all. I have friends who are evangelists who say they need to preach the gospel to themselves frequently for their own benefit. It is so so easy to hear it all and still miss the point or even to have “got it” at some point and then, often imperceptibly, find that ones trust or reliance has shifted to someplace other than the grace of God.
    I like the main blog thesis too. That IS what we are doing. Reminds me though of Tweedledum (or was it Tweedledee?) on his use of words (rendered in West Country (pron. “Wes Cunry”) vernacular) “Wers when I sez um means what I means ’em to mean”.

  4. I have to say, I’m really rather sympathetic to Kevin’s point. For me, Christmas, and the twelve days following, is the perfect time to dig deeper with the congregation into what happened in the Incarnation and what importance the Church has seen in that event over the last two thousand years. Yet this would be a topic too weighty for many non-Christians (probably many Christians as well). Worse, to an extent, many Christmas services are preached to the children, since they are typically family services. I personally, not at my current church, have heard at least one Christmas church service that used a passage from Isaiah that the Church Fathers would tell you is a reference to Satan, and most OT scholars would insist is purely a reference to the King of Tyre, as a passage about Christ coming down in the Incarnation.

    Ian, I’m not sure why you’d expect to find a reference for how to preach in a Church service to non-Christians. All of Paul’s letters are written to Christians. By the second century there was already a firm practice of having the non-believers and catechumens leave the service at the time the Eucharist was taken (preaching being a rather low priority in Church it would seem). I write all of this to say that while I agree preaching should be done at level the whole congregation can, relatively speaking, understand; I cannot help but wonder what would happen if we preached sermons with an audience of Christians in mind only, not asking them to convert for the first time, but to live like Christ every day. I wonder what kind of impact preaching of that nature would have on a non-Christian visiting the service. I honestly don’t know.

    Having now written far too much about the comments, let me simply say, great post! I wonder, would you say that anything about the reality has changed in these Christian rituals, even if baptised from paganism? That is, are our liturgies at Christmas (both ecclesial and otherwise) primarily symbols are do they speak to and participate in a greater reality of their own?

  5. Thanks Ian.. I too have been following the Radio series on Christmas carols and find your response here timely and refreshing (and useful when discussing these issues with others)!


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