24 December 2007

Come In, and Know Me Better Man

Happy Christmas, one and all! The joyous day is mere hours away!

This is going to be my first Christmas as a professed, vocal, out-and-out atheist, and sweet Baby Jesus am I excited! I love Christmas. And as Ben alluded to in his Christmas post, Christmas is a secular holiday, so I'm allowed to love it. It would be foolish of us to give it up and leave it for the religious nuts to apprehend once more.

In fact, I'm going to go further than most atheists might and say that I still really like the Nativity, and will do my part to make it part of secular Christmas culture.

Solstice celebrations date back to time immemorial. In the dead of winter it gets dark, cold, and scary... so we gather together and throw a big party to remind each other that at least we're not alone, and for a little while maybe harsh reality doesn't seem so bad.

When I was young ("and they packed me off to school"), I often wondered why my family and other Christians didn't celebrate Chanukah or Passover. After all, Christianity had its roots in Judaism, and so weren't their holidays our holidays as well? As is so often the case with questions of this nature, I never got a decent answer from anyone. But now I know better: we didn't celebrate Chanukah because we already celebrated Christmas, and likewise for Easter and Passover. The supposed religious meaning behind the celebrations didn't mean bupkis. It's all the same holiday, no matter what you call it. I call it Christmas, because it's the dominant name in my family and culture. And I like it.

We as a culture have accumulated a number of traditions over the millennia: mistletoe, evergreen trees, yule logs, Santa Claus, Charles Dickens, gift exchange, carols, cookies, all the trappings of the season. Many of our traditions have roots in some religion or another, but that's not why they've stuck around. We keep our traditions because they're important to us; we find something meaningful in them.

The myth of the Nativity is one that I like to keep around, because I find meaning in it that's completely independent of the Christian faith I've long since abandoned.

The imagery is beautiful: It's a beautiful starry night, and a young couple has a beautiful new baby boy. All the people around, shepherds and magi alike (and even the lesser creatures, like sheep and angels) gather around to share in the family's joy, because who doesn't love a baby? It's a time not only for a family to come closer together, but also for complete strangers to revel in our common humanity.

And for just a little while, we can all get together and pretend that one stupid little baby is going to make everything all right. It is the beginning of peace on Earth, and goodwill toward men.

This baby is not the savior of whom Christians speak all year. Jesus was a conjurer and rabbi who supposedly performed miracles, accumulated a cult following, told people how to live their lives, and had to be martyred in order to save mankind after death. The Christ child of the Nativity, on the other hand, is just a baby, and as soon as he's born, the entire world is born anew.

It's not as if Christianity came up with this picture in the first place, either. Rebirth motifs were a staple of myth long before Christianity, especially in conjunction with the winter solstice. For instance, in ancient Russia, every year at about this time the goddess-type Rozhanitsy would give birth to the god-type Rod. (Aside: Some scholars believe Rod to have been highest of all Russian gods. I tend to side with those who think this is more a side-effect of Russia's baptism to Christianity. After the baptism, Rod and Rozhanitsy became Jesus and Mary at Christmas, and Rod gradually began to acquire some of Jesus' other traits in the collective memory of the Russians.) The same rules that applied to the holiday also apply to the Nativity scene. A newborn baby by any other name is still going to be symbolic of the season and our cultural history. I call him Baby Jesus, because that's the dominant name within my family and culture. And I like it.

It's why I like the more "religious" Christmas carols so much. I, personally, have no real taste for the likes of "Jingle Bells" and "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer." Give me a hearty round of "Hark! the Herald Angels Sing" or "O Come, All Ye Faithful" any day of the season. I like my carols with a little gravitas, thank you very much. It isn't just the music and the poetry of the lyrics that move me; it's the spirit of the myth they embody. (That, and on some level I think I just like a little pomp and circumstance.)

Baby Jesus is much more representative of my values than that other great figure of secular Christmas myth, Santa Claus. (And this is coming from a guy who still has a handwritten letter from "Santa" tucked away somewhere.) Santa is more like Jesus than Baby Jesus is; he's a supernatural deus ex machina that uses his magical power to shower blessings upon those of his choosing. Baby Jesus is more like Dickens' Ghost of Christmas Present; he can show us what happens when people are charitable to one another, but it's up to us to act on that revelation for ourselves.

Maybe I'm a little biased, having grown up in Nazareth, PA, just a few miles from Bethlehem. Maybe the Nativity reminds me of home a little more than it does other people. Nevertheless, I see no reason to shy away from celebrating the myth of the Nativity; don't let it be taken for granted that the Christ child advertises for Christianity. In my mind, Baby Jesus is no more a part of Christianity than Saint Nicholas. So let the preachers and their flock have Jesus and their piece in Heaven; I'm happy just playing with the baby and celebrating peace on Earth.

~*~ Happy Christmas ~*~

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