Let's escape, however briefly, the vast Fun house of our national politics and the distorted images of human beings (the candidates) lurking there for our amusement and dismay. It's time, once again, to consider--or at least appear to consider, or say we're considering--the True Meaning of Christmas.
Just what the True Meaning of Christmas (TMOC) is may be a subject of some dispute. Generally, though, it's thought to have something to do with Jesus Christ, or Christianity in one form of another, and may actually be about them for that hour or two many of us attend church services. They of course are also subjects of some dispute, and have been from the beginning.
So the popular claim we should "put Christ back in Christmas" provides little guidance to those seeking or saying they seek TMOC. It's unclear, though, that those who demand Christ be "put back" believe they require any guidance in this respect, and it's likely they're unaware of any dispute regarding Christ or Christianity. Arius, Pelagius and the many others disputants are probably unknown to most of them. We may be reasonably certain they've heard of Martin Luther and John Calvin, however, and some even of John Wesley.
Also generally, TMOC is thought to have something to do with peace on earth and good will towards men, possibly even by those who don't think Christ needs to be put back in Christmas or anywhere else. In any case, TMOC is normally believed to have little if anything to do with Santa Claus or anything commercial, as such things, though they may have meaning in themselves and indeed are prevalent, even omnipresent, at this time, nonetheless lack True Meaning. In fact, TMOC is said to be significant because it has nothing to do with them.
But it's hard to ignore what has become increasingly clear regarding Christmas, its celebration, iconography and mythology. That is, that we humans have been involved in celebrating this time of the year for countless thousands of years and were doing so long before Jesus or even Abraham were heard of, and that those celebrations had much in common with what takes place now. Christmas is a relatively new development with very old features. Christmas is in fact a relatively new way of characterizing a very old tradition and celebration; one that was old when Christianity came to exist.
It's doubtful anyone living believes Jesus was actually born on December 25. It was decided his birth should be celebrated on that date long after he died. The early Christians were diligent, even ruthless, in their suppression of pagan beliefs, but could do nothing to alter the arrival of the winter solstice or the fact that it had been celebrated for many, many years as the time at which Light inexorably began its triumph over Dark, and the Sun born or reborn.
The winter solstice had long been considered for obvious reasons a time for celebration of Helios, Sol Invictus, Mithras and other gods associated with the Sun. These gods were worshiped during Christianity's development in the Roman Empire; other Sun gods were worshiped outside the Empire, and before it.
Early Christian leaders and thinkers were no doubt aware of the fact that Mithras was claimed to have been born on December 25th, in the presence of shepherds and three kings. The Church Fathers were disturbed by many things about the worship of Mithras, which included a sacred communal meal of bread and wine, the bread marked with crosses according to certain depictions of the ritual. They were also no doubt aware the winter solstice was a time for gift-giving, for the Saturnalia in fact, when the roles of master and slave were reversed.
I'm not one who thinks that but for an accident or two, Mithras would have become universally worshipped in the West rather than Christ. Males only were allowed to become initiates to his mysteries, and it seems clear women played a significant role in Christianity's triumph over its rivals. I don't think we would be setting up figurines of Mithras and his bull, Helios, Cautes and Cautopates instead of manger scenes if things went a bit differently 1700 years ago.
So I doubt December 25 was chosen as the day of Christ's birth solely because it was the birthday of Mithras. But as the winter solstice was a time for universal celebration in the society in which Christianity was born and, as it were, raised, it made considerable sense for the early Church to choose it as the time at which Christ's birth would be celebrated. It was plainly a major social and cultural event already, with significant religious overtones; it was ideal for the purpose. And like Christianity itself, Christmas took on aspects of pagan worship and culture. In a sense, Christ was put into Christmas, or Christmas-time, long ago. There was a time when Christ was new to the party; a latecomer. The Christmas we know is a conglomerate, as is Christianity.
Helios/Sol Invictus/Mithras/Jesus and their predecessor gods have been part of what we call Christmas-time for thousands of years. The religious tone of the time is well-established and unquestionable. More interesting is the association of Christmas-time with "peace on earth, good will towards men."
That phrase is claimed to have been part of a statement made by angels to duly astonished shepherds during the Annunciation; the announcement of the birth of Jesus. Here there is also a dispute, however. The dispute is over the correct translation of what was said by the angels from the original Greek of the New Testament. Pagans of the time thought the Gospels to have been written by persons whose Greek was very bad, but I don't know if that was truly the case or whether it would make a difference in this case.
It seems that more ancient versions of the text are believed by scholars to be more appropriately translated as "peace to those men with whom God/Jesus is pleased" or words to that effect. Peace, therefore, is bestowed on those who have the good will of God/Jesus. This is a different sentiment of the season than that with which most of us are familiar. If we're to have good will towards men (instead of God having that good will), it may be we shouldn't have good will towards all men at Christmas-time, but only to those men who please God. As the statement is made in connection with the birth of Jesus, it would seem those who please God are those who believe in Jesus as God.
If this is correct, TMOC wouldn't be good will, friendliness towards, or tolerance of all, but only of Christians. A sobering thought for those of us who have believed good will was to be extended to all at this time of the year, but one that may make more sense given the context in which the Gospel was written. Is this in fact the True Meaning?
Merry Christmas to all. Perhaps. But whether the good will we're supposed to feel at this time of the year is towards all or only a portion of humanity, we may be grateful, as the great Tom Lehrer sang regarding National Brotherhood Week, that Christmas-time doesn't last all year.