Let’s imagine for a moment that Christmas had never happened and that the Roman Emperor Aurelian had succeeded in establishing the feast of Sol Invictus on December 25 back in the year 274 AD.
Instead of Christmas, we would have had the Feast of the Unconquered Sun. At this time of year, just after the winter solstice, the lantern beaming light and heat hangs low in the sky; the days are dark and cold. But day by day it climbs back, infallibly reaching its fiery zenith at the summer solstice six months later. Yay! Way to go! This god has won more rounds than Manny Pacquiao!
Had this happened, the colourless salutation “Season’s Greetings” might have conveyed something vaguely meaningful, especially if you’re shivering in the northern hemisphere. Something like: gor blimey, I can’t handle this brass monkey weather, but let’s hang in there and may the gods grant us a good harvest.”
It’s a hopeful sentiment, but not an inspiring one, a bit like the experience of eating tofu and celery sticks for Christmas dinner instead of tucking into mince pies and roast turkey. The sun rises and the sun sets; seasons come and seasons go. Whatever good or evil men do, the sun shines on them all alike with a divine indifference. For devotees of Sol Invictus, “Season’s Greetings” would have been a token of our inevitable submission to fate. This was the popular wisdom of the ancient world – from which Christmas has rescued us.
Whether or not you accept the Christian theological beliefs which underpin the celebration of Christmas, they have transformed Western society and they are in the process of transforming nations far from Bethlehem. Christmas, that is, the celebration of the moment in which the all-powerful creator of the Universe took on human flesh and entered human history, sends powerful, if unspoken, messages. Here are seven which are implicitly conveyed when we wish friends a “Merry Christmas”.
God cares. “As flies to wanton boys, are we to the gods, — They kill us for their sport.” This comes from King Lear, but it is the wisdom of paganism. Life’s a bitch, and then you die. What the Incarnation, as the theologians call the act of God becoming man, shows for all time is that the Creator cares about his creatures. As the carol says, “and he feeleth for our sadness, and he shareth in our gladness.” Jupiter, on the other hand, when presented with complaints about our sadness would probably say something like, “Yeah, whatever. Get over it. Stuff happens, you know.”
History matters. The ancients believed in the myth of the eternal recurrence, that history was not linear, but cyclic. Their cosmic fate was to live imprisoned in cycles which end in fire and then return in a new cycle, playing the same role over and over again. Its symbol is the dragon devouring its tail. But the implication of the Incarnation is that history is moving towards a climax which begins at Bethlehem. Our own participation in history makes a difference.
All men are fundamentally equal. We can get used to Christmas paintings of the manger, in which shepherds are rubbing shoulders with the Magi as they peer over Joseph’s shoulder. But the implications of this setting are immense. “With the poor, the scorned, the lowly, lived on earth our Saviour holy”: before the infant in the lowly cattle shed, distinctions of talent, rank and education are insignificant. All men are brothers.
Families are the cornerstone of society. Bethlehem suggested the ideal to which Christian families should aspire: a father and mother doting on their child, willing to make any sacrifice for his welfare. But the homely tenderness of this scene was virtually unknown in the ancient world. The Greeks and Romans were not strangers to domestic affection, but this was not the paradigm of their families. Without Christmas we would never have had the bubbly, loving warmth of the Cratchit family made famous in Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol.
Women have dignity. No women appear in Plutarch’s Lives of the Noble Greeks and Romans. There are famous women in ancient history, but most of them are queens and empresses like Cleopatra and Zenobia. In Bethlehem, a simple village girl, Mary, is the central figure. Kings bow in homage to her and her child. In the Christian tradition, capacity for motherhood gives women an incomparable dignity. As Cristina Rossetti’s marvellous poem (and carol) says,
Angels and archangels
May have gathered there,
Cherubim and seraphim
Thronged the air,
But only His mother
In her maiden bliss,
Worshipped the Beloved
With a kiss.
Children are special. The ancient world defined children by their powerlessness; they were just underdeveloped adults. But Bethlehem suggests that we should treasure their innocence and dependence. “Once in Royal David’s City” is a Victorian carol, but it expresses it nicely:
For he is our childhood’s pattern,
day by day like us he grew;
he was little, weak and helpless,
tears and smiles like us he knew.
The fact that a defenceless child is the centre of the Christmas story also means that men and women are not to be valued by how productive they are, but simply because they are with us and share in a common nature. In the Gospel account this is underscored by the sequel to the Nativity, the Massacre of the Innocents by the vicious tyrant Herod.
We should send more Christmas cards. Western art was born on Christmas Day. We take for granted the human drama depicted on Christmas cards. But in other cultures, art was meant to be a faint reflection of unchanging, inalterable divinity. That’s why statues of Buddha depict him in a few stylised postures. Even Greek and Roman art presented idealised figures and seldom depicted ordinary life.
But art of the Christian era is based upon an altogether different philosophy: that all of human life has dignity because the Child of Bethlehem is both God and Man. Since then, everything in human life carries within it a spark of divinity and becomes a worthy subject for an artist. What sort of greeting cards would we have if the cult of Sol Invictus had survived? Probably much like we have now: images of snow-bound homes or decorative calligraphy. But nothing human, affectionate and tender.
So there you have seven reasons to say “Merry Christmas” with greater gusto in 2011. Let’s defy miserabilist Grinches who want to banish it from public life.
In any case, all this has happened before. Oliver Cromwell’s Puritans banned the celebration of Christmas in England. In the 1640s the Long Parliament decreed that no holy days other than Sundays were to be celebrated. December 25 was to be observed with fasting and humiliation for the sins of countrymen who had turned the day into a feast, sinfully “giving liberty to carnal and sensual delights”. Shops and market were to be kept open for trading. Parliament was to meet for business on December 25. Christmas, said the Puritans, was a pestilent popish festival with no Biblical justification.
However, Cromwell failed to convert Merrie England to miserabilism. As soon as Charles II was restored to the throne in 1660, the Christmas bans were swept away. Mirth, mistletoe and plum pudding returned and the Christmas fast vanished. The reason for the season was no longer treason. Merry Christmas and “God bless us every one!”