In previous years I’ve insisted that Christmas has a significance and value to North American life well beyond Christianity. It is a ritual that brings families together – something Confucius would say is among the most important things in the world, irrespective of anything such rituals might mean. And its meaning is not limited to Christian stories; it is also a seasonal festival of light and darkness, of the winter solstice.
I stand by all of that. But having said it, I think that for secular North Americans (and likely Europeans as well) there is also considerable value in the specifically Christian meaning of the festival. This comes in at least two respects. Next week I will say a bit more about theology, but first there’s something to say about history.
Human beings are historical beings. Hans-Georg Gadamer points out, rightly I think, that our history and traditional pre-understanding inevitably shape who we are – and that this does not have to be a bad thing. Rather, it is the horizon that makes our own understanding possible. When a person or a culture passes from being what it is to being something else, the thing it used to be doesn’t simply disappear. The Christian past is a part of us North Americans whether we like it or not – and perhaps more importantly, whether we understand it or not.
This holds true even, maybe especially, when we oppose central aspects of that tradition. China may be officially atheist, but that atheism takes on a very different character from Western New Atheism, which defines itself in opposition to monotheism. We are products of our ancestors whether we like it or not. And so opposition too has a history. A great deal of English Canadian identity is defined in opposition to the United States, which is understandable since most of those who first settled English Canada did so because they were fleeing the United States; this continues to hold even though the conservative monarchist settlers’ heirs tend to be socialists who look down on the US because it is too right-wing. In a similar vein, North American Judaism would be a very different tradition without the backdrop of mainstream Christianity – including Christmas, and these days perhaps especially Christmas. When I was a child, I wouldn’t have been able to tell you the difference between a Catholic and a Protestant, but I could have told you that Jews were people who didn’t celebrate Christmas. If Christmas were not such a great part of the wider culture, it would be that much harder for Jewish tradition to maintain its distinctiveness – a distinctiveness that has generally been very important to Jews in a way that it has not for, say, Advaitins.
Many fundamentalist Christians refuse (single-mindedly) to celebrate Hallowe’en because it is a pagan rite. It seems to me that a secularist or atheist refusal to celebrate Christmas is cut from the same single-minded cloth: a refusal to accept a ritual that is part and parcel of one’s own cultural tradition, in the name of a set of values one takes to be higher. I have sympathy for the consistency expressed in such a view, but I also find it sad.
It has often been noted that in India, Muslims and non-Muslim “Hindus” would visit saints’ shrines together, often caring little whether they were Sufi pirs or Vedāntic gurus. Thai Buddhists tell the story of the Rāmāyana (even placing murals from it all around their most sacred temple), even though there is little if anything Buddhist about the story even in its Thai retelling. Indeed it is sometimes even claimed that the Rāmāyana is an anti-Buddhist story, since its villain, the demonic king Ravana, is said to be living on the island of Lanka south of India – quite likely a reference to Buddhist Sri Lanka. But that doesn’t stop the Thais. A good story is a good story; if it’s a really good story, one can draw good morals and life lessons from it even if one does not follow its gods. One should not wish Southeast Asia to abandon its love of the Rāmāyana because of the uses made of that text against Muslims, let alone because its god is “Hindu”. Nor, it seems to me, should non-Jewish North Americans give up on the story of the birth of Christ.