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As Christmas approaches, I return to the theme I took up two years ago of the meaning of Christmas to a non-Christian – spurred on in part by my recent reflections on singlemindedness. Ben, commenting on that previous post, noted:

Christmas appears to have a dual message in our culture. ‘Rampant consumerism’ is one half, and ‘The True Meaning Of Christmas ™’ is the second. While there are exceptions that focus more on family and loved ones and generosity, references to TTMOC largely also include references to the birth of Jesus.

I think Ben is on to something important: an unreflective understanding of Christmas can turn into a simple consumerism. So, many who do reflect on Christmas either refuse to celebrate it at all or try to make it entirely about Jesus. I think both reactions, but especially the latter, are examples of single-mindedness as a problem: an attempt to pick out one single meaning that’s most important and ignore the details. But for those of us who genuinely enjoy Christmas, the details can be the most important part.

In my reply to Ben’s first comment I pointed to trees, wreaths, “Deck the Halls” – trappings of North American and at least some European Christmas that have no clear connection to Jesus but also don’t require any consumerism. Ben replied that those elements of Christmas scarcely have any meaning left if one takes out the two alternatives of consumerism and the Christian “true meaning”: people do them only because their family did when they were young and it leaves them with happy associations.

In my reply at the time, I focused on the performative implications of the rituals, on what they do: nobody really agrees on what Diwali “means,” but it never really seems to matter. They bring us together as families and as a larger cultural community – which is why some non-Christian Indians celebrate Christmas when they come to North America, and why my immediate family (who do not identify as Hindu) celebrated Diwali in India. Along with weddings and funerals, Christmas seems to me the closest North American analogue to the traditional familial rituals that Confucius viewed as crucial to a good life. In this light I also pointed a while ago to Frits Staal‘s conception of ritual as “rules without meaning.” While I had previously disparaged performance theory – the idea that the important thing about a traditional action is not what it means but what it does – I did come to realize that sometimes that can indeed be true, and thought about the point especially with regard to Christmas.

So far this has been a summing up of things I’ve said before, in one manner or another. But more recently I’ve been thinking in a different direction about Christmas rituals. I’ve come to think their meaning does matter, even for us non-Christians – but in a way that doesn’t have to do with Jesus. Christmas, as a traditional ritual passed down through history, has multiple meanings of which the significance of Jesus of Nazareth is only one.

On another post about Christmas, my wife Caitlin referred to the origins of Christmas in pre-Christian ritual. And I’ve lately been thinking about Christmas differently because of her, as well. She loves Christmas, but dislikes the rest of the winter season, because she loves being out in sunlight.

And only after being with her did it occur to me that Christmas is in many respects a ritual about darkness. Like (the Western) New Year’s Day, its timing is linked to the winter solstice – the shortest day of the year. In the northern hemisphere, 25 December is far from the coldest time of year, but give or take a week, it is the darkest. And a great deal of its rituals focus on lights shining against that darkness – often lighting candles, but nowadays especially the small coloured lights on strings that, in North America, are known as “Christmas lights” whatever time of year they appear. So too, the English-language Christmas carols about Jesus’s birth repeatedly return to the theme of darkness and night, whether in their titles (“Silent Night,” “O Holy Night”) or in their content (when “O Little Town of Bethlehem” proclaims “But in thy dark street shineth the everlasting light”).

The emphasis on darkness and night doesn’t come from the Bible. As far as I can tell, the biblical accounts of Jesus’s birth mention only once that it took place at night, and that in passing: “In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night.” (Luke 2:8) Moreover, the biblical authors did not deem it important to fix a date for Jesus’s birth; it is generally agreed that the date of Christmas was chosen to coincide with a preexisting festival occurring near the winter solstice, though there is some debate as to which one.

I don’t know enough about the history of Christmas to say when and how the various night- and darkness-related aspects of its mythology emerged. But it seems likely to me that these have less to do with the birth of Jesus itself than with the timing of the festival at the winter solstice. The idea of light in the darkness makes some sense as a Christian metaphor for the presence of Jesus in a non-Christian world, but that doesn’t seem enough to explain the ubiquity of light and darkness language in the tradition, especially given the seasonal timing. (In this respect the celebration of Christmas by non-Christians feels less odd to me than its celebration by Australians.)

Here the meaning of Christmas seems to be: our year is now at its very darkest, but the light is coming, and even at the darkness we will hold back that darkness with lights of our own. One can read this as an allegory for Jesus, but one doesn’t have to. No wonder the Puritans, zealous exemplars of Protestant single-mindedness, sought to ban Christmas as a form of “popery” – there is so much in it that is not primarily about Jesus or his role in saving human beings. And those are the things I love about it.

No posts for the next two weeks, as I’ll be taking a break for Christmas – and for the New Year.