For a great many conservative Christians and their atheist counterparts, Christmas is about believing that angels really told shepherds about the birth of a baby, and that a star did the same for Persian astrologers – and the annual seasonal activity of fighting over the literal truthfulness or falsehood of those stories.
For some, Christmas is about time spent with family, which of course it really and truly is – but the same can be said of a great many holidays.
So what is the meaning of Christmas? From my perspective as a progressive Christian and a New Testament scholar, stories of miraculous births were ancient people's way of indicating the importance of an individual. If they made such an amazing impact as an adult, celestial entities must have seen it coming and offered portents, signs, and wonders.
But then, as now, the point was not to focus on the birth itself, but to use a marking of the birth to celebrate the entire life. We do the same when we celebrate the birthday of a famous person.
And so if you are among those who tend to fight over the miracles, whether for or against their having literally happened, I invite you to consider the historical Jesus, the adult Jesus, the figure who actually made the impact. In a world in which cycles of violence and retaliation continue to spin and wreak havoc, I invite you to consider the one who taught his apprentices to not repay evil for evil – to stand firm against evil, but without resorting to the same methods as those who perpetrate violence or injustice against them. It is the life of one whose words have inspired many other individuals who have in turn had a powerful impact, down countless generations – and whose words and identity have, like those of all great figures, been hijacked and twisted to serve every possible agenda you can imagine.
Conservative Christians are the ones renowned for saying that “Jesus is the reason for the season.” So why do so many of them insist on turning it into a season for fighting about angels and censuses and stars?
On this day, I invite you to consider the actual meaning behind Christmas, behind the legends and myths and stories and traditions. A life that made an impact that ancient people understandably celebrated in the framework of their ancient mythological worldview – and that some people today inexplicably insist on celebrating in the same sort of way.
Forget the additions, the trappings, the accretions, the creeds, the stories of the miraculous. They have become distractions. If they ever served a purpose, it was to draw attention to an actual human being, the things he taught, and the sort of life he lived.
I won't try to squeeze or condense that remarkable impact into the remainder of this post. It's Christmas. If there ever was a fitting time to do so, this is it. Go ahead and discover Jesus – the real human being, from whom this day distracts so many of those who claim to be his followers and his opponents alike.