As the Christmas season approaches, some anticipate it with wonder and faith, and others dread it as a reminder of pain and loss. And then there are many others who simply do not understand or resonate with the meaning or purpose of the holiday. Thomas Moore’s new book, The Soul of Christmas, is for all of these, and for the ones who don’t even think about the season at all. In this gentle and accessible book, Moore explores the imagery, the mystery, and the power of the stories, leaving aside Christian dogma or teaching and reaching for the sublime and the deeply human within them.
Patheos reached out to the author with questions our readers might ask. His answers both invite and provoke; they invite us into a new encounter with the season and they provoke questions and hopes for all the possibilities it might yet hold.
In what ways is Christmas really a festival for people of every faith, or even of no faith?
It combines the meaning of the winter solstice—darkness leading to hope—with the main thrust in the teachings of Jesus, whose birth lies at the heart of Christmas—leaving the old way of self-interest, legalism, and competition behind and living a life based on love and respect for people.
What do you hope people can take away from your book? How can it help us as we approach the craziness of the December season?
With a deeper understanding of gift-giving, carols, food, and gatherings, a person could celebrate Christmas in more meaningful ways. You would have more solid motivation and perform all the usual rituals more thoughtfully.
What can Jesus mean for the non-Christian? How can he still bring blessing without all the doctrine about him?
It might help to notice how many people who are not Buddhist follow many Buddhist principles and methods without becoming Buddhists. It could be the same with Jesus, only there is that heavy load of tradition to set aside. You do have to take a fresh look at the Jesus teaching and try to free it up from all the dogma and authority.
In the Christmas story Jesus is not just a human being but a mythic or spiritual being, as well. You can hear the story as a great sacred tale about a figure who can help people be more loving and communal. His mother, then, is also bigger than life, a virgin mother, as sometimes happens in mythology, to show that Jesus is not entirely human but is a spiritual figure.
I especially liked your chapter on the manger and the animals. Tell us a bit about how, for you, that ties in with nature.
The birth of Jesus takes place in a humble barn where there are animals, tradition says, and shepherds. It’s a natural setting in which the sky, too, is prominent. The story of Jesus is huge in scope, offering a radically fresh way of making sense of life: not following the rules and looking out for yourself, but being a forgiving, healing and altruistic person. The world itself would change if we took Christmas seriously, and therefore the celebration has cosmic dimensions.
Tell us something about Marsilio Ficino, who features in one of your chapters. Why has he been so influential in your life?
I came across Ficino when I plucked a book off a library shelf and opened it to a random page, where I found an article on this interesting man from 15th-century Italy. He was a priest, musician, astrologer, Platonist, translator, healer, and champion of the soul. He continues to inspire me toward making the world an enchanting, animated, and beautiful place.
Do you think you could write a book like this on Easter, the other major Christian holiday?
What a good idea! I haven’t thought about this, but yes, of course I could take any of the festivals and show how deep and relevant they are if you look at them closely. Easter is about how each of us can resurrect from a deathly way of life. The feast of Annunciation shows how we can all become pregnant, spiritually of course, with something divine. The Ascension teaches that we each have a home in another, higher world. It’s all a special kind of metaphor and very real for our own experience.