The Secular and Sacred Spirit of Christmas
by David True, guest contributor
photo: Stuart Pilbrow
It’s become customary this time of year to hear concerns expressed about the loss of Christmas spirit. Sometimes these fears are more about one’s cultural identity — and the sense that one’s group is losing power and influence — than they are about the actual meaning of Christmas. At other times, one hears something that sounds less reactionary and more like a thoughtful: Have our Christmas rituals lost some of their meaning? Have they become old and tired or do they pale in comparison to more novel inventions?
Questions like these may be prompted by our experience or by polls like this one by the folks at Gallop, "Christmas Strongly Religious for Half in U.S. Who Celebrate It." These headlines, like all headlines, tend to be written provocatively, which appeals to the culture warrior in all of us as well as the thoughtful social critic who resides deeper in our hearts. The story seems to be one of a divided culture in which one half of us sees a profound meaning in Christmas and the other half is engaged in one long shopping frenzy. The reality is very different and as luck, fate, or grace would have, a good bit more comforting.
Our culture, despite its doses of divisiveness and superficiality, continues to bear meaning. Oftentimes this is explicitly and traditionally religious. The Gallop poll, for example, indicates that “a majority of Americans [incorporate] specific religious activities or symbols into their holiday celebrations. This includes 62 percent who attend religious services on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day, 65 percent who display decorations with a religious meaning, and 78 percent who take time to reflect on the birth of Christ.”
This is a good story, but it is not the entire story. Inspiration and meaning are not confined to our traditional Christian rituals. Meaning is born by an amazing array of rituals and novel experiences, some of which may strike us as superficial or simply non-religious. The Gallop poll, for example, defines gift-giving as “secular,” as if the giving and receiving of gifts isn’t capable of being a religiously significant event.
Modern culture is confusing in this way because so much of life has been removed from the control of the church. These areas may simultaneously be experienced as both secular and sacred, depending on the participants. Gift giving is a nice example, because it allows for different interpretations. I use the word “sacred” here, rather than “religious,” as a way to try to get at a sense of reality that is full of meaning, luminous, and profound, whether it be explicitly religious or not.
This view of reality shouldn’t come as a surprise to those of us who do celebrate Christmas religiously. Indeed, it is in keeping with the spirit of Christmas, that holy day of the hidden, in which a holy mystery is said to be revealed in a newly born baby, born not to a king and queen but to a very ordinary couple, hardly noticed at all, except for some rather ordinary shepherds. Praise be to the new born king and to mystery and meaning, hidden and revealed this Christmas season.
David True lives in Chambersburg, Pennsylvania and is Associate Professor of Religion at Wilson College, where he teaches courses in religion and ethics. He co-edits the journal Political Theology and regularly blogs at Tea Leaves.
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