This article is neither for nor against the traditional Christian meaning of Christmas. It stems from a desire to define a broader perspective: One that respects the conventional view, while also extending the significance of the holiday to those for whom this tradition is not meaningful.
For those of us who live in the Western world, Christmas is part of our society, whether the holiday has religious meaning to us or not. It’s a big part of our culture, in the broadest possible sense of the word culture. It has an impact on our lives, were it only because of all the marketing that goes with it.
Not only that. In the Western world, the reference for time is the first Christmas. We may not be explicitly referring to this year as ‘the year 2019 of our Lord’ in a religious sense. But, for better or worse, this is how we measure time, whether we think of this scale as ‘AD’ (Anno Domini) or ‘CE’ (Common Era).
In other words, we live in a world where a multiplicity of meanings are possible and not necessarily mutually exclusive. About Christmas, about the way we measure time, about what is essential in politics, about what truly matters in life.
It is not derogatory to the traditional meaning of Christmas to notice that the way of celebrating the holiday has evolved. As the Christian religion extended through Europe, the celebration of the birth of Christ merged with the much more ancient pagan ritual of celebrating the winter solstice, and the festivals of light. Combining both does not reduce the spiritual value that the holiday has for Christians. One can argue that it has enriched it. This combination has endured through the centuries, to the point that we now take it for granted.
The rhythms of nature and society
Historically, what we call Christmas is both a religious holiday and the current manifestation of a more ancient pagan custom. The ancient ritual celebrates the rhythm of the natural world. Every year, darkness increases until it progressively takes over most of the day. Around the end of the third week of December, the light starts coming back. In the height of darkness is the beginning of more light.
If the Christian tradition has resonance for you, of course, keep Christ in Christmas. But Christmas need not be limited to the meaning it has within a Christian context.
For one thing, there is the solstice tradition and all of its meaning. But there is also all the hoopla that we culturally created around the holiday: Santa Claus, dreaming of a white Christmas, Rudy’s red nose. And, last but not least, all the potlatch consumption. For better or worse, all these practices are a big part of how we express celebrations in our culture. We may have a love-hate relationship with them, but they are our tradition. They are significant in the sense that they are an integral part of the way we experience the world. So, even if Christ is not what makes it Christmas for you, you can still find some meaning in Christmas (whether you like this meaning, or not).
The letter X
Now, why does the title refer to Xmas? There is a symbolic value in this.
Historically, the ‘X’ in Xmas stands for the Greek letter that is pronounced ‘chi’ and is the initial of ‘Christos.’ The letter ‘chi’ was imbued with meaning by the early Greek-speaking Christians. They saw it as a symbolic representation of Christ. But this need not be the only meaning of the letter ‘chi.’ You can think of it as the letter we use as a variable in equations or to represent unknown quantities. Meaning is not an absolute: It is what something means to you.
At Xmas, I honor the fluidity and diversity of meanings that have been appropriated to form the current concept of Christmas.