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‘So What’: The ‘Meaning of Christmas’ Is Losing Its Place in Secular America

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Does the meaning of Christmas still matter when everyone can create their own meaning? Let’s find out.
Photo by Thoom/Shutterstock.com


You know the moment: Charlie Brown’s just been laughed at by everyone for his feeble excuse for a Christmas tree (even Snoopy laughs!), and Charlie, dejected, turns to Linus, throws his head back and wails, “ISN’T THERE ANYONE WHO KNOWS WHAT CHRISTMAS IS ALL ABOUT?”

If you’ve even considered this question this December, then this article is for you.

Maybe you feel like Christmas is under attack; like Starbucks’ blank red cups and “Happy Holidays” and the removal of nativity scenes from courthouse lawns all signify an active destruction of something important, something traditional, something central to the American identity, even.

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Maybe you worry about the meaning of Christmas in a pluralistic, subjective age, because if everyone creates their own meaning, then how can there even be a true meaning of Christmas?

What now? Is there meaning to Christmas in our world today?

Or maybe you think Christmas is doing fine; 75% of Americans identify as Christians, after all; it’s just a matter of separating church and state; and as far as Christmas being “American,” most of the founding fathers were deists and atheists anyway! Maybe you don’t see a problem.

If we can agree on anything, it’s that Christmas can be a contentious time of year. And whatever you think, it’s pretty clear that the conflict isn’t going away. So the real question becomes:

What now? Is there meaning to Christmas in our world today?

LightWorkers Meaning of Christmas

Photo by Olga Kovalenko/Shutterstock.com

The first step to answering these questions is recognizing that we live in a secular age. Let me explain what I mean by that. In his extremely insightful (and extremely long) book, “A Secular Age,” philosopher Charles Taylor defines a secular age as having three characteristics: first, while “the political organization of all pre-modern societies” had some connection to God, “the modern Western state” does not; second, there is a widespread “falling off of religious belief and practice”; and third, where once faith was “unchallenged and indeed, unproblematic,” it is now understood to be just another option.

That’s the meaning of Christmas, today and forever: the simple story of God’s extraordinary hope for you and me.

Sound about right? As Taylor puts it, “Belief in God is no longer axiomatic. There are alternatives.” This, above all else, is what Taylor defines as secular: we bump up against conflicting perspectives on a daily basis, and oftentimes, belief in God is not one of them.

Like it or not, our nation is by and large a secular nation. And we could quibble about when it happened—there’s talk of “Nature’s God” in the Declaration of Independence and Christmas has been celebrated in the White House since 1800—but the fact remains that right now, we live in a culture of alternatives. And whether there’s a “War on Christmas” or not is ultimately inconsequential, because the steady secularization of the Western world will probably take us there anyway. Right? Christmas is now just another option.

And yet.

The second step to answering the question of Christmas’ meaning today is to take a long, hard look at the Christmas story. Go ahead. Strip away the frills. Peel away the tinsel. Forget about December 25; Pope Julius I stole it from the pagan Saturnalia festival, anyway. Bethlehem, 0 AD. Just look.

And in the middle of this, in the midst of all that noise, is a newborn baby cradled in his teenage mother’s arms.

When I read the Gospel account of Jesus’ birth, I’m struck by how unremarkable it seems. There’s the manger, of course. No guest room available in the inn. But remember, the city is teeming with people, thanks to Caesar Augustus’ census decree. Hundreds of people have returned to the city, reuniting with family, carousing in the inn, wandering the dusty streets, laughing, fighting, hoping, living. And in the middle of this, in the midst of all that noise, is a newborn baby cradled in his teenage mother’s arms. It’s simple, isn’t it? The shepherds will arrive soon. The magi, too. And it’s a fragile moment, fraught with danger; eventually, Herod’s men will arrive in the city, ordered to kill every infant boy they see. But Mary and Joseph don’t know that yet. All they know is Him. So for now, on that night, she holds her son, her husband kneeling beside her. And that’s it.

LightWorkers Meaning of Christmas

Photo by Thoom/Shutterstock.com

I think we forget that, from the very beginning, the story of Christmas was never about prominence or relevance or power. Jesus’ birth was none of these things. It was overlooked. It was forgettable. It was extremely humble. And that’s kind of the point.

Maybe the meaning of Christmas really is losing its place in secular America, giving way to countless other alternatives and beliefs, and if I may ask, so what?

Christmas—and Christianity, really—is at its best when it’s up against something, when it’s the still small voice in a world of noise.

Christianity, at its core, is countercultural and anti-prestige. Paul writes in Philippians 2 that when Jesus became man, he “emptied himself, taking the form of a servant…” This whole thing about denying ourselves, as Jesus urged us, taking up our cross and following him, through suffering, through anonymity, through the alternatives. Christmas—and Christianity, really—is at its best when it’s up against something, when it’s the still small voice in a world of noise.

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In a way, the Christmas story is like Charlie Brown’s feeble tree. It’s not flashy or astonishing. It’s sparse, humble, almost laughably so. But that’s okay. As Linus says, plainly, pulling his thumb from his mouth for a brief moment, “That’s what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown.” That’s the meaning of Christmas, today and forever: the simple story of God’s extraordinary hope for you and me.

Trust me. It still stands out.