“God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.”
-E. Scrooge, Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol”
The Holy Trinity is among the most bewildering of all the religious doctrines that human beings have ever conceived. It supposes a God-head in three parts, specifically denominated the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost (or Holy Spirit in most Protestant denominations).
The idea is that Jesus, the Son of God, was also God incarnate, conceived (literally through the womb of the Virgin Mary) by the creator God (the Father) as His gift to offer salvation for humanity. Thus, early Christians worshipped a dualistic God, which seemed somewhat heretical in terms of Judaic teachings, which stressed monotheism over the competing polytheistic religions of the day.
For reasons that those far more versed in the history and sanctity of the religion may be able to explain, the early Christians determined to broaden this view of God even further. And so, in the years following the establishment of a society of Christ-worshippers (probably in the third, fourth and fifth centuries), the concept of a Holy Trinity took root. It envisions a God that has the three forms of Father, Son and Holy Ghost, although any further definition of these forms has always been as amorphous as the very idea of God itself must inevitably be.
Still, for Christians throughout the world (saving only those—principally the Unitarians—who reject the concept) the picture exists of a Michelangelo-type “older” God, typically with a long grey beard, sitting next to a younger Jesus at the head of a table of attending angels, archangels and other celestial types. The Holy Ghost is rarely shown in these depictions, since it is “wholly” spiritual, and thereby, presumably, incapable of being envisioned at all.
Ironically, the celebration of the birth of Christ has developed into a trinity of its own. Call this one the “Unholy Trinity.” Like the three-in-one Christian God, in which each form is but a part of the whole, never entirely separate from the other, yet distinctly recognizable (or at least definable), the celebration of Christmas has also assumed a three-in-one identity in which each form is also distinctly recognizable.
Yet, as with the Holy Trinity, each form of Christmas tends to meld into the others, with the result that the whole is something less than the sum of its parts: unholy, as it were. And so we have the following distinct and yet wholly joined ways that Christmas is observed in the United States:
o Religious Christmas – The birth of Jesus is one of the great Biblical stories, complete with melodrama (no room at the inn, birth in a manger), spectacle (witnessed by shepherds who saw a great star over the site, visited by three kings who brought gifts for the new-born child) and joy (the redemption of God’s promise to the long-suffering children of Israel).
In Religious Christmas, the words from the Gospel of John are recalled and cherished. God’s greatest gift is recognized in the birthday of his son, but not in the sense of human birthdays, which celebrate the joys of parenthood and childhood and life. Christ’s birth is celebrated in Religious Christmas for the hope it provides humanity for deliverance from the sins of life and for the promise of life everlasting in the company of God Himself.
o Secular Christmas – The sense of hope that Religious Christmas provides promotes the general feeling of good will that is the hallmark of Secular Christmas. Greeting cards that speak of peace and joy and that wish all the best to friends and family are part of Secular Christmas. “Merry Christmas,” said in greeting as a substitute for “Hello,” speaks to the sense of optimism that pervades all but the grumpiest of Scrooges.
Secular Christmas also includes the parties and dinners that saturate the season. The holiday, joyous and uplifting as it is, naturally promotes fellowship and conviviality, and these, in turn, suggest, indeed dictate, social occasions.
But note the lack of anything truly religious in these celebrations. The frivolity of an office party, the casual bonhomie of a “Merry Christmas” and those occasionally interesting, more often mildly annoying, “here’s-our-year-in-review” Christmas letters have little to do with the essence of Religious Christmas, even though they are meant to commemorate the same event.
o Commercial Christmas – The economic side of Christmas is nothing less than awesome, especially in a later-stage capitalist society such as exists in the U.S. today. Gift-giving is more than a ritual (as in a ceremonious reminder of a deeper spiritualism). It is a requirement of the season. Gifts are expected, partly in return for those given, partly because our economy is built around them, and partly as a natural outgrowth of Secular Christmas.
The American economy is dependent on Commercial Christmas, even though it has little to do with the birth of the babe in the manger. Oh, retailers will claim there is a link. The wise men, they will remind us, brought gifts to the newborn, and from that point they will stress that Christmas is for children (which is a sales pitch that few parents can ignore).
But in truth, Commercial Christmas is largely about many things that Religious Christmas is not: greed (retailers aren’t giving their merchandise away), selfishness (children aren’t taught “’tis better to give than to receive”) and decadence (how many toys does any child really need?) In Commercial Christmas, Christ’s birth has been desecrated, first by being lost, and then by being forgotten.
And yet Commercial Christmas is but a logical outgrowth of the original Christmas story. It is no less a part of our culture now than the greeting cards that celebrate His birth, while at the same time promoting the greed-laden, corporation-controlled economic system that ignores His birth.
A cynic might think God would be laughing at our foolish abuse of His greatest gift. But, hey, it’s Christmas, and far be it for me to detract from the joys of the day.
And so, with the bustle of the season now fully upon us, “Merry Christmas,” in whichever form you choose to celebrate it.