'Ask ten people what Christmas means to them, and you’re likely to get a dozen different answers, depending on their ages, personal beliefs, and past experiences. Children, of course, see Christmas as a chance to receive gifts. Parents enjoy providing those gifts, and engendering happiness in the little ones. We all, I hope, become a little more benevolent, a little less critical, a little more caring, as December matures.
I’ve often wondered what it is about Christmas that so unites people of many nationalities and beliefs, and usually seems to bring out the best in us. Most of us give more, sacrifice more, seem to actually love one another more at this time of year than any other. It’s a special holiday that often brings us together like nothing else.
The answer is probably too abstract to define. We know, historically and biblically, that Jesus wasn’t born on 25 December, but probably during the summer, and there is no command in the bible to celebrate any event except His death (Luke 22:19). Even so, folks want to celebrate His birth, and it probably seems more fitting to do that at Christmas than any other time. Maybe it’s because we traditionally give and receive gifts at Christmas, which represent, in a way, the invaluable gift Christ gave us in His death.
Roman emperor Constantine effectively ended three centuries of persecution of the Lord’s church in 313 A.D. with the Edict of Milan, which proclaimed tolerance of all religions. He subsequently decreed that Jesus’ birthday would be celebrated on 25 December, to conflict with the era’s popular worship of the pagan sun god, Mithras. The emperor didn’t force people to worship the one true God. He encouraged them to choose.
Constantine realized, I believe, that mandatory obedience to authority is adequate in this life, but in preparation for the eternal life to come, submission must be voluntary. Roman authorities had, for three hundred years, been requiring captured Christians to recant their faith or be martyred for it. Constantine must have realized that, even from a secular, Roman point of view, nothing was gained by such practice except resentment and hatred.
Constantine was trying to unite people in a way never tried before, by encouraging them to get along despite their differences in tradition, custom, and religion. He is remembered as the first Roman emperor who accepted Christianity, but his actions seem to indicate that his goal was to span the differences between people of various philosophies, loyalties, and beliefs. His eastern capital, Constantinople, is still the only city built not just in two countries, but on two continents, though its name has been changed to Istanbul.
Christmas, then, may have been Constantine’s way of trying to bring people together without using force, a decidedly Christian principle. Maybe that’s what we’re trying to emulate when our attitudes soften and coalesce as Christmas approaches. Peace on earth may be too much to hope for, but goodwill toward men begins on a personal level.
President U.S. Grant signed a bill into law on 28 June 1870, declaring Independence Day, Thanksgiving Day, and Christmas Day as national holidays. Not that Americans didn’t previously celebrate those occasions, but the bill served to recognize that those holidays were significant to our country’s well being and spirit of unity as a nation. Christmas became, at that point, not only a religious holiday, but a national one.
It seems ludicrous, then, that so much dissension is created when municipalities erect Christmas displays depicting nativity scenes, crosses, and the like. The fact that Christmas is a national holiday and that the holiday was instigated to celebrate the birth of our Savior should dispel any protest toward these decorations. The fact that Jesus was not born in December, in that light, has nothing to do with the issue. If freedom means anything to anyone, it must mean the same thing for everyone. Freedom to display holiday decorations, and freedom to ignore them.
When we choose to fight over such trivia, we not only negate the purpose of Christmas as a national holiday, but we scorn the hope it creates in our fellowman that our differences can be overcome, that we can live in harmony despite our disagreements; that, just for a while, we can be tolerant of those with whom we disagree.
Personally, I celebrate Christmas as a national holiday, but not a religious occasion. That doesn’t mean I’m offended by those who celebrate it as Jesus’ birthday. Anytime we acknowledge our Lord and Savior, I believe, is a good thing. To complain would be disingenuous and decidedly non-Christian (Mark 9:40).
This Christmas, it would be nice if we could start to focus on our similarities instead of our differences, be a little less critical of others, and remember that although 25 December may not be the day Jesus was born, the holiday can be used by the faithful to spread the good news to others. If we can do that during the holiday season, we may be able to learn to do it throughout the year.
Constantinople was, in the end, just a man who was trying to accomplish something good in the world. He made mistakes like everyone else, but I think his goal was noble. We’re all human, and we all make mistakes, but if we apply even the rudiments of Christianity and try to think of others more than ourselves, we can make our neighborhoods, our towns, and our entire country a better place.
Merry Christmas, and may the peace, grace, and love of God be with you all.
Kendal Hemphill is an outdoor humor columnist and public speaker. Write to him at PO Box 1600, Mason, Tx 76856 or firstname.lastname@example.org