The ‘Why’ of Christmas

December 25, 2018 Updated: December 25, 2018

The jolly season is with us. Those of a nonreligious disposition will probably go “bah humbug,” note that Christ wasn’t really born on Christmas Day, and that this is all one great fantasy; or perhaps, and more hopefully, shrug their shoulders and enjoy the festivities as much as anyone else might. Why, then, exactly, does Christmas matter, as in, really matter?

Certainly, “Christmas” seems to have been celebrated long before Christianity. The Roman god Saturn had his celebrations on the 25th of December. And the fact that the date preceded Christ does not invalidate it as our Christmas Day, for that would be to fall prey to a dreadful literalism that would mean we were not reading it properly.

Geertgen_tot_Sint_Jans,_The_Nativity_at_Night,1490
The main source of light in “Nativity at Night” is the baby Jesus. By Geertgen tot Sint Jans, circa 1490, after a composition by Hugo van der Goes. National Gallery. (Public Domain)

On the contrary, the fact that Saturn was worshiped on this day only tends to make its importance greater. Why? Because it points to something deep within the human psyche that persists and is made manifest on the 25th of December.

According to the Last Trumpet Ministries, the Romans noticed that three days after the shortest day of the year (which varies in the Northern Hemisphere between Dec. 20, 21, 22, or 23), the sunlight started increasing! So the god had died and three days later had risen from the dead and begun to light the world again. Surely, a reason to celebrate. For how could this be understood other than that light had overcome darkness, and that chaos had been defeated by … by what exactly? By the god Saturn, of course!

The First, Second, and Third Lessons

Adoration of the Magi, circa 1530, Albrecht Altdorfer
“Adoration of the Magi,” circa 1530, Albrecht Altdorfer. (Public Domain)

The first lesson of psychic importance, then, is that life triumphs over death.

Secondly, how life triumphs over death is miraculous; it is not something a human being can devise to do. It happens of its own accord and by its own divine power. We do not set the laws that regulate when our days are long and when they are short. As the “Ancient Egyptian Book of the Dead” states: “All the world which lies below has been set in order and filled in contents by the things which are placed above; for the things below have not the power to set in order the world above.”

Third, we owe thanks and gratitude for this wonder of life, and bizarrely, as we exercise thanks and gratitude, we feel even better and see even more wonder in life.

This wonder of life! Wonder of human life. What is it about, and why is Christmas important? Is it just so that we can express gratitude and share with one another? What if there were even more to it than that?

Questions by Man and Beast

Nativity-Meister_von_Hohenfurth
The Nativity, circa 1350, by Master of Vyšší Brod. (Public Domain)

When I consider the life forms nearest to us, the mammals, I ask myself: “What do animals ask themselves?” and I come up with a surprising answer. Unselfconsciously, animals ask themselves two simple questions: What? and How?

They say, what is that I see coming toward me? Cat, dog, vacuum cleaner? Answer: run, freeze, attack! Or they ask: How do I get to that little sparrow chirping in the hedge? And at some instinctive level, their next movement is an answer to their own question.

So far, so good. But what question do they never ask?

They never ask “why. Why are things as they are? Why does cork float, water boil, or why does the universe exist at all? Why is there being, and not not-being? This last question almost gets us to thinking about our own existential angst.

Life_Christ_on ivory panel Louvre
The Nativity in the center of a late 10th-century ivory panel, in Constantinople. Musée du Louvre. (Public Domain)

The icecaps may be melting, and polar bears are attempting to survive, although not by experiencing existential angst about their status on the planet. And, of course, once “why has truly been removed from the reasoning of a human being, then he or she only asks “what” and “how.”

To limit one’s questions to “what” and “how” is, for a human, to be in hell. Sisyphus in hell cannot ask why he is rolling the stone up the hill perpetually, for if he could ask that question, he would stop.

Yes, we see people living in hell, and a sure sign of it is the repetitive task that need not be done, but constantly is being done. In hell, one never gets to the root of any issue or problem, or sees why it is as it is. Indeed, as Ingmar Bergman observed: “Hell is a place where no one believes in solutions anymore.”

Mural_-_Birth_of_Christ in Jordan
A Greek Orthodox mural in the John the Baptist Church in Jordan. (David Bjorgen / CC BY 2.5)

Effectively, to be in hell is to be subtracted, as it were, from the total reality. Usually when humans ask only the “what” and “how” questions, they cannot accept reality as it is and prefer the false self-images that they have created, which become a protective physical and emotional shell.

Adoration_magi_on sacophogus
Adoration of the Magi on the central panel of a sarcophagus in the cemetery of St. Agnes in Rome, fourth century A.D. (Public Domain)

The Logos at the Center

So why is “why” important? Because the “why” questions point to the reason human beings are different and unique, because “why” points to the centrality of meaning in our lives. No meaning, no real life.

What is it that has defeated the darkness and the chaos? Light and meaning. What we are celebrating at the profoundest level on Christmas Day is the advent of meaning in our lives; meaning, of course, gives purpose, and purpose presupposes destiny, and destiny, unlike fate (where we are trapped), involves greatness.

earliest Madonna and child - 800 AD
Possibly the earliest surviving example of a Western Madonna and Child, from the Book of Kells, circa 800 A.D. (Public Domain)
illuminated German manuscript-adoration of Magi
A German illuminated manuscript with two scenes of the Magi, circa, 1220. (Public Domain)

So, in the Christian tradition, light and meaning became identified with the birth of Christ. For one reason, a baby symbolizes every family’s hopes; and more specifically, this baby is—as all babies potentially are—destined for greatness. But there is more: The meaning at Christmas is personal, since the baby is a person.

Thus, meaning involves light, personhood, and an answer to the question “why?” Meaning and the question “why” are a hand-and-glove combination, as one layers the other. We have “why,” and covering it is the meaning. This the ancient religious traditions recognized. Perhaps the most famous example of all is the opening to John’s Gospel, where we read: “In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God.”

Importantly, “Word” in Greek is “logos,” and this not only means “word,” but also “meaning” or “reason”; we can see its etymological root in our word “logic” today. Logic suggests rationality, coherence, consistency, and order. So we have: In the beginning was the meaning, who was with God and the meaning was God.

How extraordinary, and how abstract—if it weren’t for the fact that on Christmas Day we also have the baby!

Christmas requires us to believe that meaning and order are at the root of life, not chaos and disintegration; that personhood and light overcome the animal in us, and the darkness; and that—if you will—one person transcendently represents this epic battle.

And here’s the thing: Meaning, or reason, cannot be proved by reason; it can only be accessed by faith. As G.K. Chesterton observed: “In so far as religion is gone, reason is going.  For they are both of the same primary and authoritative kind.  They are both methods of proof, which cannot themselves be proved.”

How stunning; we in the modern world like to think that reason dictates our behaviors. But reason is as irrational as faith is perceived to be, in the sense that reason cannot prove itself we have to believe in reason. And so in an important way, the foundation of science is faith, just as it is the foundation of religious beliefs.

Christmas invites us to celebrate not just a belief in a person, which may be optional for many, but also a belief in the order, the rationality, the meaning of the cosmos, and so of the meaning of our lives.

“L’adoration des bergers,” (“The Adoration of the Shepherds”), circa 1644, by Georges de La Tour. (Public Domain)

No matter how dark and cold it is outside (we are in the Northern Hemisphere, after all), and no matter how short the day (or our lives may individually be), there is a massive meaning at the heart of it all. And this meaning wildly celebrates life and invites us to give thanks for it.

In this series, Myths: Mapping Our Way Home, James Sale revisits why myths—all but discounted today—remain crucial to understanding our place in the universe, if not to our very survival.

James Sale is an English businessman and the creator of Motivational Maps, which operates in 14 countries. He has authored over 40 books from major international publishers, including Macmillan, Pearson, and Routledge, on management, education, and poetry. As a poet, he won First Prize in The Society of Classical Poets’ 2017 competition.

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