Christmas — it’s a party unlike any other and we’re all invited — everybody, all over the world! That’s pretty impressive.
Add a “Wow!” when you consider: Half the world’s population will be involved, one way or another, in a controversial celebration for the birthday boy held for centuries — and still today — on the wrong date!
Many participants know nothing about the honoree beyond his name, even though he is so important that all history is dated by whether the event occurred before or after his birth.
And old as the celebration is, there remains something of a mystery about the joyous event that is the cause of the celebration. Whether you believe, as Christians do, that the unique person born that night was Emanuel, he still embodies a universal hope and sought-after spirit that are worth celebrating.
Yet if or how to celebrate remains controversial to some. After all, it’s Jesus, the Christ — His name means “savior.” Many non-Christians, even non-religious folks, see a need for such a one when they view the state of the world around us or take a deeper look at themselves.
There are those who, though free to ignore or scoff at the event, not only decline to participate in the big bash but object to the publicly visible signs of elaborate preparations for the celebration and the excitement that permeates the atmosphere across national, ethnic and even religious boundaries.
Even some who really like — or love — the honoree for what he stands for have problems either with any celebration, or at least with the manner in which so many people observe what essentially is a religious event.
Do some of these things really matter? Probably not.
Modern Biblical scholars have pretty well established that the birth of Jesus took place in March or April, not December, based on where the shepherds would have had their sheep when they learned of the birth in Bethlehem. The actual year remains debatable because of conflicting ancient calendars.
Dec. 25 was chosen in the early 4th century by Emperor Constantine to “Christianize” a traditional Roman holiday celebrating “the birth of the sun.” Before that, the mysterious creation of the God-man, Emanuel — translated from the Hebrew as “God with us” — was seldom, if ever, celebrated with a public display by the followers of Jesus.
In fact, celebrating Christmas on that date was against the law in Puritan-dominated Massachusetts from 1659 through 1681. But as the culture gradually changed in this country and elsewhere, the popularity of Christmas celebrations grew, and by 1836 Alabama became the first state to make the day a legal holiday.
With the growing acceptance of the celebration (a recent survey by the Pew Research Center found that 65 percent of all Americans believe the biblical account of what happened at Christmas), is the true spirit of the occasion being overcome by commercialism and opposition from politically powerful minorities?
For those of us who want to keep Christ in Christmas, there is no need to panic, notes Dr. Gene Maddox, writing in the online newsletter of the Brooksville First United Methodist Church in Florida. There’s nothing wrong with gift-giving, family gatherings or parties, he wrote. The thing is to maintain the right priorities in whatever you do.
As an example of Christ-centered giving, the pastor cited the example of the magi, wise men of science who walked about 600 miles to deliver their gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh to the young boy who, 700 years earlier, the prophets said would be called “Wonderful, Counsellor, the Mighty God, the Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.”
Maddox pointed out that, according to Scripture, before they offered their gifts, the visitors fell to their knees and worshiped Jesus. “They gave of themselves — including their journey itself.” Then he added: “It is simple to keep Christ in Christmas — keep Christ in your life year-round.”
Even if you are not a Christian, there is much to appreciate about this season. Who could not enjoy the beautiful music proclaiming, “Peace on Earth among men of good will, those pleasing to God”?
Maybe we all should get to know more about this Jesus. Perhaps we would find that He is the gift. Isn’t that what the Bible teaches?
Adon Taft was the Miami Herald’s religion editor for 37 years.