I heard the bells on Christmas day
Their old familiar carols play,
And wild and sweet
the words repeat
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!
And thought how, as the day had come,
The belfries of all Christendom
Had rolled along
the unbroken song
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!
… And in despair I bowed my head;
“There is no peace on earth,” I said;
“For hate is strong
and mocks the song
Of peace on earth, good will to men!”
Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:
“God is not dead; nor doth he sleep!
The Wrong shall fail,
The Right prevail,
With peace on earth, good will to men!”
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, “Christmas Bells”, 1863
It’s Christmas time again. After having prepared for almost a month (or as in some stores, for a quarter of a year), having gone through the dilemma of finding gifts for all those you feel obligated to buy, and having listened to Wham’s Last Christmas for a gazillionth time on the radio, the time has finally come to meet your beloved relatives whom you don’t really like that much anyway, receive presents you may want to return to a store next week, and argue with your progressive uncle whether you should say “Merry Christmas” – like every normal human being does – or “Happy Holidays” (or even worse, “Happy Festive Season”). Or so it goes at least …
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s poem “Christmas Bells” from the Civil War era – same as the excellent adaption of Frank Sinatra – tells a different story, however, of a Christmas that surely can stand ground as the “best time of the year.” Truth to be told, I never understood all the Christmas grinches – what we got here is one of most exciting days possible. What characterizes Christmas are all the lovely Christmas markets, the hot punches while standing in the freezing cold, and finally reconnecting with your too often distanced loved ones. Even those Christmas songs we’ve heard so often, from Mariah Carey, to Paul McCartney or John Lennon, bring joy, and, to be blunt, how great is it to just take a break from the stress of normal life?
Most important, though, is the true meaning of Christmas, which seems to have been forgotten by far too many. Many atheists have tried to convince people that Christmas really is a pagan feast – which is quite shocking: Christmas is celebrating the birth of Jesus Christ (and before someone will say that Jesus was probably not born on December 25 – yes! It’s the celebration of his birth, not birthday). As the famous carol “O Come, All Ye Faithful” goes (a wonderful musical rendition is the one by Nat King Cole):
O come, all ye faithful, joyful and triumphant!
O come ye, O come ye to Bethlehem;
Come and behold him
Born the King of Angels:
O come, let us adore Him,
Christ the Lord.
It is a story we all know too well, but needs to be reiterated again and again, as told in Luke 2.4-11 (NIV):
So Joseph also went up from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to Bethlehem the town of David, because he belonged to the house and line of David. He went there to register with Mary, who was pledged to be married to him and was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born, and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no guest room available for them. And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord.”
The rest, as they say, is history. What followed was one of the most remarkable developments the world has ever seen. Jesus became a preacher of peace and love, and, despite living for no more than thirty years, he would become the most influential human being to ever live. After his death, this “obscure oriental cult,” as the newly developing religion was seen as, took only three centuries to become the new normal in the Roman Empire. As Michael Kulikowski writes, “the majority of urban Romans actively thought of themselves as Christians by the end of the fourth century. Rejecting Christianity now stood as the marked and unusual choice that embracing it had been 200 years before.”
In the following centuries, the Church would become the dominant force of social as well as political life – sometimes for the better, sometimes for the worse. The first examples of capitalism, for example, were seen in Christian monasteries, and, one of the Western world’s fundamental values, reason, was predestined to prevail in Europe thanks to a religion that allowed – or better said, even promoted it (not always of course), as Rodney Stark explains in his work The Victory of Reason.
Indeed, God Himself in the Hebrew Bible set the path for Christianity to become the belief system focused on the individual and his relations to his fellow beings, as we know it today. Since God proclaimed in Exodus 20.3 that “You shall have no other gods before me”, the Israelite people became the first people who would continuously believe in one God only. The consequence of this cannot be overstated: Since there was only one God – who is Jahwe – no king or other political authority could be a God either like in other religions, such as in Egypt, where the Pharaoh was seen as a deity whose word was supreme. This distinction established that there was a higher moral authority than the state, a natural law originating from God, and therefore the right to resist it. The idea of natural law would later be built upon by such figures as St. Thomas Aquinas and John Locke, whose works would lay the foundations for a liberal society.1 That Jahwe Himself was skeptical of government was made clear in 1 Samuel 8, when God warned the Israelites as they asked for an Earthly king.
The Christian God went even further. Take sin as an example. To quote from Stark:
From the beginning, Christianity has taught that sin is a personal matter—that it does not inhere primarily in the group, but each individual must be concerned with her or his personal salvation. Perhaps nothing is of greater significance to the Christian emphasis on individualism than the doctrine of free will. … While God knows what we will freely decide to do, he does not interfere! Therefore it remains up to us to choose virtue or sin. … The idea of free will did not originate with Christians (Cicero expressed views somewhat similar to Augustine’s), but for them it was not an obscure philosophical matter. Rather, it was the fundamental principle of their faith.
Whatever one might think about Christianity (or religion overall), it is undoubtedly true that the almost infamous Judeo-Christian principles played a large role in how Europe and the West developed – and why this area of the world suddenly became so successful, while others stuck behind. There were many contributing factors to why capitalism developed in Europe, and not somewhere else – but Christianity played a large role. There were many contributing factors in why slavery was abolished first in the Western world, and not somewhere else – but Christianity played a large role. These are just two examples of how Christianity’s emphasis on individual liberty, and on human dignity – still missing in some world religions to this day – made the Western world more free.
Christmas is definitely a feast to get together with family, our loved ones, and just show gratitude to our fellow human beings. However, the most important reason to celebrate Christmas is to recall when God became incarnate, became flesh, and to celebrate the momentous impact this event has had on our history. It is unbelievable indeed what major consequences the birth of this small baby in a shed somewhere in Israel two thousand years ago had.
To an open house in the evening
Home shall men come,
To an older place than Eden
And a taller town than Rome.
To the end of the way of the wandering star,
To the things that cannot be and that are,
To the place where God was homeless
And all men are at home.
G.K. Chesterton, “The House of Christmas”, 1912
1. Thanks to Nathan Keeble for pointing this out to me.