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A season of light

Published:Friday | December 26, 2014 | 12:00 AM

Peter Espeut, Contributor

The celebration of Christmas is being attacked from all sides: from secularists for whom any religious celebration is anathema; and from fundamentalist Old Testament Christians who wish to retain the Old Covenant celebrations described in the Hebrew scriptures.

In addition, the retail sector, backed by mass media, has captured Christmas as their cash cow; they have rebranded Christmas into a shopping season.

Those of us who retain our genuine religious heritage have to make a clear distinction between Christmas, the Christian celebration, and Christmas, the commercial bazaar. In addition, we must not confuse the cultural trappings of local Christian traditions (e.g., Christmas trees, cards, cake and ham, Yule logs, mistletoe, and sorrel), with the religious celebration of Christmas.

Even though the Western Christian world celebrates Jesus' birth on December 25, no one I know says Jesus was actually born on that day - certainly no one in the mainstream Church. Therefore, those who have recently discovered this - and believe they have caught the Christian church in a lie - are somewhat like Christopher Columbus: discovering something that was always there!

Why did Western Christianity choose to celebrate the birth of Christ on December 25 rather than any other day? There is very good reason, and we need to know it, otherwise we might be taken in by those like Ian Boyne, who claim that "Christmas has absolutely nothing to do with biblical Christianity and is a pagan-derived festival adopted for strategic and political reasons".

Symbolism

December 25 is chock-full of the religious symbolism of darkness and light. You have to have the heart and soul of a poet (rather than a scientist or historian) to understand what is in the Bible and what Christianity is all about.

In Christian symbolism, before Jesus came, the world was in darkness (the darkness of sin caused by The Fall). The darkest day of the year is December 21 (the Winter Solstice), which has the longest night and the shortest day. During the weeks leading up to Christmas, the days get shorter (symbolically, darkness is conquering light), but in the days after the solstice, the days begin to get longer (light begins to conquer darkness). If you want to pick a day to celebrate the coming of Jesus (the light) into the world, what better time could you choose?

John the poet-evangelist puts it like this: "What has come into being in him is life - life that is the light of men; and that light shines in darkness, and darkness could not overpower it" (John 1:4-5).

The symbolism goes on. After Christmas, even though the days are getting longer, the night is still of longer duration - until Easter. Easter always falls after the Vernal Equinox - one of the two days each year when day and night are of equal length. After Easter, the celebration of Jesus' resurrection (when he conquered sin and its consequences, one of which is death), the days are longer than the night hours. Symbolically, light has finally conquered darkness, and the world is different.

Sun worshippers in the ancient world celebrated the festival of Dies Natalis Solis Invicti - the Birthday of the Conquering Sun - on December 25, which has led gullible iconoclasts to believe that Christmas began as a pagan celebration. No matter how many times this false theory is exploded, those who wish to believe it stubbornly persist.

Earlier celebration

First of all, the Christian celebration of Christmas predates the pagan celebration of the Dies Natalis Solis Invicti, promulgated only in 274 AD by Roman Emperor Aurelian. How could Christmas have begun as a pagan celebration if the celebration of the birth of Christ took place before the pagan feast began?

We see that both dates - the Christian Christmas and the pagan feast - have their origin in the same cosmological fact of nature: that after December 21, the light of the sun begins to conquer the darkness.

The Christian religion is full of symbolism of light. Jesus is adorned with many titles: e.g., Christ our light, Christ our dawn, Christ the light of the world. The Easter or Paschal Candle symbolically represents Christ. Newly baptised Christians are handed candles lit from the Paschal Candle, and are told to "make your light shine before men". At Christmas time, it is a global tradition to adorn our homes with light.

The naysayers should never cause Christians to be embarrassed to celebrate Christmas, and to wish one another Christmas joy. Even secularists understand the importance of the season by saying, "Season's greetings!"

Peter Espeut is a theologian and Roman Catholic deacon. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com.