Though my immediate, but not all of my extended, family were Reform Jews, we had all the fixings on the 25th of December: tree, lights, ornaments, decorations, music, presents, and three family parties throughout the day. Sometimes we had snow on the ground for a white Christmas.
My first wife, a cousin at several removes, was an Episcopalian whom I married in the National Cathedral; we did Christmas at home only, for she was not then religious or even church-going. My second wife, an Episcopalian whom I married in our home with an Episcopalian priest presiding, and I do Christmas big time. We do it at home with all the fixings less the parties, with or without our children and their partners. I sometimes go to church with her when her children are with us and always when they are not. I love the ritual and the music. However, I participate only by exchanging the peace with others nearby.
Christmas is important to my wife as a religious matter, and I respect her convictions and observances. Christmas is important to both of us as a time of family and social camaraderie. From the perspective of our different lifelong experiences, Christmas is both necessary and rewarding. The commercialism of the season, which many decry (hypocritically?), is their problem, not ours. We buy gifts out of a regard for those to whom we give them, and they reciprocate. No one competes or complains. The “perfect” gift matters more than the price, brand name, etc.
I have a similar, probably idiosyncratic, reason for liking Christmas: it refocuses my admiration of Jesus. His birth, life, and death as a Jew matter far less to me than his moral teachings, which are almost entirely Jewish. As I see it, his only departure is extending a “fence around the Torah” outward, not from action to action, but from action to emotion. The Seventh Commandment against committing adultery can get help from an implementing rule—I make this up: take a cold shower—, but not from Jesus’ caution about lust. We can choose our actions, not our feelings. So I prefer an ethics of dutiful actions to one of unreliable emotions. As a moral prompt, love is desirable but undependable.
I enjoy the story of Baby Jesus. No matter how the story is told, the impression of light and warmth is cheering. The stories—a star guiding the magi (Matthew) or angels directing shepherds (Luke)—are inconsistent, but do different details by different tellers matter? The birthplace of “Jesus of Nazareth” in Bethlehem is implausible, but does location matter? (The answers depend but can be “yes.”) Despite its Hellenic rather than Hebraic origins and trappings, the story is a wonderful way to say that someone special was born in the middle of a cold, dark winter night in a lowly place.
Any problem with the Christmas story of Baby Jesus is taking this religious fiction as historical fact, as many do. I do not think myself a Grinch for noting their acceptance of fiction as fact, but I do think that the habit of mind which accepts fiction as fact is a problem for Christian faith. For faith is, by definition, not based on factual knowledge; faith is the admission of doubt beyond the reach of either fiction or fact. I would even say that the stronger the beliefs in fictions as facts, the weaker the convictions of faith.
Fortunately, the story of Baby Jesus is not critical to Christianity. The same cannot be said about the story of Adam and Eve. If that story of two original parents of all humankind is not true, then the traditional Christian interpretation of man’s first and forever-after sin requiring God’s sacrifice of His Son for the redemption of that sin and the salvation of humankind is rendered creedally null and void.
That story is now challenged on the grounds, not of comparative mythology, but of conclusions based on DNA testing. Recent studies have shown that the diversity of DNA in samples taken throughout the world make it impossible for one primeval pair—one father and one mother—to have been parents of us all.
There may be grounds for belief that humankind is inherently sinful and that God’s Son died for its sins, but the story of Adam and Eve in not one of them. Without the authority of holy writ, however, none of the others is likely to achieve the fervent assent among Christians which their interpretation of the myth of the Garden of Eden has had for nearly two thousand years.
The silver lining of this cloud is that dispensing with religious fictions may help us appreciate one historical fact about Jesus: he preached, not saving ourselves through faith, but saving others—the poor, the sick, the widow, the orphan—through works of charity. That message holds out hope in humankind’s always difficult times.