What does Christmas mean in 2013?

Today is the day when billions of people across the world eat, drink, open presents and generally make merry in celebration of Jesus Christ’s birthday.

At this time of year, it’s common to observe that as with most major Christian festivals, the secularisation of society has made today just another occasion for indulgence rather than anything more profound. Which means that Christmas has largely returned to its roots in the winter solstice and the Roman Saturnalia.

It’s ironic that the church’s effective early marketing decision to co-opt existing festivals has been turned on its head, as the once-Christianised pagan festivals have been re-paganised by our own indulgent era. But part of me suspects it’s a pity that Christmas isn’t about anything more than spending lots of money on gifts few of us really need and food that most of our waistlines certainly don’t.

Since comparatively few of us are religious, and the tradition has never had all that much to do with its supposed theological theme anyway, what is the point of Christmas in 2013? Given the fuss we make over it, surely it must mean something more than that there’s 24 hours until the Boxing Day Test?

At least when we had Jesus at the centre of Christmas, it was an occasion for gratitude at the benevolence of a deity who provided a get-out-of-jail card for a sentence that he himself had imposed. (I remember asking in Sunday School whether perhaps the death sentence couldn’t simply be commuted to make things easier on everyone – apparently that was the wrong question.)

But Christmas, like Easter, has always been a strange hybrid of different festivals. Giving gifts dates back to Roman times – and hasn’t got any link to Jesus unless you think he wanted everyone to exchange them as symbolic of his own gift of himself. But surely it belittles a human sacrifice by saying “Just as Jesus gave his live that we might live, I give you today a pair of socks.”

I don’t imagine that even the most religious families would suggest that Jesus came into our world so that little Timmy could enjoy his new Transformer Construct-Bot Elite Class Buildable Action Figure. (And given the dark arts of modern marketing and cinema tie-ins, little Timmy perhaps could be forgiven, if the idea of Optimus Prime coming to earth to save us from the Decepticons might seem more plausible than the idea of some Galilean carpenter rocking up for the same purpose?)

The Christmas tree under which Timmy got his toy hasn’t anything to do with that night in Bethlehem either, unless you count the token star on top. And don’t even get me started on Santa, whose only real redeeming feature in 2013 is that he’s carbon-neutral.

Jesus himself was no stranger to feasts, and was only too happy to transform a modicum of food into an abundance that could feed a multitude. In fact, Jesus’ regular provision of all-you-can-eat buffets may be one reason for his enduring popularity in America.

In my family, Christmas means protracted lunches on both sides of the family, where there are cousins and aunts and uncles galore, and small overexcited children running around. (Now the cousins have started having children of their own, I can’t imagine how overwhelming this’ll be in ten years.)

I was driving back from the first instalment of this on Saturday, full of ham and nibbles and my aunt’s delicious summer pudding, suffering a mild case of sunstroke from having played the usual Christmas sport with my cousins, when it occurred to me that of course, the holiday is ultimately all about family.

That’s what links both pagan and religious tradition — during the winter solstice, relatives came together to eat the unusually abundant meat, and Saturnalia was also an occasion for family feasting, where the masters served the slaves for a change. The Christian Christmas is all about family, obviously, since Jesus is God’s son, and Mary’s, and sort-of Joseph’s, although there are certainly some questions about how that supernatural conception went down.

And let’s not forget that Joseph was only in Bethlehem because he had travelled back to his ancestral home from Galilee for the imperial census – which means that the original Christmas was, as so many of ours are today, a family reunion. (Why Joseph’s rellos couldn’t offer him a decent place to crash isn’t made clear in the Gospels.)

The baby was given presents by the wise men, and by the time you hit your mid-thirties, you soon learn that the presents that matter most on Christmas Day are the ones you give young children. (Which is not to say I’m not thankful for whatever my loved ones have just given me – cheers, loved ones!)

Some things have changed – we no longer follow stars in the sky, but on Twitter, and frankincense and myrrh really have fallen out of fashion as Christmas presents. And fortunately, the advent of the internet has made it easier to find last-minute accommodation than it was in Joseph’s day.

But Christmas, whether religious or pagan, has always been about children and families, and the way we celebrate it today certainly continues that tradition.

I’m always glad my family gets together for Christmas, because otherwise I mightn’t see relatives I’m fond of, but whose live out of Sydney, or have busy lives like mine. We come together and eat, and sing carols, and play sport, and pause to think about where we came from, and how connected we all are.

And we know, I think, that even if we don’t necessarily catch up all that often throughout the year, we’ll be there for one another when it matters. I know not everyone has a family, or gets on with the one they’ve got. But for those who do, Christmas is about getting together to celebrate that.

I wish the merriest of Christmases to you and yours, as they, say. Now, switch off your computer, or put down the tablet, and go and have some more pudding.

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