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For an ancient holiday, Christmas has had a surprisingly cozy relationship with the modern world. The commercial radio age began on Christmas Eve, 1906, when "O Holy Night" was sung on the first AM radio broadcast. You could write a whole history of Christmas broadcast television, from sleepy Whoville and its Grinch to Charlie Brown specials (not to mention Gian-Carlo Menotti's NBC opera Amahl and the Night Visitors, broadcast in 1951). Christmas provides the leitmotif for It's a Wonderful Life and Miracle on 34th Street, Elf and Home Alone. And 2013 brought us Christmas albums from Mary J. Blige, Erasure, Nick Lowe, and (no joke) Bad Religion. Without Christmas, our popular culture would be as flightless as Santa's sleigh without its red-nosed reindeer.
It's not just punk bands that find themselves in Christmas's surprisingly inclusive embrace—Handel's Messiah was first performed in April and is better suited to Easter, but it has become a staple of the Christmas season. Ancient Yule traditions mix merrily with the holiday's religious elements, nowhere more than in the carols from England and Europe (many of which, like the tune to "Good King Wenceslas," began as spring carols but were repurposed to convey wintry cheer).
To be sure, one other holiday is gaining on Christmas both culturally and commercially. Halloween, too, has its own beloved Charlie Brown special, and like Christmas, it traffics in candles and darkness, celebrations of childhood and hints of mortality. But it is in every way a thinner and less substantial holiday, the apple cider to Christmas's egg nog, the scowling pumpkin to Christmas's festive tree, a candy bar instead of a feast. Not only are there no Halloween carols, even the ritual greeting "Trick or treat" has nearly gone out of favor, to judge by the largely mute imps who visit our door.
And oddly, given how much more important it is to the Christian faith, even Easter can't compete with Christmas for sheer cultural influence. Easter's rolling stone has gathered little moss—its handful of carols and hymns don't begin to compete with the profusion of singable Christmas music. Nor, in spite of falling near its own solar holiday, do Easter's bunnies and eggs come close to Christmas's outright merger with Roman and European solstice traditions.
Only Christmas is such a riotous palimpsest of traditions, myths, rituals, and memories. Not to mention outright misunderstandings (the King James Version's beloved "on earth peace, good will toward men" is a mistranslation of Luke's less inclusive original Greek, "peace on earth to those God favors") and implausible conflations (Matthew's Magi show up next to Luke's shepherds, even though Matthew's account makes it clear they couldn't have arrived until some time after Jesus' birth). There is simply no other holiday with Christmas's imaginative density.
And that's oddly appropriate, since Christmas may have done more than anything to shape the imagination of the West.
Start with the date of Christmas itself. Christmas's would-be debunkers gleefully point out every year that December 25 was surely timed to coincide with Roman solstice celebrations, not the actual season of Christ's birth (and judging from the outdoor shepherds, there is certainly a case to be made that Jesus was more likely born in the springtime).
Such religious promiscuity was quite routine in the ancient world. Indeed, no one did syncretism like Rome itself, its polytheistic system combining Roman, Greek, and Egyptian deities with aplomb.
Before Christmas, though, the Roman pantheon always won.
In the case of Christmas, we have the reverse—a religious festival from the hinterlands that ended up taking over Rome itself. This is the amazing thing about Christmas: the way it absorbed and triumphed over the paganism and imperial ideology that, the night Christ was born, was the only imaginative game in town.
The Roman world at the turn of the eras, after all, had many reasons of its own to celebrate. N. T. Wright observes in his new book Paul and the Faithfulness of God that the era of Augustus was the first time in the ancient world that history had a plot. Virgil and Horace put the old tales of gods, arms, and men into a single story. That story, it turned out, led up to the glorious present moment. An incipient "age of gold" was coming into being, under the beneficent rule of the man born Octavian and renamed Augustus Caesar upon his accession to uncontested power in 27 BC.
Like all Roman leaders, Augustus was ambitious, capricious and cruel on the way to the top, but once he had secured the sole rule of the empire, he also brought a certain amount of virtue and wisdom, along with stability and longevity, to his reign. The empire pulled out all the cultural stops, Wright observes, "from tiny coins to the rebuilding of entire city centres," to signal that "Augustus's rise to power was the great new moment for which Rome, and indeed the whole world, had been waiting."
The Augustan golden age was thoroughly religious as well as political. As the republic became an empire, its emperors edged closer and closer to divinity. Octavian styled himself "Augustus," a title just as august in Latin as it sounds in English. His adoptive father, Julius Caesar, had been posthumously deified in 42 BC, allowing the new Caesar to also style himself "Divi Filius," "son of the divine"—just one tiny step from "Dei Filius," "son of god."
Within one hundred years emperors like Caligula and Domitian would be appropriating divine titles while still living. (Not all were willing to do so. The more circumspect Vespasian quipped as he died in AD 79, "puto deus fio," "I think I am becoming a god.") The world of gods and men—or at least gods and emperors—always permeable, had now fused. Some of the most enthusiastic deification of emperors happened not in Rome itself, but in its colonial outposts. For the empire's most loyal subjects—or those who most needed to be seen as loyal—the Roman empire, with its peace and goodwill to all on whom the emperor's favor rested, was the goal toward which both history and religion had been moving all along.
The same era that brought the apotheosis of emperors was the very high water mark of polytheism and traditional Roman religion. Never had the Roman gods seemed so propitious, never had their temples been so lavishly ornamented, never had the military might that they blessed seemed so effective. Within a century of Jesus' birth, meanwhile, the capital city of the stubbornly monotheistic Jews would be reduced to rubble, leading a Jewish aristocrat like Josephus to conclude that the Jewish God, too, was on the side of the Roman Empire. Rome's paganism, with its patchwork of gods from every region it had come to dominate, was both creatively inclusive and utterly totalitarian in its insistence that all religious roads led to Rome.
Christmas came along at just the right moment to destabilize that glorious story. Luke is impeccably conscious of the emperor and his vassals (that is where we get those sonorous phrases in the Christmas story about "Quirinius the governor of Syria"). But Luke believes, against all odds, that something more important is happening in Bethlehem than Rome, that a baby born of an unwed, unknown mother is of greater significance than Julius Caesar's adopted son. His angels announce that history is indeed taking a great and decisive turn toward peace on earth, but one that has nothing to do with the empire's peace. A king is coming into the world, the coin of whose realm will be sacrifice and gift, not coercion and taxation.
Only familiarity could cause us to miss one of the most extraordinary aspects of Luke's Christmas story: how matter-of-fact it is. "And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be taxed"—these prosaic words signal Luke's intention to write as if, with Tacitus or Pliny, he is simply recounting the plain facts of history. The difference, of course, is that the Roman historians were recording events of universally agreed significance. Luke's virgin, shepherds, and stable seem marginal and fleeting, beneath notice to the status-conscious Roman elite. Luke's serene confidence that he is recounting "good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people," seems about as probable as, well, an angelic choir above a Galilean hillside.
Yet we now read Tacitus and the rest for their antiquarian interest alone. They are mere history, dusty and distant, whereas Luke's utterly improbable cast of characters and fundamental convictions now rest at the foundation of our society's most cherished commitments and greatest flights of imagination. Against the highest possible odds, Luke's confidence in the lasting significance of his story has been vindicated.
And it turns out, from our very long view, that the moment when Augustus Caesar's divine power seemed most secure was the moment when it began to recede. Three hundred years later nearly half the empire would be Christian, so that Constantine's embrace of the insurgent faith in 313, however sincere it may have been, was also canny political positioning.
There would still be emperors, and even a Holy Roman Empire, but the emperor would never again wield Caesar's absolute power. Instead, emperors increasingly had to contend with a troublesome figure, the new Roman "pontiff." That title for the high priest in Rome, which Caesar had taken for himself, now belonged to Rome's Christian bishop—as did the role of civic "paterfamilias," everyone's papa, the pope.
Popes and emperors would tussle for the next thousand years. A millennium after the first Christmas, an ally of the emperor Henry IV took Pope Gregory VI hostage as he celebrated Christmas mass in 1075. The pressure tactic failed, Henry was excommunicated, and two years later he made his famous pilgrimage in the January snow to the pope's fortress in Canossa, begging for an opportunity to repent.
Something was shifting in the political consciousness, symbolized by the phrase "the Holy Roman Empire"—emperors were becoming accountable to holiness. Might now had to give an account to right. The king might rule by God's gift, but God's gift was not in the king's grasp. There was another king whose cradle had been a manger and whose crown was made of thorns—not a direct rival, as King Herod had feared when he heard the news, but actually something far more threatening to the untrammeled power of kings, a king of kings and lord of lords. As the meaning of Christmas sunk in, Caesar's power was bound to wane.
As emperors' power diminished, ever so slowly but ever so surely, another idea emerged from Christmas, utterly taken for granted today but unthinkable to the Greeks or Romans: the dignity and significance of the poorest and most marginal members of society.
Shepherds played a menial role in first-century Palestine, yet here were shepherds at the birth of the newborn king. A teenage mother in dubious circumstances was of no more account then than now, but here she was receiving angels and being hailed as full of grace. Luke records a song from that expectant mother whose words could still be startling today if they were not so often sung in Latin: "He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty."
We forget, because we cannot quite imagine, how unremittingly cruel the ancient world was to those without proper connections, fame, and signs of fortune—how routinely women were exploited and children were enslaved. We cannot quite imagine because our imaginations have been overtaken by Christmas, with its radiant mother and divine child. Look for the roots of our indignation at the indignity of the poor today, and you are taken back to Christmas—by way of carols about Good King Wenceslas, lowly cattle sheds, and "meek souls who receive him still."
Our suspicion of entrenched, absolute power; our compassion for the poor and the least; our sense that might must give account to right—much of what is most healthy about Western culture started at Christmas and is sustained by imagery drawn, knowingly or not, from its bottomless imaginative well.
So it really doesn't bother me that my neighbors of many faiths and none join in the festivities. If it has taken two thousand years to accumulate all the stories, symbols, songs, and elaborations that make our own Christmas so splendidly unruly and prolific, perhaps that is because that is how much room the first Christmas story opened up for the imagination.
Indeed, as a Christian I believe Christmas is for everyone, for it resonates deeply with what we all hope is finally true about the world, and true about our own stories. A Unitarian minister named Edmund Sears gave us one of the most haunting of Christmas carols, "It Came Upon the Midnight Clear," putting into words the universal longing for the day "when peace shall over all the earth / its ancient splendors fling." In many ways that yearning is a gift of Christmas itself. So let's welcome anyone who wants to "rest beside the weary road / and hear the angels sing."
Andy Crouch is executive editor of Christianity Today and author of Playing God: Redeeming the Gift of Power.