Christmas is just...

© Rex A E Hunt
The Uniting Church of St James
Curtin ACT 2605
December 2006

• Text of an Address to the Rotary Club of Canberra Woden, 20 December 2006.


When Shukry Sahhar invited me to again give the Christmas Address I wasn’t sure how to respond.  I remember exactly six years ago tonight, giving a similar Address when I was in the middle of my PhD thesis on ‘Christmas’.  From the feedback - and the silence - I received afterwards, I concluded that what I had to say was a radical departure from what had been presented to the Club in the past.

My thesis then was, and still is: Christmas has always been a hybrid event, weaving together culture and religion.  Contemporary celebrations include media in an intentional way, to this weaving process.  And anyone who wants to emphasise just one of those parts at the expense of the other two, does not understand what Christmas is!

Well, never one to shy away from a challenge, I decided to accept the invitation and to again revisit the subject of Christmas in the following, perhaps radical, ways:
(i) offer some general comments on early Christianity and Christmas in Australia;
(ii) look at the birth narratives in the religion called ‘Christianity’, and the enforcement of the celebration as a weapon of orthodoxy; and finally
(iii) take a glimpse at Christmas as a cultural celebration in 20th/21st century.

With all that off my chest, may I offer these random thoughts this year, which I have titled: ‘Christmas is just... Christmas!’


I wish to pay my respects to the Ngunnawal People
and to those who have cared for this part of the land
from time immemorial.

(i) Some general comments on early Christianity and Christmas in Australia.
The Christmas that Australians celebrate today might seem like a timeless weaving of custom and feeling beyond the reach of ordinary history.  But the familiar mix of cards, carols, parties, presents, tree and Santa that have come to define 25 December is little more than 120 years old.

As a pre-Christian festival, its traditions go way back in time to changes in the seasons and the affects these changes had on people, their social life and work situations. 

As a Christian celebration, the so-called ‘Feast of the Nativity of our Lord’ rather than ‘Christmas’ didn’t make the church calendar of feasts until sometime in the 4th century and then only as a result of a series of mixed motives, including the take-over of a number of rival so-called ‘pagan’ festivals, political expediency, and the removal of thinking tagged ‘heresy’.

In 1788 when the First Fleet arrived from England, Governor Arthur Phillip not only established a penal colony - a gaol for the 736 convicts and to a certain extent, the marines and officers who accompanied them - he also won the land for ‘protestant’ Christianity (Breward 1988:2).  However, instead of that experience being a “search for a feeling of reconnection to a healthy kind of wholeness” (Loehr 2000:2), Phillip saw religion as a “useful package of warnings and admonitions that supplemented the cell, chains, the lash, the gallows, or the rewards and remissions for good conduct”  (Blainey 1987:429).

Hence christianity was in the main rejected by the convicts and only slightly embraced by the free settlers in latter years.  Which has led some to conclude that in Australia, christianity has always been rather a casual affair.  And at best, the nation was only ever superficially christianised  (Wilson 1982:6).

As a festival, Christmas in the early days of the colony held little importance.  Unless Christmas Day fell on a Sunday, a holiday was not declared.  And the day was usually celebrated with a compulsory Anglican church parade or, if punishment had to be administered to a convict, perhaps a reduction in the sentence was ordered.  Indeed, it would appear that on the first Christmas Day in 1788 a convict was arrested and, because it was Christmas Day, had his sentence of 200 lashes reduced to 150 (Ciddor nd:4).  At other times, a double share of rum and rations was offered.

Much later, when Christmas did begin to influence the social and religious life of the colony, in the latter part of the 1800s, it was mostly through secular ‘nostalgia’ rather than religious leanings.  Old customs and symbols such as the tree and presents were yearned for, and the arrival of food stuffs and other items were eagerly awaited as ships from England docked in December.  These old traditions were never totally abandoned, but aspects of the festival were ‘Australianised’ and became increasingly nationalistic.  The small tree, aptly named ‘Christmas Bush’, which was growing in great abundance around Sydney, became a popular substitute for the fir (Christmas) tree.  And large fern branches often decorated town and country churches.

And while American artist Thomas Nast introduced a ‘winter’ Santa Claus to the world in the 1860s, some enterprising Australian artists a few years later soon gave him a cooler ‘summer’ outfit, complete with kangaroo driven sleigh.


(ii) The birth narratives in Christianity and enforced celebration as a weapon of orthodoxy.
In popular belief it is said the foundational stories of Christmas can be found in the nativity stories of the anonymous storytellers we call Matthew and Luke, in the Christian scriptures.  So let me spend a brief moment on them.

Both stories, very different from each other in general shape, atmosphere and content, came rather later in the biblical tradition - probably anything from 85 AD - 125 AD.  And in spite of the modern tendency to homogenise them into one classic tale, they are very different.  As a former theological seminary professor of mine has written:
“... Luke’s account is full of strong, vibrant, bright colours with just a hint of umbers in the background.  The other, Matthew’s account, is rich but sombre, darkly hued, and strangely shaded.  Luke tells a cheerful tale, a buoyant, hopeful, joyous tale.  Matthew tells a gothic tale, fascinating, disturbing, disquieting”  (Griffin 1982:55).

Of these two stories, one, Luke’s birth story of Joshua ben Adam or Jesus of Nazara, has had an enormous influence on the Christian imagination.

“In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered...” (Luke 2:1. NRSV).

For many Christians Luke’s story is the Christmas story, even though the birth itself is only briefly mentioned and is not really the focus of the story.  The story brings together the imperial power of the divine saviour Augustus, lowly shepherds, and angels from heaven - all around the birth of a baby in makeshift accommodation far from home.  The humble physical setting and the supernatural splendour of a chorus of angels are strong storyteller clues as to how the story’s listeners are to make sense of this story.

What is usually shocking to adherents of Christianity is to be told that, if there is any history in these stories, it may well be limited to very few possibilities:
(i) Jesus may well have been born during the reign of Herod the Great, although that is not certain.  Neither is the claim that Herod murdered babies wholesale in the hope of eliminating Jesus as a rival king;
(ii) Jesus’ home was almost certainly Nazara and he was quite possibly born there, and
(iii) His mother’s name may well have been Mary and we have no reason to doubt that the child was named Jesus.

So why these stories?  Scholars suggest there are two possible ways of accounting for the creation of these stories.  I will only mention one: the comparative study of hellenistic biographies.

To account for Jesus’ unusual life and noble death in terms that enhance his comparison with other famous people, the nativity stories mimic the pattern of Hellenistic biography where the stories of their heroes lives were read and interpreted backwards.  Each biography followed a set structure of at least five elements:
(i)  a genealogy revealing illustrious ancestors,
(ii)  an unusual, mysterious, or miraculous conception,
(iii)  an annunciation by an angel or in a dream,
(iv)  a birth accompanied by supernatural portents, and
(v)  praise or forecast of great things to come, or persecution by a potential competitor (McGaughy 1992).

In general terms these five elements can be found in both Matthew’s and Luke’s infancy stories.  But it wasn’t until after Emperor Constantine “consciously chose Christianity as his empire’s new civil religion” (Kennedy 2006:221) - in 313 AD - that there began to be a change in both attitude and authority surrounding the Christian church, its stories and developing doctrines.

Having been oppressed and persecuted by Rome for some 300 years, the church suddenly came into imperial favour, even becoming the official religion of the empire. “... bishops, once targets for arrest, torture, and execution, now received tax exemptions, gifts from the imperial treasury, prestige, and even influence at court, [while] their churches gained new wealth, power, and prominence” (Pagels 1988:xxv).

Then another extraordinary event happened 12 years later - in 325 AD, when Emperor Constantine stepped in to resolve an internal church dispute threatening civil strife.  Constantine took the unprecedented step of calling what was to be the first general council meeting of the church, in Nicea.  And things really began to hot up.

Representatives, some 318 of them so tradition says, came from all over: Antioch, North Africa, Alexandria, Jerusalem, Constantinople, Rome and Northern Italy.  The Council of Nicea was about merging the Jesus of history with the Christ of faith - or as it has been called, implementing the ‘divinity test’.  It was also about solidifying or standardising the beliefs and liturgies of the church.  And of course, its flip side: excluding those who taught or believed or did, something different.

A couple of main characters in all this quarrelling were Athanasius and Arius.  Legend has it, as Arius, the leader of the opposing opinion rose to speak, a certain Nicholas, Bishop of Myra, and defender of the orthodox (literally ‘straight thinking’) position, became so angry he gave Arius a swift uppercut!  (Nettle 1957:17).

And this is where the Christmas bit starts to step in.  The establishment of the Christmas feast first appears on the liturgical calendar in Rome in 336 AD, 10 years after Nicea, although it did not appear in the East until the late fourth century.  Prior to that Epiphany (or ‘old Christmas’ celebrated on 6 January) was seen as more important than Nativity (celebrated on 25 December).  The conflict was finally smoothed over with a decision to combine Christmas with Epiphany, which liturgically became know as the ‘Twelve days of Christmas’.  So the development goes like this: from birth of a human person, a brother; to the transcendence and distance of God “modeled after an exalted royal emperor” (Roll 1995:177). Jesus of history to Christ of faith.  Or as one of my mentors has put it: Jesus the iconoclast to Christ the icon (Funk 1996:44).   Now that’s some shift!

With battle lines drawn, post-Nicean sermons became full, sometimes obsessively so, of nativity and divinity, and used offensively against ‘heretics’ - a term levelled against anyone and any kind of interpretation which denied the God/man, human/divine relationship.  The church has never recovered from this period in its history.

From its very beginning, whenever that might have been (we just don’t know when Christmas started or where or why or how they got the date, even though we can make some reasonably good guesses), the feast of Christmas “has sat squarely and often painfully on the dual horns of a dilemma: how can God be born a baby?  And if the baby is not God, then what possible significance could this particular birth have in history?” (Roll 1995:222).


(iii) Christmas as a cultural celebration in 20th/21st century.
While it seems there will always be people in our multicultural, multifaith 21st century for whom Christmas is a pious devotion rather than a festival or carnival, the church’s so-called ‘hold’ over Christmas was and remains, rather tenuous.
“... such [pious] people were always in the minority.  [Indeed] it may not be going too far to say that Christmas has always been an extremely difficult holiday to Christianize(Nissenbaum 1996:8).

Since its inception Christmas has been debated, ignored, celebrated, banned, and continually reshaped.  A serious study of its history suggests it has always been a weaving together of popular culture and religion.  So for many people Christmas is just... Christmas!   An accepted part of the annual cycle of events and something to be entered into and enjoyed.  As such it is “the most human and loveable” (Miles 1912/76:157) and easily the most popular festival of the year involving nearly all the population, regardless of faith or lack of it.

Writing back in 1912 historian Clement Miles generally describes the Christmas festival as being shaped by two distinct streams or feelings: the ‘carol spirit’ and the ‘mystical spirit’.  The former being the simple, human joyousness, the tender and graceful imagination gathered around the folk song/culture called the ‘carol’.  The latter being the ‘religious’ feeling which is associated with the “tender, weak, helpless, yet all-potential babe, that has given the Church’s festival its strongest hold” (Miles 1912/76:156).

I think his comments are generally helpful.  The reason for the popularity of this festival can be summed up this way: the pre Christian folk festivals which were also part of the background traditions associated with Christmas, were essentially life affirming.  They said ‘yes’ to life while the Christianity of that Middle Ages for instance, essentially a religion of the monks, was pessimistic as regards this earth, and valued it only as a place of discipline for the life to come.  This meant it was a religion of saying ‘no’ to the world.  In the Festival of Christmas, popular tradition won out.

Christmas in Australia also has its own story.  Situated in the Southern Hemisphere, Australians celebrate Christmas - a Northern Hemisphere shaped festival - in the middle of summer and, for many, during a major leisure or holiday period as New Year celebrations and annual holidays merge with Christmas activities.

Winter stories, snow, reindeer, holly, fir tree and sleighs are out of place among beach barbecues and the Cootamundra wattle, the she-oak and the narrow-leafed peppermint eucalypt.  Yet despite the major differences in geography, climate, and attitude, there is still a lot of anecdotal evidence to suggest some people still go the full traditional turkey and ham feast, and celebrate Christmas in line with the English tradition, with Christmas stockings, Santa Claus, a Christmas tree and a hot midday meal of roast turkey, ham, plum pudding and mince pies, washed down with either beer or wine.

In a 1970s study of the English Christmas, it concluded that the modern Christmas had its beginnings in the 1840-70s period, due to the influence of Charles Dickens.  Comparing the ‘christmas’ of Pickwick Papers (1837) with Christmas Carol (1843), the author notes: “In the Christmas Carol the celebrations are on Christmas Day, the centrepiece is the modern Christmas dinner - with turkey - and the themes are family, children, and charity...” (Kuper 1993:160).

He concludes saying these elements have since remained stable. “What is remarkable about the celebration of Christmas in the twentieth century, is not the erosion of old forms but their persistence and reinforcement’  (Kuper 1993:161).

There are many other aspects of our modern Christmas which should be mentioned:
(i) the religious service,
(ii) the importance of ‘being home’,
(iii) the commercially acceptable custom of sending and receiving Christmas cards (the 19th century British contribution to Christmas),
(iv) Santa Claus,
(v) parties, and
(vi) criticism.

But the most popular Christmas inspired event in Australia, which attracts the most numbers of participants in one form or another, is the folk ritual 'Carols-by-candlelight'.

When radio personality Norman Banks convinced his radio station to sponsor a Christmas Eve community carol singing event, Victoria was in drought, politicians were debating the Australian Constitution, retailers were claiming city and suburban shopping centres were thronged with shoppers (The Age, 23 December 1938:12), the temperature was over 100 degrees, and local papers carried reports that Herr Hitler had given a Christmas party to 6,000 workers in the Deutschland Halle.

Tradition has it, as Banks was going home from work one December evening in 1937, he “saw a lonely old woman listening to Christmas carols on the radio while a lone candle burned forlornly in her window” (Holden 1998) and thought some kind of community carol singing event would be a good way to express the ‘true spirit’ of Christmas. The following Christmas Eve (1938) he broadcast “a great carol sing... from the Alexandra Gardens” (Holden 1998).

The only study of ‘Carols’ was carried out in 1980 where the researcher, Norman Habel (Habel 1980) concluded it was an event by and large:
(i) conducted by community organisations rather than the church;
(ii) is seen to be something for the family rather than for the so-called 'faithful';
(iii) promotes values consistent with folk attitudes rather than official church teaching, and
(iv) preserves traditional symbols commonly accepted as community based rather than those promoted by religion.

This public celebration has become an expression of a people's religion.


While the Christian religious ‘infancy stories’ around the birth of one Jesus of Nazara  may have provided the fundamental rationale for the festival within the institutional church, even giving the festival its original core, for the most part and for most people, they no longer function as determinative.  Christmas is a global and hybrid celebration, which weaves together religion-media-culture, creating a legitimacy of its own.  And for many people today Christmas is just that... Christmas!  An accepted part of the annual cycle of events, and something to be entered into and enjoyed.

No matter how vehemently preachers or theologians or ordinary churchgoing folk might decry the fact, or stage mock assassinations of Santa Claus, or try to establish who influenced whom for what purposes
“the Christian feast integrated certain originally non-Christian elements, and that has remained precisely the case down to the present moment... Christmas is firmly established in its socio-cultural environment, in terms of that environment(Roll 1995:257, 269).

Christmas is the most human and loveable, and easily the most popular festival of the year involving nearly all the population.  And it would never have achieved the level of importance which it enjoys today “unless it had struck deep folk roots... and called forth a natural, spontaneous human response” (Roll 1995:271).

At its best Christmas is a mirror in which we see reflected the very best life can be.  Where we see ourselves moved by generosity, inspired by hope, and uplifted by love, not only for ourselves but for the whole universe.  But perhaps most especially, for those we usually find unlovable.

So this Christmas, dreaming of a Berlin/Crosby ‘white’ one, could be influenced by some Dickens-type nostalgia that never really was.  Or just responding to the National Australia Bank’s latest offer of four bottles of Sauvignon Blanc.  It all depends...


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