The True Meaning of Christmas: Accept No Substitutes

The Christmas message is one of joy, even “great joy,” but not superficial joy. Christmas confronts us with the sobering claim that humankind is in a state of sin—a state from which we cannot save ourselves. Hence the need for a savior, and hence the joyful Christian claim that God himself offers the salvation by coming to live among us.

The public celebration of Christmas is an American tradition. It is the most joyful of all American holidays. It is not all joy, however. Nowadays, and for a long time, another tradition has accompanied it: lamentations that we are losing the “true meaning of Christmas.”

I confess that I am an increasingly zealous participant in both traditions. Every year I look forward to Christmas with joy, and every year the public celebration of it appears to me to have become more extreme and more superficial. More extreme, because it seems to start earlier every year. Someday, will the stores be hanging the decorations and cranking up the music in the week after the Fourth of July? More superficial, because all the hoopla seems increasingly divorced from the origins of the celebration.

My family is by now very familiar with my non-scientific (but nevertheless very telling!) observations. For example, years ago, when I first became aware of the pop radio station that switches to all Christmas music during the season, probably a third of the songs played were actual Christmas carols—popular songs about the birth of Jesus. Now it is probably one out of twenty. The rest are the usual songs about snow, candy canes, presents, and so forth. Many of these songs are perfectly charming, but they do not reach the “true meaning of Christmas.”

What are we to make of such lamentations?

Many will be tempted to dismiss them as the griping of a reactionary. That may be so, but such a dismissal does not tell us whether the reactionary’s complaints are justified. The reactionary wants to go back to an earlier (and allegedly better) state of affairs. Whether this desire is reasonable depends on a fair consideration of the issues. It can’t be wrong in all cases to wish to go back: cultures have been known, after all, to make wrong turns.


Indeed, we owe it to ourselves as reasonable beings to weigh such complaints about our having lost the “true meaning” of Christmas, to think about whether the original meaning of the holiday is relevant to us any longer. The great liberal John Stuart Mill was certainly right to observe that no distinctively human capacity is called into operation by mindless adherence to age-old customs. It is equally true, however, that no distinctively human capacity is active in thoughtlessly drifting away from such customs.

The path truly worthy of our humanity is to ponder our traditions and the possibility of their continued relevance—to think about, to use an expression of Pope Benedict XVI, the “here and now of things past.”

An Incomplete Experience

The lament about the lost true meaning of Christmas implies that there is something not exactly wrong, but at least incomplete, about the contemporary meaning. Today, the most widely shared experience of Christmas involves getting a day off from work, eating more than usual, and exchanging presents. This is fine as far as it goes, but it hardly seems sufficient to live up to the idea that Christmas is a time of “joy.” The merely materialistic-hedonistic spirit of Christmas is hard to resist but impossible to admire.

Most people are aware that this aspect of Christmas is insufficient on its own. Humans are by nature moral and sociable beings. They recognize their moral and sociable desires as something qualitatively different from (and better than) their physical appetites. As a result, they will not venerate something that offers them nothing but material pleasures. They may permit themselves luxuries—like a bigger and better meal—because such permissiveness is appropriate to a spirit of celebration. But they can’t seriously take the physical pleasures themselves as the object of celebration.


Accordingly, many people—and many popular entertainments—seek the true meaning of Christmas in a kind of sentimental humanitarianism. Here, Christmas is about “peace on earth” and “good will to men.” Although this is more respectable, it is also, on its own, insufficient. After all, why should any of us care about peace on earth and good will to men? Universal goodwill cannot be directly derived from our natural moral and sociable feelings. Those feelings are always most powerfully expressed in relation to a particular group of human beings. As a result, they often lead to ill will toward outsiders—sometimes even a willingness to go to war with those outsiders in order to protect those to whom we are especially attached.

And, anyway, “peace on earth” and “good will to men” is an expression from the Bible, and in fact from the Bible’s account of the first Christmas. We are thus led back to the ultimate origins of Christmas: namely, Christianity and its account of the birth of Jesus Christ. Is there anything about the Christian account of Christmas that is still worth acknowledging and celebrating today? To answer this question, we must reconsider what the Christian sources tell us about the significance of Christmas.

The Christian Claims of Christmas

According to the Gospel accounts, angelic messengers brought word of the birth of Jesus and explained its importance. According to Matthew, before Jesus was born, an angel told Joseph, the betrothed of Mary, that the child “conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit; she will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” Matthew adds that this “took place to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet: ‘Behold, a virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and his name shall be called ‘Emmanuel’ (which means, God with us).” (Matthew 1:20-23).

Luke’s Gospel similarly reports an angel bringing news of the child’s birth to a group of shepherds: “Be not afraid; for behold, I bring you good news of a great joy which will come to all the people; for to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord” (Luke 2:10-11). Luke’s account adds that the birth of Jesus is important not only for the people of Israel but for the whole world. Thus he reports the inspired words of Simeon, who declared the child to be the “salvation” which the “Lord” had “prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and for glory” to “the people of Israel” (Luke 2:30-32).

What, then, is the true meaning of Christmas? The message is one of joy, even “great joy,” but not superficial joy. Christmas first confronts us with the sobering claim that humankind is in a state of sin. We are, moreover, in a state of sin from which we evidently cannot save ourselves. Hence the need for a savior, and hence the joyful Christian claim that God himself offers the salvation by coming to live among us. Is this a message worth celebrating and renewing to our minds every year? In order to answer this question, we must take the claims of Christmas one by one.

The Reality of Sin and Salvation

Are we—that is, each one of us, and the human race as a whole—in a state of sin? The answer seems almost too obvious to require a supporting argument. Injustice, vice, selfishness, and misery are just as prevalent now as they were two thousand years ago. This is not to say that the human condition is entirely bad; we often encounter acts of goodness for which we are grateful. But we are uncomfortably aware that we are not what we should be.


Of course, we might admit that the world is marred by many evils but deny that there is anything of “sin” in it. Sin implies alienation from God—or, more generally, falling short of a transcendent standard. Perhaps, then, we could hold that human life is inevitably characterized by injury and woe but also say that this is just the way it is, that it is not in any way wrong or a departure from what ought to be—because there is no transcendent standard of what ought to be. This doctrine seems too heartless for most people and indeed for human nature itself. Moreover, we cannot help but observe that those who have held to some version of this opinion—such as the Nazis, who thought that struggle and strife and subordination were just the way of nature—have often been regarded as among the great wrongdoers of human history.

If we can’t deny that we are in a state of sin, perhaps we could evade the continued relevance of the Christmas message by claiming that humanity, though in a state of sin, is able to save itself from sin. On this view, there would be no need for any divine savior. Experience, however, does not seem to confirm the idea that we can save ourselves. As individuals and as communities, we resolve to do good, succeed to some limited extent, and then relapse into evil. We improve in some areas and decline in others. This is the recurring story of the human race. If it is heartless to deny that our condition is sinful, it is foolish to admit that it is sinful while claiming that we can save ourselves.

Indeed, those who claim that the human race can save itself have turned out to be wrongdoers as bad as those who deny that we need saving at all. Those who claim that the human race can save itself usually mean that some human beings are the cause of sin while others are the instruments of salvation, and that the latter have the right to destroy or subjugate the former. This was the error and the presumption of the Communists, for which millions of human beings paid with their lives.

Do We Dare to Hope?

So far, the Christmas message looks like solid common sense: We are in a bad condition from which we cannot save ourselves. But can we accept the whole message? Dare we hope for a divine savior?

We know we are in a sinful condition because we are aware of a superior goodness that illuminates our own deficiency. Might not that goodness be so superabundant as to reach out and save us when we cannot save ourselves? It is not unreasonable to hope so, although that hope cannot be confirmed by reason and must be sustained by faith.

That faith has been convincing to many people down through the centuries, in many different cultures, but in particular to the people who labored to build and transmit our civilization, from whom we have received so much that is good. This may not be enough to convince every honest mind of the full truth of the Christmas message. It is enough, however, to justify every reasonable person of good will in being grateful that this message has been passed down to us, and to ponder it anew and to celebrate it each year.

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