A real agnostic Christmas

GWINN OWENS

December 24, 1991|By Gwinn Owens

THE STORY of the birth of Jesus as told in St. Luke is one of the loveliest tales of all time. It is reason enough for celebration.

And I don't believe a word of it.

That, however, has nothing to do with the case. The fact that it is probably not true should have no bearing on the issue. The message of peace and good will embodied in a newborn baby carries its own legitimacy and necessity.

In the United States, our constitutional separation of church and state has served us well, but in the case of Christmas I believe that in our strict observance of that separation, something has been lost.

Christmas is a religious holiday, made commercial by the tradition of giving gifts. There is nothing evil in this commercialization. So long as we buy gifts in abundance, it is inevitable in a free-market society that the people who manufacture and sell them will compete for our attention at Christmas time. The important thing is to remember that the exchange of presents is the superficial part of the holiday.

In our recent zealous insistence on the church-state separation we have choked off any state-supported religious observance of Christmas as unconstitutional. No creche on the courthouse lawn in an overwhelmingly Christian community, no carols in public schools, even if the school is 99 percent Christian.

As a result of this zeal we emphasize the secular symbols: the Christmas tree (of pagan origin) and Santa Claus (though his origins are in fact religious), which is to say we are left with only the commercialization. We can have the yuletide tree on the courthouse lawn and a jolly Santa, but that's all.

In my childhood I went to a public school before the proscription of a religious Christmas was enforced. We sang Christmas carols, we gave an elaborate Christmas play based on the birth of Jesus. As a talented boy soprano, I was usually a soloist, one of the three kings, as I recall. I can still sing the parts and the harmonies, albeit in a lower register.

Despite my upbringing in a non-religious family, we observed the rituals. My sisters and I went about the neighborhood on Christmas Eve singing carols in three-part harmony. The family sang them before we went to sleep, my doubting mother at the piano, my father in his agnostic baritone.

This doesn't happen much now, and I'm not sure that this is a good thing, for it has encouraged the commercial and Santa aspect to overwhelm the understanding of why Christmas is celebrated. Today's fair-minded citizen will ask why a religious observance should be imposed on public school children who are not Christian, and that is a reasonable question. My answer would be that there should be due emphasis on the holidays of other faiths, but in a school that is overwhelming Christian, there is no reason to deny the existence, the origins and the symbolism of the most important celebration on the Christian calendar. Otherwise, children are left with the impression that Christmas is only a spate of shopping.

How can I, an agnostic, celebrate Christmas when I don't believe Jesus' birth happened as described in the gospels? The answer is that it amounts to what in theatrical terms is called a suspension of disbelief. We see a great play -- or movie -- describing things that never happened and never could happen, but we laugh with joy or weep with sadness nevertheless. So it is with Christmas.

Even some Christian theologians doubt that the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem happened as described. There is implied proof of its non-occurrence in biblical contradictions. Christmas probably originated as an overlay on the pagan holidays that celebrated the Dec. 21 winter solstice, when ancient astronomers discerned that the sun had ended its descent and that the days were growing longer, thus holding promise of spring.

The chances are that in an effort to undergird their conviction that Jesus was divine, the earliest Christians retrofitted (to use a modern word) the mythical story of his birth in Bethlehem to his life story. Its celebration naturally fitted in with the pagan solstice observances.

In pursuit of my suspended disbelief, I have twice visited Bethlehem. It has been rather commercialized, but it is a lovely town that probably has changed little in 2,000 years. On my first visit, in 1977, I took some pictures. Back home on Christmas morning, I got up early and set up my slide projector. When the children came downstairs to open their presents, the living room wall was a panorama of "O Little Town of Bethlehem."

To my thinking, it was an entirely appropriate way for a suspended disbeliever to observe Christmas.

Gwinn Owens is the retired editor of this page.

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