By Jay Jamison
On December 25, many people celebrate the birth of a child. Whether that date is an accurate historical fact as to when Jesus was born doesn’t really matter. The simple truth is many millions of people celebrate Christmas on December 25. It’s not the date so much as the celebration of the event that captures the imaginations of many of us. Christmas shows up in so many improbable places.
Just imagine factory workers in China dutifully toiling on assembly lines producing inflatable Santas for the North American market. There is no equivalent to Christmas for any other religious, or even secular holiday anywhere in the world. Christmas is just about everywhere. I’ve often wondered what those factory workers in China, Vietnam, Indonesia and elsewhere are quietly asking each other about the products they’re making. If I were part of a workforce in a huge production facility, I’d like to know what it is, exactly, that we’re making. I expect someone, amidst all the plastic production, may offer to explain to co-workers what this fat, red-clad, white-bearded, guy is all about. All it takes is one or two inquisitive workers to inquire into the background of Santa Claus, to trace the idea back to its origins. Even the secularized Christmas, with Frosty the snowman, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, Santa and his sleigh, will eventually lead some inquisitive minds back to an event roughly 2,000 years ago. It’s true that there are places where the Christian story of Christmas remains unknown. That will probably remain true.
Christmas is not just about sacred services merged with commerce. Christmas has its own repertory of music. One of the most popular songs is “White Christmas,” written by a Belorussian Jewish immigrant named Israel Beilin –better known to us as Irving Berlin. The song was published in the depths of World War II and was made famous by Bing Crosby. Another popular Christmas classic is “I’ll Be Home for Christmas,” also composed during World War II. The music was composed by another great Jewish American composer, Walter Kent (born Walter Maurice Kaufman). Not to be outdone by popular songs, the BBC World Service radio broadcast of the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols from the chapel of King’s College Cambridge, on Christmas Eve, reaches upwards of 150 million listeners around the world.
In Russia, where Christianity was suppressed for 70 years by the communists of the Soviet Union, the glorious liturgy and music of Russian Orthodox Christmas (celebrated in January) sprang back to life almost the instant the Soviet Union collapsed. Images of former Soviet leaders –who had previously enforced the official party policy of atheism– standing, crossing themselves, during Orthodox services, remains an amazing sight. The Soviets weren’t the only ones who attempted to ban Christmas. The Puritans in the 17th Century attempted to ban Christmas celebrations and during the so-called “age of reason” the forces of Revolutionary France in the 18th Century banned public Christmas celebrations. So far, the historical record is crystal clear. Attempts to outlaw Christmas have continually failed. From line workers in a country that is generally hostile to Christianity and the West, to former Soviet officials, to enormous churches and small family gatherings, to songs sacred and secular, to the sheer scale of commerce associated with the holiday, Christmas still prevails. As we contemplate these musings, I doubt if any of these outcomes occurred to the carpenter and his wife at the birth of their first son. Merry Christmas.