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The Earth, you know, is a globe which spins on a tilted axis. As the Earth travels around the Sun, then, at one point in its orbit, the Earth’s tilted top points directly away from the Sun. From the perspective of the top half of the Earth, that point will mark the shortest day of the year: the days will get shorter as the Earth approaches that point, and longer as the Earth continues on its orbit past that point.
Because, on the day on which this happens, the Sun doesn’t change the location on the horizon where it rises, this day was given the name of “Solstice”, from Latin words for Sun (sol) and “standing still” (sistere).
Now there are two, and only two, alternatives for thinking about this.
The first is that the Earth’s tilt, and everything that that involves, is just an accident. The Earth, as people say, is a minor planet orbiting around a minor star on the edge of a minor galaxy in an insignificant cluster of galaxies, etc. etc.
To savor this view appropriately, consider that there are apparently 100 billion galaxies in the universe, each with 200 billion stars on average. That a planet orbiting around one such star happened to be spinning on a tilted axis would obviously be of no importance whatsoever.
It would be an almost insane superstition to care about this. Here’s an analogy. In my golf bag, there are a couple dozen golf balls. Some have writing pointing in one direction, others in other directions. I never check and never care how a golf ball is orientated. It’s an insignificant accident.
The second alternative is that the Earth, and its tilt, are not accidents but providentially designed by God. On this view “nature is a parable,” as Newman said, and one wouldn’t be surprised to find, in God’s plan, a connection between a seasonal, natural event, such as the Winter Solstice, and an event of momentous religious importance, such as the birth of the Christ.
People mistakenly think that every religious or spiritual belief must have some celebration at the Winter Solstice, but that is not true. Islam has none: its holidays are based on the lunar calendar. Neither does Judaism -- Chanukah is a minor festival which was turned into a “Jewish Christmas” only to counteract the prevailing culture.
Kwanzaa, meanwhile, is a kind of artificial, quasi-religious festival created in 1966 by radical black separatist Ron Karenga. It was established as a celebration of culture and has no link to any particular African religious observance.
For Winter Holidays, then, one is basically faced with a choice between the Christian celebration of Christmas, and a pagan celebration such as Yule. The latter I think we can eliminate, because polytheism is a superstition and, anyways, no one is about to celebrate Yule in authentic pagan fashion, by sacrificing oxen to Odin and Freyr, and smearing themselves and their idols with the blood which spills out.
So, again -- unless we are content with being exceedingly superstitious -- our choice is between no holiday at all (because the earth’s tilt is an insignificant accident) or Christmas.
Apart from Christmas there is no “Season” for greeting anyone; no “Holiday”, because no Holy Day; no “Winter Festival”, because no religious Feast. If nature is not a parable, and the return of the Sun a sign of the coming of the Son, then there is no more reason for putting up lights or singing songs in the middle of December than in the middle of April or July. Needless to say, concentrating our efforts on buying lots of things for others at just this time of year would be absurd.
I say all this in order to point out that Christmas itself is a gift, indeed, a very great gift. How great? If we suppose that the occasion for giving a gift is greater than that gift, then Christmas itself is a gift greater than all the gifts taken together, which have ever been given by Christmas gift-givers throughout the centuries.
“For unto us a child is born, unto us a gift is given”-- we believe that the Christ-child is a gift. But I am pointing out something more: that the celebration, too, is a gift. This is important three reasons--
-- First, so that we don’t take this gift for granted. If we have loved from our childhood Christmas carols, and the creche, and candlelight -- the tree, fancy foods, the crackling fire, and good cheer -- then let us appreciate that it doesn’t have to be this way and act so that others after us receive the same gift that we have enjoyed.
-- Second, because this gift is obviously for the benefit of our society as a whole and not only for us Christians. That’s true of the Christ child as well, of course, but perhaps it is easier to see in the case of the celebration. Whether Christian or not, everyone in “Christendom” has benefitted from this season of goodwill and hope, with its cheery customs and symbols.
--Third, because by rights we should credit Christianity with this gift. Let’s understand clearly that, apart from Christianity, this time of year would be no different from any other.
Love of Christmas implies gratitude to Christianity -- which, no doubt, is why some oppose it.
Michael Pakaluk is Professor of Philosophy at the Institute for the Psychological Sciences in Arlington, Va.