Don't knock secular Christmas



It is natural to feel annoyed when people intrude on your sacred places. When the fishing village where you spent your holidays becomes suburban, for example, or when mountain bikes charge up and down your bush valley of solitude. So it is natural for Christians to complain that the feast of Christmas has been trivialised and cheapened by being co-opted in secular society.

Low angle of illuminated Christmas treeCertainly the deeper Christian meaning of the Christmas story has been lost in popular translation. In Luke's Gospel the wonder of the image of the baby laid in the cattle shelter to the sound of angels, and the summoning of shepherds derives from the significance of the birth. This is not just any baby, but the child who shall grow to set the people free, the Son of God joining his people.

In Christian devotion the wonder of Christmas has always focused on the paradoxes entailed in a God who is outside of place, unimaginable, all powerful and self-sufficient being localised in a vulnerable baby born in a mean place, and needing love to live and grow. God's incomprehensible love becomes tangible. Christmas is a mystery that leads to silence.

This aspect of Christmas is certainly lost in its secular celebration. Father Christmas on his reindeer sled, the transactions involved in cards, presents, food and drink, noisy music in shopping centres and at barbies, add colour to the season, but lack the depth and transcendence of the Christian story.

From another perspective, however, the Christian story of Jesus' birth points to the value of the secular Christmas and to its unrealised possibilities. The point of the involvement of God in the minute details of human life is to assert the value of the human world in all its relationships. Nothing loved by God is without value. No baby is just a baby.

This means that the customs and practices of our Australian Christmas should not be dismissed simply as a corrupted and so inferior version of the Christian celebration. They should be appreciated in their own right. To get in touch with people at Christmas, even through online Santa cards, to gather with the extended family, to take time off work, to soften for an hour or so the hard edges of workplace relationships and to donate to charities, all embody the good human values that are affirmed and grounded in the story of Jesus' birth.

Of course these customs can be purely perfunctory, even desperate. Christmas smiles can be fake; well-wishing can conceal wishing someone down a well; instead of reconciling families, gatherings can further entrench enmities; celebratory eating and drinking can degenerate into binging. That, of course, can also happen in Christian families. When it comes to celebrations we are all secular.


"The celebration of Christmas encourages all people of good will, whatever our religious beliefs, to walk for a time in solidarity with people at the bottom of the pile."


The Christian story, however, has a depth that challenges all our practices. In it God's coming among us takes place in solidarity with the most hassled kinds of people: a heavily pregnant woman compelled to travel for tax purposes, a couple homeless when the baby is due, people sleeping out in the fields, ostracised shepherds, and refugees forced to flee for their lives.

The celebration of Christmas encourages all people of good will, whatever our religious beliefs, to walk for a time in solidarity with people at the bottom of the pile, to take time to dream of what we are invited to be, and to reflect on what kind of a society we want.

The inn with no room, the people in the parks, the threat of Herod, the disreputable shepherds, the refugees in Egypt and the rumour of angels are the characters in the Christmas story. Their counterparts are found in our personal and public stories today. They make a claim on us all the year round.



Andrew HamiltonAndrew Hamilton is consulting editor of Eureka Street.

Topic tags: Andrew Hamilton, Christmas



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Existing comments

"Well-wishing can conceal wishing someone down a well". Indeed so! When I think of God, as I often do, it's an imaginative exercise. What the Christmas story tells me about God is that kind of love which can show vulnerability, that kind of love which aches for the beloved and that kind of love which is definitely not for show. That's why we respond in kind - in our own inadequate way.

Pam | 21 December 2018  

Has our Christian identity been swamped with frivolities?.. In the early fifties when I was a young child, the vast majority of Christmas cards depicted themes from the nativity, nowadays they are almost non-existent (This might not be so in Australia ). Cards are difficult to obtain, while the few that are available, depict classical iconic paintings, symbolic of a ‘past culture’. I wonder why I have never heard within a sermon, encouragement given to use this medium to help keep alive the Christian message…I usually (almost always) send Christmas cards with a Christian theme, for not to do so, would deny my own Christian heritage/witness/identity… To all who participate on this site. May the light of the new born Jesus, dwell in our hearts, as its radiance embellishes itself within us, and His gift of joy (Peace) be ours, this Christmas time, now and always, kevin your brother In Christ

Kevin Walters | 21 December 2018  

Thank you Andrew for your balanced article. Joy to the World.

MICHAEL DUCK | 22 December 2018  

Shepherd's disreputable ? No no no. They were tending to their flocks, most important work for survival of the animals and the rural community.

Helen Martin | 22 December 2018  

Thank you Andrew. You have helped me put things into much better perspective. Great things are happening amongst the chatter and the tense. I hadn't really taken that in.

margaret atchison | 22 December 2018  

A timely and brilliant reflection! Just what I needed to hear as I was becoming very cross with the Christmas songs which seem to have squeezed traditional carols out of the public sphere

Sheelah Egan | 22 December 2018  

I quite agree with you, Fr Hamilton that we should not be too hard on he secular Christmas we have gotten to know over the past half century; at least it has some folk-memory resonance of the "real thing" and its core story, and is quite kind and nice . Much worse by far is the aggressive neo-Marxist secularism of the nasty green-left which is trying to eliminate any mention of Christmas all together. My inner city local council has essentially banned it all together from its discourse, with the only allusion to the Christian festive season at all in its Dec-Jan newsletter being the availability of a tax-payer funded "alternatives-friendly Santa".

Eugene | 22 December 2018  

Thank you Andrew for your words. I have been saying this for a number of years and especially after a visit to New York in 2015 where the various traditions of all faiths were celebrating the gift of life and the promise of hope in their many different ways. I am sure as I grow older that God works in many different ways and in places least expected .

Ray Cleary | 22 December 2018  

Why would anyone knock a secular Christmas to begin with? After all, the Christian Christmas celebration is merely stolen from Pagan festivals. The rapacious and calculating early Christian hierarchy realised that it was better to replace a festival than ban one if they wanted to retain or recruit more followers.

Martin Killips | 22 December 2018  

The secular festivities surrounding Christmas, at their best, are fully compatible with the Christian celebration of Advent and Christmas. Both point us to a profound Reality that exists beyond ourselves and both call us to live with a profound sense of thankfulness and generosity. While our culture's commercial Christmas is a pale imitation of both the Christian and secular-festive celebration that is Christmas at its best, this need not be the case for all of us. I've often referred to celebrating "a full Dickensian Christmas", by which I mean a Christmas where the Christian and secular-festive dimensions are well-integrated with each other. I believe this is a goal worth striving for.

Bob Faser | 23 December 2018  

Thanks Andrew for this and the wellspring of wisdom you share in your columns. Yes, I too rejoice in the secular Christmas spirit as well as my religious culture. I wear my "Merry Aussie Christmas" floppy hat and match it with tees that speak about domestic violence, refugees, Indigenous Rights, Non Violence and the environment. I have been described by some friends a s a walking billboard for justice. I love the crowds in shopping centres with the colours and sounds of this season. I love to wear my Christmas hat for the 12 Days of Christmas, challenging post office protocol that does not allow Christmas stamps after December 31st. I marvel at the crowds who gather to sing carols in major parks and city streets whose numbers will never be recorded in a census. I love the Nativity scene tucked away in the Myers window without whizz bang technology, just a quiet statement of fact in the midst of the fantasy. I love the selfies taken by tourists and locals in front of the super duper Christmas Tree in public squares. And most of all I love the light in childrens' eyes as they imagine a world that really is filled with love, peace and joy. May the blessings of this season surround the writers and commentators of Eureka Street in these days of celebration and beyond.

Tony Robertson | 23 December 2018  

Thank you, Fr Andrew, for your Christmas homily that sheds light on both the Christian and secular significance of this unique world-changing and hope-inspiring event. A happy and blessed Christmas to you, ES staff. and readers.

John | 23 December 2018  

I quite agree with you Andrew, especially as we see what is now following on from this more benign phase of secular society. We are now faced with what is becoming the dominant intolerant neo-Puritanism of inner city elites to whom the very mention of Christmas in public discourse is anathema.

Eugene | 24 December 2018  

Well said, Andrew. For many, Christmas is about celebrating family and friendship, a time for getting together and making space for children. The secular celebration of Christmas is wonderful. It has a value and worth-wholeness all of its own and is a lovely feature of our society.

Kevin Liston | 24 December 2018  

Once again thank you Andrew. BUT to start a sentence with a but, some of my not Christian friends might find that the article denigrates the MYTH which sustains them and that the MYTH which has sustained our part of the world for so long is out of sync with today's world.

Mahdi | 25 December 2018  

Whenever I think of 'The Real Meaning of Christmas', about which I am sure many long, erudite sermons were preached in the 19th Century, that quintessential Great Age of Preaching, I think of Charles Dickens and his superb work 'A Christmas Carol', which, to me, speaks directly and extremely effectively about what Christmas is really about but in mainly secular terms, although its Christian meaning is in the background in a very real sense. That message, to me, is about the total spiritual and psychological transformation of the Scrooge within all of us which results in practical charitable action in real life. For Scrooge is transformed and shows real Christian Joy, which is one of the proofs of this transformation. This Christian Joy is not something ephemeral but has informed the lives of the great Saints and Martyrs throughout the centuries, including our own. Most secular people can see this totally transformative Joy, if only for a moment when they are not blinded by the many demands of our materialistic world, where there often seems 'no room at the inn' for it. I see it best at Christmas in the Christian Palestinians in Bethlehem, still there and still celebrating under harsh occupation and the people enjoying a Christmas meal at the Wayside Chapel.

Edward Fido | 27 December 2018  

Paragraph three is a beautiful summary of Christmas. Most of my recent December 25s have been spent with generous, but irreligious in-laws. Extremely good people who go out of their way to look after myself and my wife. The above article gives me a look inside their world. I think I am the better for it. Thanks Andrew.

Terence Oberg | 10 January 2019  

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