Friday, December 21, 2012

Christmas is More Than Just "Jesus' Birthday"

 Some theological ponderings.  If this doesn't interest you, feel free to skip this post.  
This post involved so much discussion and editing with my husband during the course of its writing, that I have to give him full credit as a co-writer

In recent years, I've heard a number of well-intentioned people referring to Christmas as "Jesus' birthday".  Factually, there is nothing wrong with this characterization.  We are celebrating His birth, after all.  But something about it always bothered me, and I just couldn't put my finger on why.  It's a term that people use in an attempt to "take back Christmas" and remind themselves of what the day is really about.   I can respect the sentiment.  Reflecting on it, though, I realized that this is ultimately a misguided and overly simplified way to explain the meaning of Christmas.

The first time I heard anyone refer to Christmas as "Jesus' birthday" was in the classic movie The Bells of St. Mary's.  A group of schoolchildren, after performing an adorable Nativity Play, sing "Happy Birthday" to Jesus (complete with sweet little bowed heads as they speak His name - ah, be still my heart!).
[A clip of this scene used to be on Youtube, but it seems to have been taken down, and I'm really bummed about it.]

I don't have a problem with children referring to Christmas as Jesus' Birthday.  Birthdays are something they "get".  But the same term sounds rather puerile coming from an adult.  Cutesy customs like baking a birthday cake for Jesus and singing Him "Happy Birthday" on Christmas morning might be better than just doing the whole Santa/presents/mistletoe thing while ignoring the real "reason for the season", as they say.  But it's still missing the point somewhat.  And even when you're dealing with young children, I think you can go a lot further than just teaching them to think of Christmas as someone's birthday, even if that Someone is the Lord Himself.

A birthday is the commemoration of the day someone was born.  However, the day a new baby is born into the world is always a "bigger deal" than all his or her subsequent birthdays which merely commemorate that day.  From a liturgical perspective, when we celebrate Christmas (or any other feast day, for that matter), we are participating in the reality of that event.  As my husband put it, "our Faith is not a commemoration of history, but a living faith."  On Christmas we experience the reality of God made Man - it's not merely a memorial.  And this isn't just the birth of any child.  This child is our Savior - the one we've been waiting for and preparing for for so long.  Now that is awesome, in the true sense of the word.  On Christmas morning, we can joyfully say, "Christ is here with us!  He is come to save us!".  I think that needs to be celebrated with something of a different character than a concessionary birthday cake on Christmas morning, squeezed in before the present-opening and otherwise secular-influenced festivities.

On Christmas, we are presented with the Incarnation of Christ - the fact of God made Man - a crucial aspect of our salvation. While the moment of Christ's birth as Man had an exact historical date, Christ Himself is eternal and uncreated.  The Incarnation is ongoing.  The recognition of a feast day goes beyond mere remembrance of some past event.  It is the active participation of the faithful in a divine reality.

The term "Jesus' birthday" focuses only on Christ's human nature - the birth of a particular baby in Bethlehem.  But Christmas is meant to celebrate the truth of the Incarnation - the unimaginable condescension of our God Who became one of His creatures.  When calling it His "birthday", there is no recognition of Christ's divine nature.  "Jesus' birthday" is a celebration of a long-past historical event, which had a definite beginning and end.  "Christmas" is the contemplation of the ineffable mystery of the Incarnation, which is eternal.

I know this might all sound nit-picky.  Is it really a big deal if people use a term that doesn't recognize the full reality of Christmas?  I would argue that it is.  Sloppy wording leads to sloppy thinking and in turn, possible error or loss of faith.


  1. Okay, I can understand what you're saying. What do you suggest as ways to celebrate the fuller meaning, in the family context?

    1. My own family growing up certainly did NOT do much to recognize the reality of Christmas. My family now is just in its fledgling stages, so we are still learning how to celebrate Christmas in a more Christ-centered way. I don't think we need to give up all the trappings of the typical modern American Christmas. But many people would do well to shift the focus. I have found a few really good sources of inspiration for how this could be done on various blogs, etc.

      One that particularly hit me was this one. With what holiness and joy this family greets Christ!

      Another quote I love is from a book by Maria von Trappe (whose family's story is loosely recounted in The Sounds of Music):

      "Once more the mother appears with the bowl, which she passes around. This time the pieces of paper contain the names of the members of the family and are neatly rolled up, because the drawing has to be done in great secrecy. The person whose name one has drawn is now in one's special care. From this day until Christmas, one has to do as many little favors for him or her as one can. One has to provide at least one surprise every single day — but without ever being found out. This creates a wonderful atmosphere of joyful suspense, kindness, and thoughtfulness. Perhaps you will find that somebody has made your bed or shined your shoes or has informed you, in a disguised handwriting on a holy card, that "a rosary has been said for you today" or a number of sacrifices have been offered up. This new relationship is called "Christkindl" (Christ Child) in the old country, where children believe that the Christmas tree and the gifts under it are brought down by the Christ Child himself.

      The beautiful thing about this particular custom is that the relationship is a reciprocal one. The person whose name I have drawn and who is under my care becomes for me the helpless little Christ Child in the manger; and as I am performing these many little acts of love and consideration for someone in the family I am really doing them for the Infant of Bethlehem, according to the word, "And he that shall receive one such little child in my name, receiveth me." That is why this particular person turns into "my Christkindl." At the same time I am the "Christkindl" also for the one I am caring for because I want to imitate the Holy Child and render all those little services in the same spirit as He did in that small house of Nazareth, when as a child He served His Mother and His foster father with a similar love and devotion.

      Many times throughout these weeks can be heard such exclamations as, "I have a wonderful Christkindl this year!" or, "Goodness, I forgot to do something for my Christkindl and it is already suppertime!" It is a delightful custom, which creates much of the true Christmas spirit and ought to be spread far and wide. "

  2. Great post, Christine. We always celebrated with a birthday cake for Jesus, and I imagine it's a tradition we'll continue when Michael's a little older. :) But I think it's super important to root children's growing understanding of Christmas in the Eucharist, which is the embodiment of what you are talking about--the "ongoingness" of the Incarnation (and of the Sacrifice that the Incarnation leads to); and to teach them to greet the Infant Jesus in the Eucharist and celebrate His coming, both to Bethlehem and to the altar

  3. Good post, Christine (and Tom). I've always thought the birthday party stuff was a little off, but like you, couldn't exactly say why.

    A few years ago, at midnight Mass at my parent's church, we sat a little more off to the side than usual and therefore right in front of the life size crucifix they have attached to one of the columns. It was quite a Mass--meditating on both Jesus as a newborn baby and Jesus on the Cross. Ever since then, I've liked to look at the crucifix during Christmas Mass.

  4. I totally get what you are saying. And I think a lot of people throw around the birthday thing too easily in modern culture. It's almost as if it makes them feel better about buying ten million presents. But hearing Matthew yell "Happy Birthday Jesus!" every time he sees the Christmas stuff in Walmart is truly heartwarming. The joy that he exhibits while doing so is true and innocent. I love it. My family on my grandad's side always sang Happy Birthday to Jesus before Christmas dinner. I loved it. It was beautiful and a great way to put the focus of the evening onto Jesus instead of the mounds and mounds of presents. I don't know. I think the whole birthday thing can be done well. Of course, if Matthew is 16 and still shouting "Happy Birthday, Jesus!" instead of trying to enter into a deeper understanding of Christmas then we will have a real problem. But hopefully talking about Christmas as Jesus' birthday now will help him develop into a deeper spiritual level as he grows. We just have to keep growing with him. :) Interesting post and was fun to read during Noah's 4am feeding! :) Thanks!

  5. I agree wholeheartedly. I think part of the problem is that a lot of the mega churches and some of the Protestant churches water down the Incarnation because they feel like people cannot deal with the idea of it. We also seem to have two separate holidays: the Feast of the Nativity (Christmas) and X-Mas (the secular materialistic holiday).

  6. Thank you for putting this into words! My husband have spent quite some time talking about this very issue. We celebrate the birthdays of mortals, and the death dates of saints. To me, it sounds trite to refer to the incarnation of the Alpha and the Omega, The Word (in the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God) as merely a birthday. Hope you don't mind if I link to your post!

  7. No, I don't mind. And thanks for sharing those additional points.