Here are six things Christmas can mean.
1) First, Christmas commemorates the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem, expressing the Christian claim that God became flesh and was born in an animal’s stable of Mary, a teenaged unwed mother, and her betrothed, a carpenter… the lowly manner of this birth being a divine repudiation of all who are powerful, prosperous, proud and self-righteously pious in the world. (Read Mary’s Magnificat in the Gospel of Luke. A part of the Bible’s Christmas story conservative Christians completely ignore.)
2) Next, Christmas is an historical and imperial event. Most scholars believe Jesus was actually born in June or July. The date got moved to December 25 as the Church conquered northern Europe, where pagan goddess worshipers celebrated winter solstice. Christmas supplanted the solstice as churches got built atop pagan temples. At this level, Christmas is about conquest.
3) Theologically, Christmas is part of an ancient biblical (Judeo-Christian) tradition promising the coming/return of the Messiah to end oppression and suffuse the earth with wholeness (shalom), peace and goodwill.
4) In America, Christmas is about materialism… a make-or-break time for the economy, with retailers counting on consumers flashing lots of plastic, being wasteful and making it a big spending season.
5) Politically, Christmas is a useful club in the hands of cynical conservatives who promote their right-wing agenda by manufacturing a phony “War On Christmas.” Every year. For them, Christmas is still about (4) above — but they demand the materialism be blessed by the banner of Christmas, not some liberal, inclusive “Happy Holidays.”
6) For thoughtful people, Christmas is a chance to reflect on what it means to believe a particular faith (or no faith) in a world of many faiths. After all, the Christmas text says “Peace on earth and goodwill to men” — not “Goodwill to those who are favored by God because they subscribe to the correct religion.”
In today’s world, to be religious and ethical means knowing that God is too big to fit into one religion, no matter how fervently one believes in one’s own.