By Johna Till Johnson
Photos by Vladimir Brezina
It was our third or fourth Christmas dinner. We fixed a sumptuous meal, sipped wine, and lit the tree for the last time. As the candles slowly winked out, one by one, we talked about the meaning of Christmas.
To me, Christmas is unique. Sure, every holiday has its particular trappings (pumpkins, fireworks, candy canes…). But what’s different about Christmas is that it celebrates not that which is, but that which is to come.
Every other holiday celebrates an accomplishment or achievement: Thanksgiving is a classic harvest festival, in which we give thanks for the year’s bounty (and historically, for having survived). The Fourth of July celebrates the attainment of independence. Hallowe’en is the remembrance of the dead, and New Year’s celebrates the arrival of the New Year. And so on.
Christmas alone is a celebration of hope.
For Christians, of course, the celebration is the birth of Jesus. But the birth of Jesus is, in a very real sense, the arrival of hope, the hope that an innocent child can be stronger than the worst evils of this world, that God is returning to His people, and that love will conquer evil. The birth of Jesus is just the start of that hope.
And the hope isn’t just for Christians. Regardless of when the birth of Jesus happened historically (and there is considerable speculation on this point), the ancient Christians elected to celebrate the birth of Christ roughly concomitantly with an older festival: Winter solstice.
It was a wise choice, because solstice, too, is a celebration of hope: The hope that the days will once again begin to lengthen, light will conquer darkness, and warmth will return.
Whether you’re a fervent Christian or an equally-fervent atheist or something else, in other words, celebrating Christmas is an act of existential courage. We are celebrating the hope that light, goodness, and warmth will return to the world.
Of course, that’s not strictly true. Vlad points out that his mother, with Eastern European clear-eyed cynicism, used to remark that the ancient Christians were wise to put Christmas a few days after the solstice proper—so by the time Christmas festivities began on the 24th, they could be certain the days were in fact lengthening again.
Nonetheless, Christmas is a festival of hope. It looks forward to better things to come.
For this reason, in my book, Christmas deserves to be the most-celebrated holiday. The celebration of hope is the celebration of possibility. Rather than celebrating just one accomplishment, we’re celebrating the possibility of all that we can hope for: Light, love, happiness, joy. Peace on Earth, and God among us—and all the infinite accomplishments that could happen in a world in which these are realities.
That’s why we kept celebrating Christmas well into January.
And as we watched the candles sputter and wink, we thought about all the goodness we hope this year will bring.
One last time: Merry Christmas to all!