A celebration of the Nativity was never a foregone conclusion. Tertullian’s list of major holidays among North African Christians in the 2nd Century makes no mention of Jesus’s birthday. Origen specifically denounced the idea of celebrating the birth of Jesus in the 3rd Century as something more fitting to the followers of a “pharaonic king.”
Despite this evidence that the earliest Christians did not observe Christmas, ironically some have used the December 25th celebration of the Nativity as “proof” that Jesus was a fictional character, invented as the last in a long series of sun gods considered by ancient mystics to be born/reborn on the Winter Solstice.
While this absurd and counterfactual argument holds no water historically, the evidence certainly does demonstrate that aspects of this pre-existing Middle Eastern holiday were added to Christian worship just as northern European traditions associated with Yuletide—including the tree—were also adapted to Christianity.
Indeed, Christmas continues to accrete moving imagery and morally-instructive traditions (like Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer) even today.
A Revival of Tradition
The Protestant movement that spawned modern Unitarian Christianity was in part a rejection of traditions seen as materially false or fraudulent, eventually leading to a complete rejection of all beliefs among certain Congregationalist churches that, despite having no explicitly Unitarian creed, continue to call themselves Unitarian.
But, as US News and World Report recently observed, members of all denominations are seeking to revitalize ancient traditions, but in a more voluntary and less authoritarian way. For many, this revival of tradition is not a renewed insistence on the facticity of sectarian dogma, but rather a reclaiming of the ancient cultural idiom through which communities of the faithful express their devotion to universal truth and good.
Having gained some emotional distance from the stifling use of tradition as a weapon to impose conformity, people are returning to tradition as tool for building community.
American Unitarian Reform, emphasizing salvation by character according to the spiritual teachings of Jesus, has little concern for the material facticity of our Christmas traditions. It is time, however, to fully embrace the power and importance of these traditions for nurturing a community of faith supportive of the individual commitment to character.
Christmas as Parable
And, the Nativity story celebrates virtues that transcend material facticity, providing spiritual teachings in the same way that Jesus’s fictional parables do. The selection of humble Mary as mother of the Messiah, the trust and sacrifice of Joseph, the tyranny of Herod, the attendance of simple local shepherds alongside powerful foreign intellectuals, all provide images that are moving, meaningful, and instructive.
The “Three Kings” themselves also represent an ecumenical interest from a completely different religious tradition, the Zoroastrian Magi, an ecumenism that Jesus later confirmed when he chose the hated, rival Samaritan sect for his exemplar of charitable behavior, and when he testified to the faith of the pagan Centurion.
The entire story of Christmas is informed by powerful spiritual and moral messages that echo in the teachings of Jesus. Rather than being edited out (as Thomas Jefferson would have wanted) these stories should be embraced and celebrated for the ways they exemplify our commonly-held beliefs and ideals.