We've been asked this so many times now, it's practically become a parody of itself. We know what the questioner really wants to hear. We're just waiting for her to drop the 'Jesus bomb'. And so we tire of it. That's why the phrase, "reason for the season", can't be uttered without cringing. It's become trite and self-obvious.
To ask about the meaning of Christmas too often means entertaining this reality. However, it's sometimes suggested that the question can be short-circuited entirely, arguing that Christmas actually has a rather messy history, much of it pagan in design. We're informed that Christmas trees owe their existence to several pre-Christian teutonic customs. It's suggested that Santa Claus is primarily a commercial construction, perhaps with links to Odin, a Norse God. And, as the piece de resistance, the very existence of Christmas as a Christian celebration is said to have derived from Sol Invictus, a pagan celebration of the sun, set during the winter solstice.
As for me, I'm not that convinced. Not because I'm desperate to crowbar Christianity into every December conversation. Because I'm not. But nor - more importantly - do I think The Nazarene can be avoided this easily.
For example, we can thank the Dutch Reformed for sustaining the celebration of Christmas in Europe, and then reviving it throughout the West and North America in particular. Moreover, the predominant explanation for the decoration of Christmas trees (at least as we understand them today) is owing to Martin Luther and the rest of Lutheran Germany in general. As for Santa Claus - well, it's a bit of a mixed bag. There's a bit of the Anglo 'Father Christmas' in there, as well as the Dutch Sinterklaas, and then the 20th Century ad-man Haddon Sundblom. The theory that he's based on the Norse God Odin is just that: a speculative theory. One not based on much evidence beyond the borrowing of imagery. Far more probably, just as Santa Claus comes to us through Sinterklaas, the latter himself came to us through Saint Nicholas, the once Bishop of Myra. (Who was, as it goes, a bit of a badass.)
As for Christmas owing its very date and existence to the pagan celebration of Sol Invictus - well, this argument has taken an absolute battering in recent years. Far more likely, the dating of Christmas probably stems from the 2nd/3rd Century Church, and the celebration itself enjoys the same sort of provenance.
And that's the point: as you know it today. The celebration of Christmas isn't some historically amorphous blob. It can't all be lumped together and then considered the same. A non-Christian origin for certain aspects of Christmas does not render Christmas any less Christian. An analogy for this might be discerned in the discipline of Etymology, the historical study of words. Imagine you've gone to see a comedian perform. You return to tell your friends that his act was hysterical. Everyone knows what you mean: it was hilarious, funny, entertaining, raucously fun, etc. However, are you aware that the word 'hysterical' derives from the Greek word ὑστερικός (husterikòs), meaning 'suffering in the womb'? In that sense the word was originally used to describe an irrational woman suffering from hysteria.
But wait, hang on! When you told your friends that the comedian was 'hysterical', you were actually being a horrendous mysogynist?! ... Well no. Obviously not. Words change and transform as the years go on, and whilst it's right to acknowledge a term's origin, it's better to credit it with the meaning it's given here and now. And much the same is true of Christmas. The reason for the season is to be discovered here and now, not at some nebulous, speculative point in history. Sure, it has a complicated heritage to a certain extent. And yes, some of its roots can be found in unorthodox places. But that shouldn't affect its true meaning today. And that just so happens to be what it's meant for many centuries. That its origins are actually a lot more Christian than many give it credit for only serves to strengthen this point.
Given what we've discussed so far, you might expect me now to plant a sneaky Jesus bomb. "Ha ha suckers, only Christians get to celebrate Christmas, sucks to be you!" Well, no. I'm not going to do that. All of the above was designed to clear the air. To clarify Christmas' heritage so as to give us an even chance at answering the question. And to be clear, it's a question Christians need to answer just as much as someone without faith. Sure, it's still all about Jesus. But maybe not in the way we'd expect. Christmas, just like Advent, is messy. It's strange and unexpected and peculiar. And it celebrates so much more than we can ask for or imagine.
So stick around. We'll shortly be posting about why Christmas is the best thing ever.
And no it's not iced mince pies.
But, you know. It was a close race.