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The Twelfth Day of Christmas

December 31, 2018

And all from Sheba will come, bearing gold and incense and proclaiming the praise of the Lord.” (Isaiah 60: 6b)

May the kings of Sheba and Seba present him gifts. May all kings bow down to him and all nations serve him.” (Psalm 72: 10b-11)

Next Sunday is January 6th, the twelfth day after Christmas, also known as Epiphany–a Christian feast day.  It is the day when Western Christians remember the tribute paid by the Magi to the Christ Child.  My grandmother considered herself lucky to have been born on January 6th.  Tertullian, an influential second century church father, argued that the Magi’s visit fulfilled the promises of Solomon and Isaiah: “May the kings of Sheba and Seba present him gifts. May all kings bow down to him and all nations serve him” (Psalm 72: 10b-11); “And all from Sheba will come, bearing gold and incense and proclaiming the praise of the Lord” (Isaiah 60: 6b).[1]

January 6thalso marks the end of the Christmas season. In Christopher Hitchens’ essay against the public celebration of Christmas (“Christopher Hitchens on Forced Merriment and the True Spirit of Christmas”[2]published posthumously by the Wall Street Journal, December 24, 2011), the likable curmudgeon raised several objections to yuletide customs and festivities.  But the four premises of Hitchens’ arguments–that the celebration of Christmas is a fraud on believers, holds non-believers captive, results in “compulsory love,” and is unconstitutional in the public square–do not stand up to scrutiny.

  1.   Is Christmas a Fraud?  Hitchens’ first assault on the season is an attempt to stir up people of faith to think that they have been duped into believing that the purpose of Christmas is to celebrate the birth of the “Dear Leader,” when, according to him, Christmas is a tribute to crass materialism and is an affront to people of faith.  He cites three reasons in support of this proposition: (1) The celebration of Christmas was banned by the Puritans, probably because it encouraged carousing; (2) The timing of Christmas is faulty because the year and month of Jesus’ birth are uncertain; and (3) Christmas celebrations may have pagan underpinnings.

These arguments miss the reason that believers celebrate Christmas: that God sent the gift of his Son to live on earth for a time to reveal himself to us and to take upon himself the burden of our sins.  This is cause to celebrate!  The calendar month or year of Jesus’ birth, or whether some choose not to celebrate is irrelevant. It is also irrelevant that some of the season’s customs have pagan origins.  Jesus taught his followers to reach out to people wherever they are.  Paul, for one, opened dialogues with non-believers on common ground.  For example,in reaching out to the Athenians, he mentioned the altar with the inscription “to an unknown god” (Acts 17:23), tying it into his message.  Missionaries and preachers over the centuries have incorporated secular and pagan symbolism to reach non-believers, using it as a bridge to the Gospel.

  1.  Holiday Captives?  

We are exposed to expressions of religious beliefs other than our own throughout the year, because we live in a country where many faiths are tolerated.  I am not Jewish, but the menorah in our Village Green (along with the Christmas tree) is as much a symbol of freedom as it is of the faith it represents.  I am grateful to live in a country where holiday music and symbols are permitted on private property, and to an extent, on public property.  No one in this country can seriously contend that it would be preferable to live in a country where the expression of all religious belief (except the state religion) is banned.  David Keyes opined that if “Jesus had been born in Saudi Arabia today, he’d likely be imprisoned, flogged or beheaded” (“Merry Christmas from Saudi Arabia,” WSJ, 12/29/11).

  1. “Compulsory Love?”

“Compulsory love” is an oxymoron.  There is nothing compulsory about love, which springs naturally from an overflowing heart.  A gift given in the true spirit of Christmas, in gratitude for the love of God, family and friends, is never mandatory.   Whether the custom of giving to the less fortunate and exchanging gifts with family and friends during the holidays originated from pagan customs or from the example of the Magi is not relevant to the meaning ascribed to it today.  How can anyone begrudge all of the good accomplished by folks wishing to give to others during the holidays, or the joy of giving a gift to a loved one? Hitchens ignores the joyous eagerness of the repentant Scrooge to give generously.  Open, generous giving, which for believers follows the example of God’s love for us in sending his Son as a wonderful gift to us, is the very heart of Christmas.

  1. Public Religious Displays: Unconstitutional?

The notion that religious symbols are always unconstitutional when displayed on public property is simply not accurate.  While the “Christmas Wars” rage, and cases have been decided on both sides of this issue, the bottom line is that religious symbols are permitted in a variety of contexts on public property.  Appellate cases have upheld the display of nativity scenes and menorahs, particularly when displayed with other secular symbols of the season, such as Santa Claus and reindeer.  Even the liberal Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in California held that the City of San Diego did not violate the Establishment Clause in allowing a private group to erect a Biblical display during each holiday season in Balboa Park (Kreisner v. City of San Diego(9thCir.1993 ) 1 F.3d 775).  The Ninth Circuit denied the request to re-hear the case.  Likewise, the United States Supreme Court refused to hear the case.[3]

May we carry the true spirit of Christmas with us in the coming months and give generously to others from all of the blessings we have received.

Prayer:  Father, as you led the Magi by the light of the star to Jesus over two thousand years ago, lead us in this new year to Jesus, so that we too may praise, worship, and be guided by him, the true light of the world.  Help us to remember the words of St. Paul who taught us “In every thing give thanks: for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus.” (1 Thessalonians 5:18).

Diane Cieslikowski Reagan

[1]The Scripture texts for Epiphany Sunday are Isaiah 60:1-6; Psalm 72:1-15; Ephesians 3:1-12; Matthew 2:1-12.


[3]This case is still good law.

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