Charlie Brown’s Christmas always brings tears to my eyes. My throat tightens when Linus tells what Christmas is all about and suggests the scraggly tree just needs a little love. Of the many holidays honored in diverse traditions this darkest time of year, Christmas is the one that stirs my heart.
Granted, its claims as a holy day are weak. No historical or biblical source suggests what time of year Jesus was born. Christmas originated in the fourth century when Pope Julius I fixed Jesus’s birthday on December 25 to co-opt existing midwinter revels. It became a raucous holiday marked by riots and booze. Religious leaders in seventeenth-century Boston banned it as non-biblical.
Unlike factual origins, meanings are assigned by humans and change over time. The idea that Christmas has a “true meaning” is relatively recent, starting in the 1800s with the writings of Washington Irving and Charles Dickens. Christmas is no more an age-old family celebration of peace and love than it is the anniversary of Jesus’s birth. On the other hand, this is as good a time as any to heed the call for light in the darkness, hospitality to the stranger, generosity over greed, and hope in the face of fear.
I'm a historian who writes novels and literary nonfiction. My home base is Madison, Wisconsin.