For two millennia, Christmas has served for much of the world as a time of reflection, a time of renewal, a moment of peace and hope in a chaotic and often desperate world. For two millennia, the holiday marking the birth of Jesus Christ has been a conduit for a message and an ideal that humankind can hope to someday achieve; a message and an ideal that can inspire people of all religious faiths regardless of whether or not they celebrate Christmas.
Sure, the holiday generates some silliness, particularly in American culture. Some insist that there is a "War on Christmas" — apparently oblivious to the vast excess with which Americans celebrate the holiday. And then there is that excess itself, a celebration of capitalism that, for many, runs antithetical to the meaning of Christmas. But even silliness cannot alter the sense of joy and family and camaraderie that is contagious at this time of year.
Much of the charm of Christmas can be found in its sturdy traditions, many of which have lasted some 2,000 years with only slight alterations. The giving of gifts — now typically wrapped in shiny paper and placed under the tree — can be traced to the ancient stories of a newborn Jesus receiving gold, frankincense, and myrrh. And many faiths other than Christianity have their own celebrations at this time of year, rife with equally moving traditions that have survived for centuries.
Yet while those traditions provide a sense of comfort and a connection with previous generations, this year's Christmas also is marked by the presence of a new pope. As the world's foremost Christian leader, Pope Francis has, for many people, provided a breath of fresh air for a Roman Catholic Church that often is seen as staid in its opinions and glacial in its changes.
Since taking over the papacy nine months ago, Pope Francis has turned the focus of the church toward service, compassion, and helping the poor. He has hinted that the church is open to a more accepting view of homosexuals ("Who am I to judge?"); he has created a commission to prevent the abuse of minors and to support victims of abuse; he has criticized unfettered greed both within and beyond the borders of the Vatican. Last week, Francis spoke about the importance of humility: "It is an ugly thing when you see a Christian who doesn't want to humble himself, who doesn't want to serve, a Christian who struts about everywhere. It's ugly. That is not a Christian; that's a pagan." Francis has not rewritten church doctrine, but in the early months of his reign, he has helped to redefine it.
That is but one notable part of this Christmas season. Not all Christians are Catholic; not all who celebrate Christmas are Christian; not all who celebrate the season celebrate Christmas. The message of peace and love for fellow humans at this time of year can transcend all boundaries, encompassing all who wish to share in the joy of the season.
Christmas, as it is celebrated these days in American culture, is a combination of traditions from many lands and many heritages. (The decorating of Christmas trees, for example, likely started in 16th century France.) Therein lies the power of the holiday. It is a celebration of many things, with Christ's message of love and hope and salvation remaining at the center of the celebration for some 2,000 years. To this, we add Pope Francis' focus on humility as a point of emphasis this year. The celebration of Christmas long has been about the notion that there is something larger, something more important than our individual selves. It long has been about selflessness, and that is a message that has endured for millennia.