The meaning of Christmas for the Orthodox and the Catholic traditions
I must begin with the disclaimer: I am not an Orthodox Christian. Although I know more about Orthodox than the most westerners do, I do not regard myself as any kind of expert.
The second disclaimer: I am not a Roman Catholic. I am an Anglican. However, though we do not regard ourselves exactly as Protestants we do regard ourselves as the true Catholic tradition now that the Church of Rome has become so corrupted and refuses to accept this corruption and reform itself. I will not presume to speak for Catholicism in general.
Therefore, let me tell you what I believe Christmas means for average mainstream Christian anywhere in the world.
Christmas is a time of hope. It takes place about the winter solstice which is the shortest daylight time of the year. And that is the time when Christmas takes place. Christmas is a time of universal hope in a sense they it offers a universal salvation to the entire world.
I have spent the past few months teaching the sixth book of Virgil's "Aeneid" at A-level in Latin and what has struck me most forcefully about that book is the utter want of hope in the pagan religions of the ancient world. These religions were bounded by ethnicity and by class. There was no routine judgment in which the good were rewarded and the bad were punished. Ordinary people have nothing to look forward from death. The living world had nothing to offer beyond itself.
But Christianity does. It offers chance of salvation to all men and all women regardless of their ethnicity, class and any accidental circumstances of birth. This is a unique message and even if you not believe in God it is a message which has had an entirely beneficial effect on those parts of the world where it has been heard.
For this reason, if you are a Christian you will celebrate Christmas as the most holy day in the calendar. For westerners Christmas is a far more important celebration then Easter. But I believe it is the opposite in the Orthodox world where you tend to focus more on the crucifixion and the resurrection. For Christians in the West Christmas is the most holy day of the year when all the hopes and promises of a Christian faith are made true.I think the essence of the Eastern and the Western approaches to Christmas is the same.
As I said earlier that for the Orthodox tradition the main emphasis is on Easter. The crucifixion and the resurrection for the West is more about Christmas.
I'm not saying that for us Easter is not important, as I'm not saying it presuming for you Christmas is of no importance. But it may be the different emphasis on those two great festivals has an historical explanation.
Until the 20th Century western Christianity was a religion of triumph and success. It was the religion of a civilization which faced a number of serious external challenges in the medieval period. Challenges that we successfully overcame. It was then the religion of a civilization which spread its physical and its moral dominion over the whole of the world. And so, for that reason our Christianity is a religion of triumph.
In the East Christianity has since 7th century been a faith under siege. The Islamic expansions in the 7th century took Egypt, Syria, North Africa from us. The Byzantium Eempire stabilized its position in the central centuries in the Middle Ages. But then the slide began again, the Islamic tied road forward, taking the core territories of the Byzantine Empire. And then, most regressively and most horrifyingly in my opinion, we, the Latins, turned on the Byzantines, we burnt Constantinople and destroyed the empire.
Although the center of Orthodoxy moved from Constantinople to Moscow, Russia itself faced endless terrible difficulties. It faced the threat of external conquerors and invasions , it faced the serious chance within of Tyranny. And then in the 20th century came the terrible disaster of communism in which thousands of priests were murdered and millions of ordinary believers were tyrannized over. Yet, in spite to all this, orthodoxy has survived and has flourished.
But the terrible difficulties and challenges that Orthodoxy has faced have had an influence on Orthodox theology and liturgical matters.
Because for the Orthodox Christianity is a faith under continua threat, it is obvious that the main emphasis of that branch of Christianity should be on the Easter message. The message of death and apparent despair fallowed by a glorious resurrection and promise of a still more glorious future.
For us in the West the present is good enough. In the East you look which much greater looming on the world that is to come. And that is my relatively uninformed opinion on the difference in approach within Orthodox and Western Christendom to the two great festivals of our common religion.
If you are not a Christian, if you do not believe in God Christmas should still be a day of solemn and even joyous commemoration because of the beneficial effect that Christianity has had on the world.
Unfortunately, in the West Christmas has been vulgarized and trivialized, it has become an embarrassing celebration. It can be regarded as the Feast of Mammon. Mammon was a pagan god of money, vulgar consumerism. There is almost no religious elements in the mainstream celebration of Christmas;, it is simply a festival of shopping for things that you would not buy for yourself and you give to people who do not really want them. It is a time for watching trash television. It is a time for attending vulgar and tediously degraded theatrical representations. It is a time for eating and drinking too much. It is a time for a momentary relief of pleasure fallowed in most immediately by boredom and self-disgust.
I suppose that's all I have to say about Christmas message as it stands. Why it has been so vulgarized and trivialized are matters that would require not a brief interview but an entire book to explain. There are reasons why Christmas has been turned from what it was to what it is, but they are extraordinarily complex.
Christmas took on its present shape in the early and the Middle 19th century in England with the idea of Christmas trees, Christmas cards, the Christmas gifts. These are Victorian inventions, you will see them being described in the works of Charles Dickens.
To some extent these were descriptions of a Christmas as it was celebrated in his days, but there was also some propaganda in his writings. This was telling us not how the Christmas was celebrated, but how it ought to be celebrated. And, because Dickens was such an influential writer you might even say that Christmas that we have in England and America and every other country speaking English is an invention of Charles Dickens.
All the Christmas attributions, the general tone of Christmas-there are deep medieval precents for this. Christmas has always been an important festival but the way in which we celebrate it now is very much Victorian invention. And probably it was a good Victorian invention. I regret only the extreme commercialization of the festival during the past fifty years. This commercialization is one of the things that we owe to America.