When I was growing up, I was told that the reason we give presents at Christmas is because it is a celebration of Jesus’ birth, and because Jesus is no longer here in the flesh to give presents to – like we do on people’s birthdays – we give them to each other.
Since I have grown up, I have developed an aversion to people referring to Christmas as ‘Jesus’ birthday’. Firstly, it’s not accurate. December 25 was almost certainly not the date on which that Jesus was actually born. And that’s fine. It’s a bit like how Queen Elizabeth II’s birthday is celebrated across the Commonwealth at different times of the year, only one of which is her actual birthday.
The other reason I don’t like the phrase ‘Jesus’ birthday’ is because it is often used to re-Christianise Christmas. When people are making it all about presents and food and getting together with family, some Christians feel the need to claim branding of Christmas. I feel like we are better off letting people have their own interpretation, and share Christmas, just like the powers that be of the Roman Christian Empire did when they picked a date which coincided with ‘pagan’ celebrations of winter solstice.
But the main reason for my aversion is that I feel that stylising Christmas as Jesus’ birthday cheapens the celebration. It implies that Jesus is your mate, not unlike your mate Dave. When it’s Dave’s birthday you make a cake and sing happy birthday and Dave blows out the candles. Jesus is not like your mate Dave. He was a person who lived and breathed more than 2000 years ago. Who is going to blow out the candles on Jesus’ birthday cake?
Christmas is the celebration of a miracle: the Word made flesh. God coming to us in human form, and not in a blaze of glory descending from the heavens, but in the form of a helpless tiny baby, made from human flesh, coming out of a human woman’s vagina. And in the most humble of settings: the room in the house where the animals were kept, and in birth circumstances surrounded by scandal.
Birthday celebrations are, at their core, a celebration that a person was born and that they are still here with us. So Christmas is Jesus’ birthday in that sense. The Christ consciousness is still with us whenever we are his hands and feet in the world.
So who is going to blow out the candles when it is Jesus’ birthday? Probably anyone could do it. But that’s not actually an important job that Jesus left us with. He told us to remember him by meeting together over a meal (that’s a tick for Christmas celebrations). And he didn’t ask us to bake a cake. He told us to feed the poor. And his parting message was for us to develop relationships with people from all different backgrounds, because in doing so he would be with us in spirit.
(1) Contrary to the Christian tradition of there being “no room in the inn” and therefore Jesus being born in a stable, much more likely is that Joseph and Mary were staying with family in Bethlehem, and there were so many people in town for the census that the bedrooms were full.
Note: Even though Christmas is the biggest event culturally, only Luke’s gospel tells the story of Jesus’ birth, whereas all four gospels describe the death of Jesus. This tells me that Christ’s death and resurrection is much more central to the message of Christianity. I have heard it suggested that we focus on Christmas over Easter because Jesus’ revolutionary teachings and actions can be hard to deal with, and we prefer a baby Jesus who doesn’t ask more of us than worship.