What did we just celebrate this Christmas season? The meaning of Christmas varies from family to family and from country to country. For example, the Christmas trees put up in Beijing or Singapore have no obvious connection with the pontifical mass celebrated at St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. Last week, did we celebrate the birth of Christ, the original Noel, or a holiday for children who often have no religious upbringing or live in a non-Christian universe? Why should we give gifts to children on Christmas day, and is the Santa Claus who is supposed to bring them a distant cousin of Christ?
This Christmas celebration, which has become a national rite in non-Christian or multicultural countries, used to trouble my parents and myself, 70 years ago. Given that we were of Jewish origin in a France that was massively Catholic—Muslims had not yet arrived in great numbers—my parents at first decided to ignore Christmas, which was, for them, a day like any other. But for a child like me, surrounded by Christian children, I noticed that they received gifts and got to stuff themselves with chocolate. My parents thought that they had found a synthesis by celebrating Hanukkah, a holiday which, on the Jewish calendar, coincides more or less with Christmas. Hanukkah, or the “festival of lights,” celebrates, in principle, the reconquest of the Second Temple in Jerusalem from Hellenistic despots by the Maccabees family. But Jews long considered it to be a minor and controversial holiday: 2,000 years ago (in 165 B.C.), the reconquest had pitted integralist Hebrews attached to the territory of Israel against Jews who were already dispersed and who attached more importance to the study of the Bible than to old stones. In contemporary terms, one might conclude that Hanukkah is a Zionist holiday, or at least one characterized by nostalgia for a distant past. If we give children gifts at Hanukkah, this is only so that they will not feel left out compared with their Christian friends. And so, I received presents for Hannukah, our substitute Christmas.
Then there was the Christmas tree. Why didn’t we have a tree, like our neighbors? My parents conceded to getting one. This was easy for them, since the custom was pagan and had originated in Germany, and my parents came from Germany before immigrating to France. The decorated tree is now universal, as is Santa Claus (or “Father Christmas”), with his puffy red outfit and his sleigh pulled by reindeer, which can be seen in the streets of tropical cities such as Bangkok or Rio de Janeiro, as well as in Beijing and Tokyo. All these Santa Clauses, who have become suppliers of gifts to children and increasingly to their parents, thus are connected ever more remotely to the Christian holiday. Do we realize, by the way, that this Santa Claus, first copied from the Germanic Saint Nicolas, who saved unfortunate children, is really American? As he is known and pictured around the world, puffy, jolly, and hooded, he was first drawn by the American Thomas Nast in 1862, as an advertising image. Thus, Christmas has become a publicity campaign for Santa Claus—perhaps the only truly worldwide commercial, along with that for Apple’s smartphone.
No doubt authentic Christians suffer once a year because of this distorted meaning—Christmas as carnival. But they are not forbidden to pray, and recriminations would not be appropriate. After all, should not the fact that, once a year, the world unites be a cause of rejoicing? Still, it would be better if this unification centered on some moral values and not only on wrapped packages.
The United States, for all its zeal for those packages, also offers such an alternative holiday. On the last Thursday of November, the entire country celebrates Thanksgiving. The day’s origins are traced to a reconciliation of British colonists with local native populations around a common meal in 1621. This is now the only truly national celebration that all Americans celebrate, whatever their confession or origins. At this dinner, with a codified menu (roast turkey and corn in particular), God or destiny is thanked for blessing the United States with a democracy, however imperfect, and each person around the table takes a turn giving thanks for someone or something positive.
Rather than borrowing Santa Claus from the Americans, the world should have imported a universal Thanksgiving. Imagine that Covid-19, a kind of globalized Satan, were someday conquered by science and by our rational behaviors. Such a day could be celebrated everywhere and by everyone, with no necessity of distributing gifts. Life would be our only gift, to be celebrated without restraint.
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