Christmas, the celebration, has a meaning that reaches well beyond Christianity. I don’t mean that it’s the exclusive beginning of a story about loving thy neighbor. That’s comparatively unimportant because some other religions also foster love, peace, and charity. The importance of Christianity is that it makes God become Man, forever. I mean, not a for a little while and only to fulfill mysterious mythical missions as in the religion of the Ancient Egyptians. I mean not in pursuit of nefarious and usually obscene goals such as seducing unsuspecting maidens, or even one’s own sister, as is common in both Greek paganism and in Hinduism*, not temporarily, but for good.
The Christian insistence that God can take human form durably irrevocably closes the distance between the Creator and his creature. It’s but two steps from Man himself becoming God. The incarnation of God was thus a necessary prelude to Western humanism, the belief that Man is the measure of everything. It’s notable that only Europe and its heir societies have, to this day, taken that step forcefully and irreversibly.
Even most religious believers in those parts of the world are humanists in the sense described above. No other kind of society has taken the step. Outside of Western Europe, the sacred and the superstitious reign supreme although there are humanists, in the Western sense, everywhere. (I am tempted to call them “converts” to humanism.) The belief that Man (including woman**) is central from the standpoint of value seems to me to be a pre-condition to democracy and to a fundamental requirement for human rights. I mean by “human rights,” basic rights that apply to all individuals irrespective of nation, tribe,caste, political affiliation, or sex.
To my mind, Christmas is intimately tied to the reasons why democracy works better and in a more sustained manner, and human rights are more likely to be respected as a matter of routine, in Western societies than elsewhere. This, in spite of the fact that there are brave efforts to sustain the one and to protect the other in all kinds of societies.
It seems to me that Christians widely misinterpret the story that Jesus was born in a manger (a cattle trough). The point is not that his family was poor. They were not; they had the wherewithal to travel to near Jerusalem from distant Galilee. Rather, as one of the Gospels states plainly, “there was no room in the inn” (Luke: 2:7). In other words, Joseph faced a typical Christmas hotel overbooking. So, Jesus’ birth, probably inside a warm stable, is another indication that he was a regular kid although he was God. It could have happened to any of us before the Internet.
* I am fairly well informed about Hinduism because I converted to that religion after receiving formal religious instruction in the early 80s, another story, obviously. I am not a worse Hindu that I was a Catholic, thank you very much.
** In the English language, for five hundred years, “man” was understood to include “woman.” It’s only since 1978, in the suburbs of America, that a distinction became required. Guess what usage I prefer.