Christmas and Western Civilization
This essay was originally published on December 26, 2022 by Public Discourse.
Though Christmas is a religious holiday, secularists should appreciate its great contribution to Western Civilization: the lesson that all men are equal in their fundamental human dignity.
The holiday season has many traditions, some ancient, some modern. Among the most recent is a paradoxical one: complaints, yearly renewed, about the public recognition of Christmas as a religious celebration. As these observances get underway (see here and here), we might do well to ask the following question: what, if anything, has Christmas contributed to Western Civilization that could earn the respect even of the secularist and hence win his acquiescence in its ongoing public acknowledgment?
One might point to Christmas’s annual role in boosting the economy, but this would be superficial. Christmas is older than the large-scale gift-giving (and hence gift-buying) that has become associated with it in recent decades, and Western Civilization is more than the contemporary commercial society that measures its health by yearly economic growth. More seriously one might point to the rich treasury of art and music that Christmas has inspired. Yet neither is this quite what we seek. While an undeniable boon, the art and music of Christmas is more a contribution to Western culture. As distinct from culture, the term “civilization” (which shares the Latin root of “citizen”) seems to imply a common legal framework, or at least a shared set of publicly acknowledged ethical principles. Has Christmas, then, made an important contribution to a still commonly valued moral core of Western Civilization?
I would suggest that the ethical core of Western Civilization—or at least a key principle by which it distinguished itself from what it regarded as savagery and barbarism—is respect for the dignity of humanity and of the individual human person. This is the moral principle underpinning the more obvious institutional characteristics such as the rule of law, constitutionalism, limited government, and division of social authority among various centers of power. All of these expedients share a common aim: limiting the power of some people over others, and especially limiting the power of the strong over the weak. This aim in turn is informed by the sense that all people deserve such protection, that they all possess a certain dignity that ought not be abused.
The celebration of Christmas has been a powerful teacher of the dignity of the human person. For Christians, Christmas is the feast of the Incarnation—the celebration of the moment when God became a man in order to live among men. It shows that God thought of human beings as worthy of being saved, and that he sought to save them by taking on humanity in a perfected form, thus opening the way to their own perfection. Christian belief in the Incarnation is thus inseparable from belief in the objective, and even transcendent, value of the human race as a whole, and of each human person as an individual.
Belief in the Incarnation further implies a certain egalitarianism that has also been important to Western Civilization. According to Christian teaching, all are sinners, and none can claim to be fundamentally superior to others in this important respect. Conversely, and more positively, God wanted to save all people, of all ranks, from their sins and to open the way to a lofty destiny for them all. Thus the Christian understanding of the Incarnation has been important in fostering the West’s sense that, whatever social order may require in terms of hierarchy and rank, there is an irreducible moral equality of all human beings: all are owed a certain respect, even the lowliest among us.
Moreover, the story of the Incarnation, the Christmas story, emphasizes this equality and powerfully presents it to the imagination. As the story goes, the God who became man chose to be born into a family of no outstanding social importance, one supported by a man who had to work with his hands. Jesus was born in circumstances of poverty, and his birth was first announced not to the princes of the earth but to the ordinary shepherds to be found at hand. As he grew to manhood and carried out his public mission, Jesus chose to continue to live, work, and teach primarily among the common working people of the world. According to the Christian story, God teaches not only by his doctrines but by his actions that all men are equal in their fundamental human dignity.
These lessons in equal human dignity have been planted deep in the Western mind over the centuries precisely by the celebration of Christmas. These are the constant themes of the aforementioned art and music, which, while never intended as political doctrine, are nevertheless pregnant with political implications. For, again, it is precisely because of the depth of its conviction that all people possess an inherent dignity that the West has been so averse to the idea that any people should possess arbitrary power over others, that any people should be able to use others as the mere instruments of their desires.
This is not to say that equal human dignity could never have been appreciated apart from the influence of Christianity on the West. Certainly many great philosophers—such as Aristotle among the ancients, or Kant among the moderns—have suggested, without appealing to revelation, that human beings deserve respect because of their rational capacity for moral responsibility. Nevertheless, it is surely uncontroversial to say that Christianity—and, accordingly, the celebration of Christmas—has been an important force for the popularization of the idea of equal human dignity. We do not sing songs each year about what we have learned from Kant and Aristotle, and it is difficult to imagine the practice becoming customary.
Indeed, it may well be that even those secular philosophies that recognize equal human dignity owe that recognition to the influence of Christianity. While the idea is implicit to some extent in Aristotle’s thought, it was obscured by his acceptance of, or at least his willingness to accommodate, his culture’s subordination of women and practice of slavery. The equality of human dignity is much more prominent in Kant, but Kant had the benefit of living and thinking in a culture that had already been influenced by Christian morality over a period of centuries.
Christian thinkers have long emphasized the moral elevation that the Christian teaching brought to the Western world. Augustine, for example, points in The City of God to the brutal aspects of the pre-Christian practice of war. Among the pagan Romans, he notes, it was commonplace to slaughter or enslave captives, practices that were regarded as unexceptionable to even the most enlightened and humane men of the time. Such harshness was gradually lessened, he contends, because of the progressive influence of Christian morality. Today we regard such practices with a proper outrage, but Augustine’s argument invites us to reflect on whether our increased humanity and restraint is not an inheritance from Christianity. Moreover, this is not merely the pro-Christian propaganda of Christian thinkers. For even Nietzsche, among Christianity’s most extreme philosophical enemies, admits (even as he condemns) the moral renovation wrought by Christianity. It effected, he claims, a revaluation of ancient values, standing the moral world on its head: where the pagan world celebrated the strength of the strong, Christianity displaced that understanding by demanding pity for the weak.
Could Western Civilization’s commitment to equal human dignity—a commitment that is approved by liberal and conservative, progressive and traditionalist, secularist and believer—have developed in the absence of Christianity? It is impossible to say. We cannot rewind and run history over again from the beginning. The moral development of civilizations, the work of centuries and millennia, is not an experiment that can be replicated and its results confirmed. We can only say that the development of the idea of equal human dignity was bound up with the propagation of Christianity in the West, and that we cannot know for certain whether that moral idea can survive without its religious support. Perhaps this is reason enough for secularists to allow and even encourage the ongoing public celebration of Christmas as a religious holiday.