If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, a number of the world's religions are paying tribute to Christianity by trying to come up with something like Christmas.
Hanukkah was always a fairly minor Jewish holiday, until it mutated into the "Jewish Christmas," complete with electric Menorahs and presents. A new fad among Muslims is "Ramadan lights," strings of Christmas-tree-style lights decorating homes and shaped into Islamic symbols such as the crescent moon with a star. Today's Muslims honor their sacred month by fasting during the day, as always, but also by sending Ramadan greeting cards and giving their children gifts.
Critics of Christmas say that the Christian holiday is nothing more than the old pagan celebration of the winter solstice. It is certainly true that most of the world's religions have a holiday around the same time in late December, at the beginning of winter. That season officially starts with the winter solstice, the date (Dec. 21) when the night is longest in the northern hemisphere. (There is also a summer solstice, June 21, when people north of the equator have the most hours of daylight.)
For the ancient pagans, the winter solstice meant the triumph of darkness. The Druids called it the "Death of the Sun." The fear was that the light would never return, unless human beings brought back the light with rituals and sacrifices. After the solstice, of course, the days started to grow longer, which was a big relief and reason for feasting and celebration.
But whereas the pagans observed the solstice in terror, feverishly keeping the fires going lest the darkness overcome them, Christians turned what was literally the dead of winter into the happiest time of the year.
The time of year now meant that when darkness is at its greatest, the light of God-Jesus Christ-is born. Gradually, though the night is still longer than the day throughout the winter, the light increases every day. Finally, the light surpasses the darkness. This occurs just after the spring equinox, March 21, another favorite time for holidays in the world's religions. Around that time Christians celebrate Easter, the day Christ rose from the dead, marking His victory over sin, death, the devil, and every darkness.
In their seasonal symbolism of light and darkness, Christmas and Easter go together. Christmas marks the beginning of the light, and Easter marks the triumph of the light, just as the birth of the Christ child marks the beginning of His work, which culminates in the victory of His death and resurrection.
Today, it is widely assumed that all religions are essentially the same. This is parroted both by people who say that all religions are equally good and by people who say that all religions are equally bad. Both the interfaith ecumenists and the atheistic secularists are loudly insisting that there is no difference between conservative Christians and conservative Muslims, both of whom think that they have the only truth and so embody the spirit of terrorism.
Those who believe that way are looking at the forms of religion, while neglecting their content. All the religions of the world are indeed religions, which means that they all have ways of worship, a sense of the sacred, and some sense of right and wrong. From the outside, some of these practices may appear similar. The issue, though, is not what the various religions look like-or when their holidays fall-but what they mean.
The purpose of Christian evangelism is to bring people into everlasting life. The purpose of Islamic evangelism is to bring more people and nations under Islamic law.
The Bible teaches that God created the heavens and the earth and pronounced them "good." Hinduism teaches that the material world is just an illusion; Buddhism teaches that the essence of life is suffering. The Eastern religions see salvation as an escape from physical existence. Christianity teaches that the Word that was God "became flesh and dwelt among us" (John 1:14).
The various religions of the world offer various brands of works righteousness, from the meditation techniques of Hinduism to the rigorous moralism of Islam. Christianity, in contrast, offers forgiveness for our failures to be righteous, a free salvation that is based not on what we must do but on what Christ has done for us.
The world's religions are indeed alike in offering rules and techniques by which we can ascend to the Divine. Christianity, in contrast, is all about the Divine descending to us.
However it is celebrated, this is what Christmas means.