Peace on Earth, goodwill toward men
As a holiday to be celebrated around the world this weekend, Christmas is certainly overwrought. But put aside the trappings and the appeals to consume, I still like the essential message that will find its place in many a service this weekend: “Peace on Earth, goodwill toward men.”
Like everything else associated with this holiday, the traditional ovation has its detractors. In the original Latin, “et in terra pax hominibus, bonae voluntatis,” the last noun is not necessarily masculine. But some still see sexism. There is also a debate, I discovered, about how this was translated from the Bible’s Book of Luke, first written in Greek.
Christmas is, and always will be, a controversial work-in-progress. But still on Saturday night and Sunday morning – or in its transmuted form as a part of New Year’s a week later – the holiday of lights, trees and gifts will be celebrated by billions. Perhaps by more non-Christians than those whose prophet was born two millennia ago.
In Japan, some 54 percent of the population celebrates Christmas although less than 2 percent of the population is Christian. It’s a major deal in Mumbai and other major Indian cities, somehow seamlessly blending in with the many deities of that complex nation.
In Turkey, the third-century birthplace of the original St. Nicholas – now the gift-bearing attendant “Santa Claus” with his own complex evolution – the operative term is “Noel.” For much of the populace that’s a synonym for the New Year. No one seems to mind that this is Latin for “birth” and strictly speaking the person born was Jesus. Banners urging “İyi Noeller” bedeck much of the city, usually with the bearded face of “Noel Baba,” or “Father Noel,” smiling on in approval.
While some non-Christians lament the rise of this “Christian” event in their lands, it’s worth remembering that many a serious Christian has condemned the holiday, too. For them the problem is that the particular date allegedly got its start as the putative birthday of a Roman god. Whether this was “Invictus,” or “Sol,” or “Mithras” is another debate. There is also a case made that Dec. 25 got its start honoring the birth of a provincial Syrian deity. There is also the matter that “Mithras” was not Roman but a Persian god, the deity of the mysterious religion “Mithraism.” The religion disappeared in the fourth century, not long after St. Nicholas, the “Bishop of Myra,” was getting busy with the good works that led to his canonization.
In a bit of study on all this, I learned that before he became the current Pope Benedict XVI, then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger weighed into this perilous discussion. He concluded that the sacred date has nothing to do with Romans, Persians or Syrian provinces. No, he argued, the date of Dec. 25 was determined by calculating nine months beyond March 25, regarded as the day of Jesus’ conception which is celebrated by the Feast of the Annunciation.
I’ll leave it at that. Yes, Christmas is a holiday that provokes some ambivalence. But whatever this holiday’s origins, however it was carried down, and however you acknowledge it, there can be no ambivalence about one traditional paean to Christmas: “Peace on Earth, goodwill toward men.”