03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

How Should we View the Christmas Holiday?

In our politically correct society one could be offended by a cheerful greeting of "Merry Christmas" without any real knowledge of how the individual in question meant it.

Regardless of what one chooses to commemorate in this season of holidays, be it Christmas, Epiphany, Yule, Hanukkah, Kwanza, New Year's Eve, New Year's Day, or Black Friday, this festive season in our culture is still dominated by Dec. 25.

Ironically, the definition of Christmas really depends on whom you ask.

Is Christmas a pagan ritual? Is it a vital cog in our economic system? Or is it a religious holiday? If you responded to my series of questions with "all the above," you probably gave the best answer.

We actually get our Christmas tradition from several sources. The history of Christmas dates back more than 4,000 years. Many of the Christmas traditions that we celebrate today can be traced back centuries before the birth of Jesus.

Our contemporary traditions of bright lights, the yule log, the giving of gifts, parades, carolers who sing while going from house to house, and the holiday feasts can all be traced back to the early Mesopotamian culture.

While there are other influences such as the early Europeans celebration of the winter solstice, Christmas is obviously connected to the birth of Jesus. For many Christians, Dec. 25 is one of the holiest days of the year.

Christmas is indeed a religious holiday for some, but many atheists freely participate in Christmas without the slightest hint of contradiction.

But no one can actually pinpoint the exact date of Jesus' birth. Most likely, it was not Dec. 25. In 350 AD the Bishop of Rome, Julius I, chose Dec. 25 as the observance of Christmas, in part to coincide with the pagan tradition of Winter Solstice (Yule).

And let us not forget Black Friday, which has become an American tradition on par with "Opening Day" in baseball. If Congress introduced legislation to do away Christmas, the most ardent opposition would most likely come from the retail industry.

Part of the Christmas definition includes a neo-pagan tradition that worships at the altar of consumerism. But it is that consumerism between Thanksgiving and Christmas Eve that account for roughly one-third of the annual retail spending in this country.

Moreover, of the primary definitions of Christmas in our society, many of us, including yours truly, freely participate in aspects of all the above.

However one defines Christmas, the definitions that I've offered tend to fall short because they are based on external expressions. But our current holiday season is unique because it is unquestionably the longest sustained time period that appeals to the better angels of our nature.

Each year, the church where I serve as pastor puts together packages for the homeless that include socks, sweaters, water, gloves, non perishable food and blankets. One of the church members was standing in line recently with roughly 30 blankets as part of her contribution to the project; several people in line with her inquired why she had so many blankets.

After she informed them of the purpose, several individuals volunteered to pay for some of the blankets as a small way of contributing toward peace on Earth and goodwill to all.

Mere strangers connected only by standing in the same retail line to pay for their items realized an internal definition of the holiday season.

They did not stop to debate whether they had a shared definition of Christmas. Nor did they know if they possessed a similar political philosophy. Those who gave did so based on an intrinsic feeling that too often lies dormant in the soul.

The result of that kind gesture is the gift of memory that reminds all involved though they may be bombarded by the cacophony of war, global warming, the economy, or Tiger Woods' marital status, there is indeed good in the world.

My neo-pagan ritual, consumer-driven, quasi-religious external definition of Christmas notwithstanding, my internal definition is one of hope, peace, joy, and love. It is in the spirit the latter definition that I offer a Merry Christmas to all. I hope I didn't offend anyone.

Byron Williams is an Oakland pastor, a syndicated columnist and blog-talk radio host. He is the author of Strip Mall Patriotism: Moral Reflections of the Iraq War. E-mail him or visit his Web site: