12/22/2011 08:29 pm ET | Updated Feb 21, 2012

The True Meaning of Christmas in an International Age of Science

Steve Doocy, soulmate to 30 Rock's Kenneth Parcell and cheerleader-in-chief for the annual "War on Christmas" pity party at Fox News, posed an interesting question. Interviewing the group church ladies behind a "Merry Christmas from Jesus" billboard campaign, he asked them what their Lord and Savior would say if he showed up at this festive time of the year. "We thought and thought, and we thought maybe he'd say, 'I miss hearing you say, "Merry Christmas,"'" responded the grandmotherly woman in the Santa sweater.

Seems more likely to me the first words out of Jesus' mouth would be "What the...???"

Nothing about Christmas would be the least bit recognizable to the Jewish itinerant preacher who was born, as near as anyone can estimate, sometime in the spring roughly 2,015 years ago. The holiday that fervent Foxers strive to defend has no Jewish roots at all. As I have playfully pointed out in these pages, Christmas is a pagan solstice holiday co-opted by Roman Christian autocrats centuries after the life of Jesus.

As for being a birthday celebration, well, that just wouldn't have been meaningful to Jesus. People didn't have wall calendars in those days, let alone Facebook reminders, and no one paid much attention to birthdays -- not even that of Jesus Christ. There's no evidence that Jesus was aware of all the folderol that the Bible says occurred at his birth, and there's no evidence that anyone made anything of it for a long time after his death. Little wonder: the earliest Gospel, that of Mark, makes no mention of Christ's birth, and the first to do so, Matthew, was written 60 years or more after his birth. Even that gives no hint that it took place around the end of December.

And anyway, why would we celebrate it by decorating a fir tree? Apologists will try to con you that St. Boniface invented the Christmas tree while converting the Germanic tribes. "Legend has it that he used the triangular shape of the Fir Tree to describe the Holy Trinity of God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit." This is patent nonsense. Even fur-clad, club-wielding Visigoths would have known that a fir tree is conical. It's only in modern, stylized drawings that it looks anything like a triangle. Besides, it would have been so much easier to make a cross -- the main symbol of Christ -- and put it up on the old hut wall than to cut down a conifer and drag that into their dwelling.

In short, the "Keep Christ in Christmas" crowd is barking up the wrong solstice tree. He was never there.

Does all of this render Christmas meaningless? Not at all. In fact, knowing and accepting that Christmas is much more than a Christian holiday restores it to its original, pluralistic meaning. Many different cultures in Europe and the Middle East celebrated the Winter Solstice. When the Roman Empire forcibly united them under its banner, it nevertheless allowed the varying religious celebrations of the solstice to go on -- until Constantine got it into his head that Christ was his key to military victory.

That was the beginning of the end for pluralism. In 350 Pope Julius I declared Dec. 25 to be Christ's birthday, and Christianity was enforced on all members of the empire -- excepting the Jews, who were merely persecuted and exploited for the next few millenia.

Today, however, Christmas has recaptured some of its early multicultural splendor. Since the end of World War II, Santa has been a regular department store icon in Japan, where almost no one is Christian. There are European Muslims who celebrate a non-religious version of Christmas by having a guy dressed up as Santa come to a public place and give out presents to children. And of course, in America, despite Charlie Brown's best efforts, Christmas has become an orgy of crass commercialism.

I'm sympathetic to Charlie Brown's view. If I were benevolent dictator, I would ban the use of Santa or sacred music in commercials. I even have a little sympathy for the church ladies. Their implicit xenophobia and cultural imperialism aside, I understand the fears they harbor -- a magical, mythical childlike, worldview that Christmas more than any other holiday embodies is slipping from our grasp. Yet, this is like grieving over the fall of the British Empire while failing to notice that English has, more or less peacefully, become our global common language.

True, science has torn down the illusion that we live in a morally ordered world, where a benevolent God deals out harsh justice to evildoers and upholds the righteous. We know beyond all reasonable doubt that natural disaster and tragedy strike blindly at the good, the bad and the indifferent. We know that Santa cannot possibly visit every child's home on Christmas Eve. Worse yet, we know that on Christmas Day, as on every day, tens of thousands of children will die of starvation, accident, disease and abuse. And we know that, somehow, we have to learn to live in a world where people will never agree on a single set of sacred beliefs.

None of this means that Christians cannot keep observing Christmas in their own way. It just means that they need to accept that it the days when the Holy Roman Empire could enforce it on all citizens are gone forever. Yet, despite all the disillusionment, Christmas has found a new and beautiful meaning as a celebration of love made good by the giving of gifts to children, to family and friends, and to strangers in need.