Christmas is only two sleeps away!
Here in Sydney, it’s hot, sticky and humid — the opposite of what you think of as a typical Christmas…
You’d think I’d be used to it by now. I’ve only ever known summer Christmas’ but each year, it’s still a shock to discover that lo and behold, it will not be snowing in the middle of summer.
A Summer Christmas?
Our whole Christmas culture in Australia is trapped between the two hemispheres and their respective climates. We sit around in our cozzies (sorry, swimming costumes) and sing about dashing through the snow in a one-horse open sleigh. We devour all manner of seafood from the barbie (sorry, barbecue) but always finish with Christmas pudding — because there’s nothing like a dense, boiled, brandy-topped fruit cake to cool you down in the middle of a heatwave!
We even have fake snow! That’s unforgivable in any season but in the middle of summer?? Just NO. The only snow-like substance I want to see at an Aussie Christmas is the ice keeping my beer cold, thank you very much.
When I was little, this really annoyed me. (And by little, I mean when I was a know-it-all teenager, as opposed to the good-for-nothing young adult I am now.) I thought that we should move Christmas to our winter solstice, to around the 25th June. Sure, I would never get my dream of a white Christmas because it never snows in Sydney, but at least it would be climatically appropriate.
I like things climatically appropriate…
Christmas and its Winter Symbolism
Because it’s not really about the fake snow. It’s about how our entire telling of the Christmas story fits into the winter solstice. You don’t realise just how profoundly wintery all the Christmas symbolism and imagery is until you have it in summer.
At the winter solstice, the year turns, the darkness retreats and the whole world grows brighter. As Pope Benedict explains in perhaps in his best book ever The Spirit of the Liturgy, so much of the symbolism of Christmas is around “Christ as the dawning of the new light, the true sun, of history.” The cold and dark is a cosmic metaphor for the world of sin and Christ is the light — “the light [that] shines in the darkness” (John 1:5)
The Church Fathers saw the cosmic significance of this. St Jerome wrote that,
“Even creation approves our preaching. The universe itself bears to the truth of our words. Up to [Christmas], the dark days increase, but from this the darkness decreases.”
This sort of “cosmic symbolism”, Pope Benedict explains, “has its precise setting in the area of the Mediterranean and the Near East in which the Jewish and Christian religions came into being.”
As such, it applies neatly to the Northern Hemisphere. Aaaaaand… not so much to the Southern Hemisphere.
Christmas Goes South…
As the pope goes on, “Now in the Southern Hemisphere everything is reversed… Christmas coincides, not with the winter solstice, but with high summer. This”, he says, “raises the question of “inculturation” with great urgency.”
I couldn’t agree more. (Did I mention I like my symbolism?) But Pope Benedict isn’t in favour of my idea of moving Christmas to winter. He says that we shouldn’t change the date of Christmas to fit in with the cosmic symbolism of a dawning light in midwinter — even if that is the original symbolism.
Because that would be treating Christianity like a nature religion rather than the religion of history that it is. The most important thing about Christmas isn’t the natural symbolism of the cyclical seasons. It’s the radical invasion of the God-Man into the march of history.
Jesus isn’t merely a myth; He is a true myth. All the myths and symbols of the human heart find their fulfillment in Him who made our hearts — and made us to long for Him.
He is not at the service of the cosmos, the cosmos is at the service of Christ.
The heavens are telling the glory of God;
and the firmament proclaims his handiwork. (Psalm 19:1-4)
A Summer Christmas in all its Glory
I agree (somewhat reluctantly) with the pope on this. (So gracious of me, I know!)
On the one hand, I’m all for historical integrity. On the other, I’d like to be able to sing Jingle Bells unironically for once in my life.
But maybe we need Christmas in summer.
Here in the South, we can remind people more easily that Christmas isn’t about the bells — and whether they jingle or not. Neither is it about snow, eggnog, mistletoe or Frosty the Snowman.
It’s about the baby who made the seasons, the dear little One who hadn’t the foggiest idea what the weather was doing that first Christmas night — only that He was safe and warm in the arms of His mother.
More than just the negative (i.e. Christmas is NOT about snow), the Southern Hemisphere can also speak new wisdom and shed new light on the mystery of this most sublime feast. As the pope said,
“The South could help the North to discover a new breadth and depth in the mystery, thus enabling us all to draw afresh from on its richness.”
Coming at the height of summer, when the sun is at its hottest and the days at their longest, Christmas here has its own cosmic significance. We see that Christ isn’t a sliver of the truth; He is the fullness of light, truth and grace.
He is the Sun of Justice, the King who has come in glory at the height of the year.
St John the Baptist’s nativity is on the winter solstice (24 June) because He is the forerunner to Christ — and the days lengthen as he prepares the way for the Lord. Christ’s own nativity, however, is in midsummer (25 December) because He is the fulfillment of all of Israel’s hopes and dreams: the great light for a people walking in darkness. (Isaiah 9:2)
“And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth; we have beheld his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father.” (John 1:14)
What says transcendent glory better than the incandescent sun at its mighty strength?
To Sum(mer) Up
While a winter Christmas, with its huddled carols and flickering lights, speaks of the appearance of that humble first Christmas, perhaps a summer Christmas speaks of its hidden reality?
Of angels on high and glories streaming from heaven above; of the Incarnate King who is the “radiance of the glory of God” (Hebrews 1:3); of the “God [who] is light” (1 John 1:5), “a consuming fire” (Hebrews 12:29), and “dwells in unapproachable light” (1 Timothy 6:16).
And believe me, if you’ve had an Aussie Christmas, you know that unapproachable light and consuming fire isn’t far off what it feels like…
So whether you’re in the Northern or Southern Hemisphere, whether it’s snowing or sweltering, and whether your Christmas looks like a Dickensian paradise or not, I pray it is a beautiful Christmas.
I hope it filled with joy, hope, and peace and above all, love for Our Newborn King!