Xmas piece

Christmas comes to Santa Monica.  (click for larger view)

Note: this piece was my Christmas Card for 1990.

The story is:  God’s only begotten son, destined to be savior for all humankind, was born in a barn on the outskirts of Bethlehem on December 25, 4 B.C.  The event was witnessed by three wise men who had traveled thousands of miles just to be there when it happened.  The wise men brought gold and incense as gifts for the baby.  The child was born in a barn because his parents could not get rooms at the inn.  He grew up to be a political activist, philosopher, psychic healer, prognosticator, and finally ended up, they say, executed by the authorities for crimes against the state.

Now, we could go on about this all night.  But to summarize:  the child was not born December 25.  This we know.  The early Christians scheduled Christmas near the winter solstice to attract pagans to their religion, and to duck the Romans, who supposedly wouldn’t notice one more drunken feast going on during the last half of December.  Setting aside, for the moment, the mountain of evidence that suggests Jesus never existed, or that he was actually someone else, or that he was a composite of a number of different historical personages, let’s just take it on faith (so to speak) that the rest of the gospels more or less reflect an accurate “history” of this interesting character.

The three wise men followed a star to Bethlehem.  They were told that the child would be born there.  They somehow got there seemingly within minutes of the blessed event.  Angels appeared to shepherds that night, too, telling them that the Messiah was born that night in a barn.  The Messiah, the Christ, the Savior, was named Jesus, although this was not at all a common Jewish name at that time or now.  His birth seems to be connected to angels and rays of light and mysterious announcements and lights traveling in the sky.  My first instinct, of course, is to suppose a UFO connection.  But, until further proof exists of flying saucers, let’s suppose there is some rational explanation for all this activity.

Many years ago, I was driving through Ohio one Thanksgiving in the middle of the night and I looked up at a cloudless sky.  I realized that the wise men had looked up at a similar sky, had most likely looked up at it night after night for months on their long trip to Bethlehem.  Now, there is a sensation anyone can feel when looking up at a cloudless night sky.  It’s a feeling of insignificance.  The black heavens are spangled from edge to edge with ineffably beautiful points of light.  Even with what we know about galaxies and atmospheric tricks of the light, the spectacle is so astounding the only correct response is silence.  One cannot look into it too long; one will go insane.  The wise men looked at this sky night after night for months and received a message: go to Bethlehem.  The savior is born.  Bring gifts.  It could happen.

And so we now celebrate Christmas.  We give gifts to our friends and family and loved ones, partly in imitation of the wise men, partly as a result of constant pressure from manufacturing and retail concerns.  We watch TV specials, we eat rich foods, we get drunk, we celebrate love and friendship and the fact that we are alive.  If we are able to, we donate money or food or shelter or time or toys or clothing to those who have strayed from the social order or who have gotten lost or fallen down and need help to get back up or for whom things have just not worked out right.  Because we have been told that Jesus was born to humble circumstances and hey, you never know.

But what do we celebrate?  The baby, if there was a baby, was not born December 25.  The wise men, if there were wise men, followed what star?  There is no record of such a star seen by anyone else.  So perhaps they were insane, or psychic.  There is evidence that suggests that Mary and Joseph were actually quite well-to-do, that Jesus really was born, if at all, as the king of the Jews, that the manger and the angels and the talking animals were all added to the story for dramatic impact dozens or hundreds of years later.  Let’s face it, folks, from beginning to end, the story just doesn’t hold up any more, if it ever did.

Then what do we celebrate?  We celebrate a lie.  A story.  A fiction.  We celebrate the birth of a fiction.  The birth of a story of a birth.  The birth of what?  Of our savior.  Of humankind’s savior.  We celebrate this story.  And what is the message of this story?  “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”

This message is so astonishingly simple it seems ridiculous to have to put it into words.  But look around, turn on the TV, pick up a newspaper, and you can see in an instant that people still don’t quite grasp this simple idea.

In the story of Jesus, the protagonist brings this message to a populace for whom it was big news.  And today we see that it is still big news.

December 25 (or thereabouts), back in the day, was the pagan holiday Saturnalia.  Saturnalia was a solstice holiday.  The days had been growing shorter and shorter, but around December 25 they finally started to get longer again.  Saturnalia celebrated the rebirth of the sun,  the confirmation that the sun would return.  Saturnalia celebrated the fact that the sun had chosen to come around again for another year and bring spring and summer and autumn, and food and warmth and rainfall and trees and flowers and animals and another stab at life.  It is now the day we celebrate this story of the birth of this baby Jesus, who, as the story is told, had an extraordinary career in religion, politics, medicine and philosophy, and whose message begins “Do unto others.”  What we celebrate is a rebirth of that spirit, that spirit of Jesus, whether a lie, a half-truth or a hallucination, we celebrate this spirit of love and kindness, the sort of spirit that could cook up a turn of phrase so instantly comprehensible and so difficult topractice.

The shepherds, watching over their flocks, were told that the savior had been born.  And I believe it, yes, that it is this spirit of love, compassion, tolerance, kindness, this spirit is the savior of humankind.  We celebrate that we’ve made it another year, that we can still conceive of these ideals.  That this spirit, it appears, has decided to drop by again and hang out for a bit, and give a hand to those of us who are slipping, and try to get us on the right track, or barring that, at least give us some good directions.
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28 Responses to “Xmas piece”
  1. dakiwiboid says:

    Um, well..

    Biblical scholars say and those with any expertise in Hebrew say the name is closer to having been pronounced “Heshua”, which is a cognate of “Joshua”, not an uncommon name ever. OK?

    • Todd says:

      Re: Um, well..

      Yes, but we don’t call him “Joshua” or “Heshua” or anything else like that, do we?

      • dakiwiboid says:


        What is the point of picking this story apart if you don’t allow elements of serious scholarly analysis to be brought to bear upon it? I’m a neopagan, myself, and don’t particularly mind the celebration of what I see as the rebirth of the New Light, even if it’s tricked up with a bunch of trappings accreted from here and there.

        • Todd says:

          Re: Shrug…

          You seem to have missed the point of the piece, because it looks to me like we are in agreement. In any case, have a happy solstice-related celebration.

  2. dougo says:

    I saw that episode of Studio 60 already.

  3. urbaniak says:


    Many years ago, I was driving through Ohio one Thanksgiving in the middle of the night and I looked up at a cloudless sky.

    The National Safety Council and those with any expertise say that 75% of all driving accidents are the result of drivers taking their eyes off the road. That you did this in the middle of the night was doubly irresponsible. You are lucky to be alive and not to have killed anyone.

    What is the point of writing a piece that encourages people to ignore the most basic rules of safe driving? Especially during the holidays!? Really, I don’t get it.

  4. ghostgecko says:

    Thanking whatever genetic circumstance made me unable to feel religiousity. Damn, it must be confusing and annoying to feel certain random things are significant or to need an elaborate lie to be decent to other people.

  5. I think matters of faith are (basically) things that need to be taken on faith.

    I am a Catholic, who went agnostic for about eight years, and was called back to the faith. I’ve seen and experienced such miracles that I cannot doubt anymore. But it’s all a matter of perspective, isn’t it?

    Some people are called to believe. Some people go through life without experiencing a single miracle and so don’t believe in God. There is no right or wrong in any of this. Personally, I identify with St. Paul… a character, if you will… who spent his early days persecuting Christians, until God called on him to become a Christian.

    I guess it’s natural that, as a Christian, I find this piece somewhat offensive. You are entitled to your views, but it disturbs me that you would call the Christ story an outright lie without supporting evidence. Just because Saturnalia is a pagan holiday that occurs on December 25th doesn’t deny the possibility that a Christ child was born that day. Just because you can’t drive down a highway looking at a night sky without going slightly insane doesn’t mean we should infer that others will have the same experience.

    Years ago, I read an article and it’s a shame I didn’t keep it for reference. The gist of it was discovery of evidence that a significant cosmic event did happen that was visible in our skies about 2000 years ago — the explosion of a supernova. (Now whether I remember the article correctly is another subject worthy of doubt. *LOL*) But if it is true, it affirms my faith.

    Do you have any idea how many billions of years of planning it would take to birth a star, to have it live out its span, to have it come to a spectacular explosion and how many years it would take for that light to travel far enough to reach the Earth? It’s been years since I’ve taken an astronomy class, but it’s at least a few million for the light to travel by itself. It would take God to plan that to coincide with the birth of Christ. Whether we believe a Christ was actually born that day, or people needed to make up a story to fit what was happening in the night sky (chicken or egg, anyone?) is a matter of personal belief.

    I also think you have the message of the story wrong. It is not ‘Do unto others as you would have them do unto you’… although this is an important part of the story. I think — because it is all personal — the message is: A new hope is born this day, a chance to reconcile yourself with God, a chance to be part of something that is greater than what is available in this world itself.

    And, of course, any of you can call me on this. After all, it is a matter of personal perspective. (Sorry to post a somewhat argumentative reply on your journal. It’s kind of rude. Sorry! 🙂 )

    • Todd says:

      Thank you for your perspective. I do not mean to offend by my piece.

    • greyaenigma says:

      I wasn’t going to mention it, but we did say we could call you on this…

      It would take God to plan that to coincide with the birth of Christ.

      This is a tremendous tautology – of course only God could plan this, but that assumes there is a God and three wise men followed the star, and that the star/supernova was planned. It’s simply not persuasive if you don’t already believe.

      Also, you seem offended that Todd says Jesus wasn’t born on 12/25 — for one thing, the calendars we use now weren’t didn’t even exist that time, so there’s that difficulty. For another, does the bible say anywhere at all what day he was born? I don’t think it does. (Although I wouldn’t stake my life on it.) I’ve heard biblical scholars say before that they doubted 12/25 was the exact birthdate of Jesus, and I think that’s what Todd means above. I’d strongly recommend you read Misquoting Jesus — it’s about a man that grew up strictly religious and started studying the bible to better know what it says.

      Also, Todd, I think the Golden Rule predates Christianity by quite a ways (the first I heard of it was with the Zoroastrians). And, finally, I don’t want to start a flamewar, so I’ll back off rather than cluttering up your comments.

      Oh, and it’s after midnight — Merry Christmas, everyone!

      • Todd says:

        I don’t doubt that the Golden Rule predates the story of Jesus. But that is still the over-arching message of the story.

  6. heathyr1158 says:

    It sounds more like a pamphlet rather than a card. Or you just wrote everything really tiny and used all sides of the card. Either way, it’s intriguing and informative and hilarious all at the same time.

    • urbaniak says:

      As one of the original recipients I recall it being a photocopied, word processed letter in Courier font. I found it quite touching and still have it somewhere.

  7. monica_black says:

    I read somewhere (this was when I was homeschooled, so it might not be accurate) that what the Church was doing was putting it at the end of the year. However, the end of the Jewish year is around September and October. Thus, yes, the babe was not born on December 25th either way.

    Very well written though.

  8. Anonymous says:

    Okay, that’s all fine and good, but when does that dinosaur enter the story. That’s the part I’m interested in hearing.

    • Todd says:

      The dinosaur is one of the famous dinosaur topiaries on permanent display on the Santa Monica Promenade. I thought it was especially appropriate to have a hedge-brachiosaur peering over the gingerbread house.

  9. Anonymous says:

    What a bunch of hippies

  10. Anonymous says:

    the whole thing is screaming for a rewrite. Lloyd Weber, where are you!

  11. sheherazahde says:

    Sorry this is so late.

    I had been meaning to write to you about this but just hadn’t had the time or energy until now.

    “The three wise men followed a star to Bethlehem. They were told that the child would be born there. They somehow got there seemingly within minutes of the blessed event.”

    Not according to the Bible. Or snopes. Most of the story of the wise men is extra-Biblical. But I’ve never heard that they arrived any sooner then 12 days after the birth, and Wikipedia says some scholars go as far as two years after.

    “The Messiah, the Christ, the Savior, was named Jesus, although this was not at all a common Jewish name at that time or now.”

    The name “Jesus” is the Latin form of the Greek Iesous, which in turn is the transliteration of the Hebrew Jeshua, or Joshua, or again Jehoshua, meaning “Jehovah is salvation.” Though the name in one form or another occurs frequently in the Old Testament, it was not borne by a person of prominence between the time of Josue, the son of Nun and Josue, the high priest in the days of Zorobabel. It was also the name of the author of Ecclesiaticus, of one of Christ’s ancestors mentioned in the genealogy, found in the Third Gospel (Luke 3:29), and one of the St. Paul’s companions (Colossians 4:11). During the Hellenizing period, Jason, a purely Greek analogon of Jesus, appears to have been adopted by many….Though about the time of Christ the name Jesus appears to have been fairly common

    The word Christ, Christos, is Greek for “anointed” and was a common title for initiates into certain Greek mystery cults.

    But I digress, Jesus’s mom would have called him Yeshua bar Yosef, Joshua son of Joseph.

    “We give gifts to our friends and family and loved ones, partly in imitation of the wise men, partly as a result of constant pressure from manufacturing and retail concerns.”

    And partly as a continuation of old pagan customs. I just cut out the pretence and practice Paganism directly.

    “Saturnalia celebrated the rebirth of the sun, the confirmation that the sun would return. Saturnalia celebrated the fact that the sun had chosen to come around again for another year and bring spring and summer and autumn, and food and warmth and rainfall and trees and flowers and animals and another stab at life.”

    Yeah, that is why I’m a Pagan not a Christian. (Although I call it Yule not Saturnalia).