Christmas Eve: A Dialogue on the Celebration of Christmas. By Friedrich Schleiermacher. Translated by W. Hastie. London: T. & T. Clark, 1889. 80 pages.

Review by Ning Zhao (Daphne), 2011 | Review by John Wook Hong, 2009

Christmas Eve: A Dialogue on the Celebration of Christmas can be described as an artistic book among the major writings of Schleiermacher.  Unlike his other systematic theology writings, in Christmas Eve, Schleiermacher presents his religious views and perspectives in a literary style.  He invites his readers to enter the circle which he closely lives in, and to experience “a kind of Christian ‘Symposium’ around the Christmas table” (p. 75) at one night in early nineteenth century Germany. 

The cycle which Schleiermacher is deeply enamored with, was a circle consisting of highly cultivated men and women.  To a large extent, people in this circle reflected the major flavor of the social and religious lifestyle in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century Germany. Schleiermacher spent most of his lifetime dealing with these well-educated people and preaching his theological thoughts to them. In a profound sense, the religious phenomenons and concerns of this social circle provided an opportunity for Schleiermacher to develop his theological thoughts. For Schleiermacher, this social circle was not only a place that he found his friendship, but also it was the source of his spiritual inspiration.

The book starts the narrative with the charming woman (Ernestine) and the Christmas banquet in her house.  The cheerful and thoughtful Christmas setting outlines the religious background of the event (p. 1).  This is a faithful Christian family and the whole arrangement of the house setting exhibits the deep religiousness of this family.  Not surprisingly, the conversation in this house is always connected with the Christmas celebration and Christmas feelings.  Under this setting, Schleiermacher shares his theological ideas with us on the basis of a rich variety of dialogues in the two major scenes.

The first scene begins with the little girl, Sophie.  She gives out her views about Christmas through her dialogues with the family and friends.  For this little girl, “Christ was the true surety that life and joy will nevermore perish in the world” (p. 9), and Christmas is a special festival because of good music and delightful presents.  When Sophie walks to the piano and gives her voice full play, she expresses her pure joyful mood and also indicates that music has a close affinity with Christianity. The idea that Schleiermacher presents through the child Sophie is an instinctive religious feeling. But more importantly, he tries to exhibit religion in its most original form, that is, the God consciousness dwells in human’s self-consciousness.

The second scene is the lightspot of the book, and it starts with narratives about past Christmas and the feelings people experienced. After women contribute their speech, in turn, men give their speech as a contribution to the Christmas banquet. In this speech, Schleiermacher embodies his fundamental theological thoughts.  Through different speakers, we get a glimpse of Schleiermacher’s spiritual tendencies and his theology.  In a profound sense, the narrative in this part is not “a historical conjunction of the divergent theological parties of that time that Schleiermacher proceeds to give; rather it is the different sides of his own theology which are only apparently separated, but are again united at the center” (p. 77). To this end, Schleiermacher speaks about his theological thoughts under different voices but in that one particular scene.

The first voice is Leonard, “the unbelieving knave, as he is called in jest by his friends” (p. 77).  The thinking of Leonard is reflective, dialectical, and critical.  The major criticism of Leonard is to the historical representations of the birth of Christ “as they have been handed down to us by the first three evangelists, the so-called synoptists” (p. 78).  For Leonard, the historical basis of the life of Jesus is contradictory, and it leads to further conflicts of the Church.  In addition, Leonard infers that “the synoptical narratives have not founded the Festival of Christmas” (p. 78), so, for him, everything should be interpreted symbolically – the birth, the Child, the celebration and so on.

As a contrast, Ernest, the second voice in the dialogue, presents his idea purely from the Church tradition to approach to the Christmas festival.  He emphasizes the feeling of joy and love as the key elements of Christmas celebration, and further points out the significance of the birth of Jesus Christ as the Redeemer. For Ernest, the birth of Christ is the first clear point in history, and this fact brings a universal joy which people celebrate as the Christmas festival.  The birth of the divine Child is the primary joy in human life because the Redeemer has been given to humankind.

Edward, the third voice, as distinguished from the other two, sets up his tone from a speculative point of view.  To him, the object of the Christmas festival is not “the Child as the Word [becomes] flesh; it is ourselves we celebrate, that is to say, human nature regarded from the divine principle” (p. 79). For Edward, “Christ is nothing else than Man in himself, the eternal Being in the process of change and becoming, and the unity of the divine and the earthly” (p. 79-80).  To him, everything in the history of humanity is related to the process of becoming.

The fourth voice Joseph represents, is an entirely different voice. For Joseph, the dialogue in this house appears to make no sense, and inward spirituality should play a dramatic role in the religious life.  To him, “the unspeakable subject demands an unspeakable joy” (p. 80).

In fact, as Dr. Carl Schwarz summarizes in the Appendix, the four voices appear in the dialogue representing four different theological peculiarities of Schleiermacher. In Leonard’s voice, we see “the sceptico-critical spirit which [is] so powerful in Schleiermacher” (p. 77), and this spirituality can be seen as the inseparable part of Schleiermacher’s nature.  When Schleiermacher spent his time with his highly cultivated friends, “he is not a mere cold advocate of enlightenment and a rationalist in the style of his time” (p. 77), but rather, he is a figure that always retains a sharp critique to the ‘mainstream’ religious society. In Ernest’s voice, we are able to recognize the major theological thoughts of Schleiermacher.  The religious feeling that is largely expressed by Ernest, can be regarded as the center of Schleiermacher’s theology. The significance of the Redeemer and of the redemptions, which is emphasized by Ernest, are the key elements of Schleiermacher’s Christology. The view of Christ particularly “in reference to His uniqueness and sinlessness is [Schleiermacher’s] later dogmatic system” (p. 78).  In Edward’s voice, “we find a fundamental metaphysical principle as the ultimate basis of the religious postulate of the uniqueness and sinlessness of Jesus” (p. 80), and this can be seen as the development of Schleiermacher’s dogmatic theology in his later life. In the voice of Joseph, we see the “Moravianism that [remains] in Schleiermacher” (p. 80) as his religious background. To a large extent, the religious feeling, as a very characteristic image of Schleiermacher, overwhelmingly dominates his spirituality.

As the title reflects, Schleiermacher provides an ongoing theological conversation with us through A Dialogue on the Celebration of Christmas.  The dialogue which Schleiermacher offers in this book generally represents his spiritual peculiarities, in short which is, “historical criticism, religious feeling, speculative element, and mystical element” (p. 79-80).


Ning Zhao (Daphne)
Boston University

What are the meanings of Christmas? What do we celebrate for during Christmas? Schleiermacher investigates these questions through different points of views through Christmas Eve. As the subtitle of the book acknowledges, Christmas Eve is a book of dialogue between a family and friends, who have different opinions about the meaning of Christmas. This dialogue style reminds readers of Plato’s influence on him.

The dialogue on the meaning of Christmas begins in Edward and Ernestine’s house when their friends and family – Ernst, Frederica, Agnes, Caroline, Leonard, and Sophie – gather to celebrate Christmas. They speak of Christmas in general sense such as how people experience these days. It is a celebration or festival which involves gifts, kids, and the relation of family especially mother and her child. Beneath this experience Christian piety and religious meaning lie throughout the celebration. All women seem to agree on Mary’s inward feeling toward her child as “the pure revelation of the divine” (12). The conversation sparks when men become theologically critical on this inner feeling. Especially, Leonard points out that this pietistic feeling might have been distorted and superstitious. After all, Leonard brings rational and historical criticism on Christmas in the dialogue. “What is presented in experience and history regarding the personal existence of Christ, has become so uncertain by the diversity of opinions and doctrines maintained on the subject...” (59). From this point, the meaning and the celebration of Christmas is spoken through Ernst and Edward.

Ernest speaks of the universality of ‘Christmas joy,’ which is the birth of Redeemer. He recognizes the limitness and temporality of human being in time and space, and the redemption is to overcome this. “We ourselves begin with discord and division, and we only attain to harmony by redemption, which is really nothing but the removal of those oppositions…that we become conscious of the inmost ground and of the inexhaustible power of a new untroubled life” (65-66). Thus, Christmas shows this vision of a new life in the new world. In relation to this, Edward contrasts between the Word and the flesh as in the Gospel of John. However, the Word is not a traditional personal God, but “is the thought or consciousness; and its becoming incarnate is therefore appearing of this original and divine thing in that form” (69). It is the fulfillment of humanity that is rooted in divine principle. However, individual alone is in the condition of “fall and corruption,” but “as a living fellowship of individuals” one finds the true self-consciousness. This fellowship is Church. So, what do we celebrate for? We celebrate “just what we are in ourselves as a whole” (69).

The opinions represented through the book ranges from simple and conservative point of view to radical and skeptical point of view. Schleiermacher’s voice comes forward not only from one person, but every person in the dialogue since one can see the sequence of the argument by following their dialogue. Christmas Eve is like an introduction to his book The Christian Faith. He already presents his idea of self-consciousness. Over all, this is a short and enjoyable book with the clear idea of Schleiermacher.


John Wook Hong
Boston University

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