Monday, December 6, 2010

Advent Reflections: 03

Last Thursday I got off work early to go pick out a real tree for Christmas.  Lucas picked a superb tree that is now fragrancing our living room with the delightful smell of Christmas.  We spent the evening decorating the tree, listening to our favorite Christmas album, and enjoying some good family time.  I let Lucas pick out a Christmas movie from the RedBox to watch that night.  He first saw a Barney movie.  I said no.  Then he moved on to a Thomas the Train Christmas video.  It was 3 or 4 episodes all centered around the "Winter Holiday."

My wife and I were amused at all the trappings of Christmas in the shows - snow, trees, lights, gifts, Santa, etc. - but that they avoided using the word "Christmas."  Everything was "Winter Holiday Tree" or "Winter Holiday Carolers" or "Winter Holiday Lights."  It made me think about the fuss that some Christians have put up in our own society (the video was British) when the greeters at Wal-Mart and administrators as local schools were asked to say, "Happy Holidays" rather than "Merry Christmas" so as not to offend those who do not associate with the Christian connotations of the season.  I am sure you have heard the many retorts: "Jesus is the reason for the season" and "Don't take Christ out of Christmas."  (We put 'Xmas' on our church's sign once and got an angry call.  We tried to explain that X is the Greek symbol for the first letter in Christ's name and it is an abbreviation that includes Him.  The man was not convinced.)

For what it is worth I am glad to see the semantic change occur.  I am glad that our public spaces are recognizing that there are people of other faiths (or no faith at all) gathered there.  Not that I think you have to stop saying "Christmas" to do that, but at least this means that we are aware that we are living in a radically diverse country.  And respecting that is extremely important - especially for Jesus followers - even if it means some of those trappings of public life have to change and I feel a little out of place.  Beyond this reason, though, there is another why I would be fine with "Christmas" being taken out of the stores, schools, movies, and videos:

What we are fighting to call Christmas, to keep Christ in, has nothing to do with Christ.

Exhibit A: Americans spend 450 billions dollars every year on Christmas.

Every year.

This has nothing to do with the coming of God in human flesh.  This has nothing to do with the radical mission of God that required His Son to become a baby born in a feeding trough.

I think it is more honest to call Christmas a "Winter Holiday" when we celebrate it the way that we do.

Why do we get upset when people take the Christian title away but we are compliant in the rituals that have taken the Christian content away?  If we are going to get upset and launch a campaign, let's fight to make the season that remembers birth of Jesus a time when we participate in the mission that His birth inaugurated. (Which would be more like giving money away to the poor rather than spending it on ourselves.) And if we do fight, let's not make it an us against the secular culture, liberal media, etc. thing.  Lets make it a fight within our own hearts.  Let's be bothered by ourselves for bearing Jesus' name and then celebrating His poverty with our own over consumption and shameless luxury.

Sorry, I really hadn't intended that to have such an edge to it.  That just represents how hard I am wrestling with myself over this.  I want my own life to reject the religion of consumption so that I am free to participate in the conspiracy of advent.  I have to read Mary's Song in Luke 1 often so I can remember how Christmas was meant to subvert how the world works, which means I can't join the world in the world's ways and call it Christmas.

If you want an example of a different way of approaching this season, check out:


  1. Thanks for this post. We as Christians tend to get so worked up about the surface representations of Christianity, like the word Christmas, that we forget to respect people who are different from us and neglect to fight against the real enemy, overconsumption. Instead we end up looking not much like Christ at all but like the world by overconsuming and fighting people who are different from us instead of loving them. Consumption is a hard habit to break and I'm struggling with it as well.

  2. Thanks for sharing that - I am in this battle with you! My family has been trying to redo this whole Christmas thing for a few years now - as well as trying to redo the whole wealth thing, but change always happens so much slower than we think it will. (Or maybe I am just too stubborn!) Good to hear how God is opening your heart to His ways! I appreciate your comments!

  3. I think this about many of the "culture-war" issues in our society: It is lazy faith. It is really easy to make a stand to say, "Christmas is about Dear Lord Baby Jesus, and nothing else." (oh, and a fat man with some flying reindeer, but nothing else.... well, there is also that phallic fertility symbol with the lights all over it that we use to decorate our house. But... Baby Jesus, Santa, Christmas trees, and that's it! - picture Steve Martin at the end of the "The Jerk") It's an easy proclamation of faith to say that this ultra-decadent holiday that celebrates us is actually a religious holiday. In fact, it's where "Christmas" came from in the first place. It's admittedly a nice idea, but it takes little to no sacrifice whatsoever.

    What's more difficult is to live a life that reflects the scandal of the gospel: that an almighty, omnipotent, perfect Creator would not only be born into a human family, but a human family so poor that it could not even procure proper accommodations for the birth. The scandal that the Jewish religious leaders who should have been looking for the signs weren't there, but the pagans from a country far away and the humble shepherds were.

    It is difficult to make a stand on a regular basis to say that this absurd story will influence and dictate the way I behave towards the rest of humanity, not just for a month out of the year, but on a day to day basis.

    That's difficult, so instead, we choose to fight over something silly and call it bravery.

  4. Like you, I have struggled with how to properly observe Christmas each year. More and more, I've come to see two sides of Christmas. One is Advent, the spiritual side. And the other is a strictly, cultural celebration that is only tangentially related to Advent.

    I think the temptation is to denounce the cultural side of things, but I disagree with that temptation. Yes, we are to avoid its excesses or the places it leads us in to sin--that's true of everything. But culture and tradition is important, both to civilization as a whole and the development of identity. I don't think it is wrong to be rooted in a culture--it's wrong to be BLINDED by that culture, but we are all rooted in a culture. I want my children to understand the culture that they live in and to participate in the good things about that culture. Similarly, I want them to understand other cultures (and hopefully, visit other cultures one day), but I don't believe I have to deny their own culture to give them an awareness of others. On the contrary, you can't really understand the importance of other cultures until you understand the importance of your own.

    And so, this Christmas season, my family celebrates Advent, but we also unapologetically celebrate the cultural juggernaut known as Christmas. And as Christians, we try to do so in a way that redeems the more secular elements of the season. I think it is easy to denounce the inherent materialism and frantic nature of the season without acknowledging that people spend lots of money b/c we are getting lots of people gifts. For many, Christmas is a great cultural opportunity to say "thanks" to your kids' teachers, your postal worker and trash men, people at church who serve your family, etc. And to do that takes money. Also, it is a great opportunity to spend time with your family and friends. Each year, for example, we have a massive Gingerbread House party at my house, where all the Sunday school classes in Luke and Anna's age range are invited. Yes, it is a considerable expense, and yes, it has me running around like a chicken with my head cut off the week before, and so yes, to some it may embody all that is wrong with Christmas...but I truly do it out of love for my church. The fellowship and fun is cherished by so many at my church, and I believe it is a worthwhile endeavor.

    I'm not writing all this b/c I feel like you are attacking my gingerbread-house-making ways:), but b/c like you, I struggle with my reaction to the season. Or more specifically, I struggle with why I DON'T struggle with ambivalence. I struggle with why I DON'T think there is anything wrong with Santa (though our kids know he's not real) or trees or ornaments or stockings or parties or gifts. And I guess it is b/c I see Christmas as any other part of our society. You take the good, leave the bad, and make everything point to Christ. It's just easier with Christmas to point to Christ, for obvious reasons.

    SO sorry I word-vomited on your blog! I just had to get these thoughts out. I always appreciate your writing (and book recommendations).

  5. I, like you, agree that Christmas is not about Christ. I do not celebrate it as a "christian" holiday. However, I am not sure that dropping "Merry Christmas" is beneficial. Resorting to calling everything a “holiday tree” or “holiday cards” etc is really not going to help anyone but the easily-offended crowd. Doing that, I think, is succumbing to the pressure put on us by the politically-correct-afraid-of-offending-someone crowd.

    Christmas is an American holiday. It is one of the holidays our country has recognized as an official national holiday. America does not celebrate Hanukah, Kwanza, Ramadan, etc. While there are thousands upon thousands of individual Americans who celebrate these other holidays, our country only officially recognizes Christmas as our national holiday in December. It is not mature to get offended when someone says Merry Christmas when you—as a Jew—celebrate Hanukah, or when you—as a Muslim—celebrate Ramadan. If I lived in the Middle East and someone wished me a Happy Ramadan or Happy Hanukah, I would not be offended for that is their holiday even if I do not celebrate it. For example, my family does not celebrate Halloween, but I don’t get offended when someone says Happy Halloween in late October.

    America celebrates Christmas. Not as a religious holiday--for that is not where it came from. Students of history know this well. Unfortunately, since so many churches and christians have tried to hijack Christmas and make it about Jesus—which is absurd—we have all fallen into the trap of arguing over its place in our society.

    I invite you to take a moment to read my blog post on Christmas. I try to provide readers a snapshot of where Christmas really came from. It really isn't about Jesus at all. So when I say "Merry Christmas" it isn't because I want to "keep Christ in Christmas" or that I am taking some religious stand; I am simply celebrating the American holiday known as Christmas.


  6. Thanks, Kim, for offering a more nuanced thought on how to deal with Advent and Christmas. I agree that there is a place to enjoy the cultural holiday that we know with Santa, gifts, etc. I am trying to figure out how to honor that cultural holiday in a way that honors my identity as a one who follows a poor, homeless conspirator who identified with the broken and rejected parts of our society.

    Jason, I think a lot of people are aware of the origins of Christmas, but I still commit wholeheartedly to the opportunity to spend a season of the year - along with a worldwide church that has done so for centuries - reflecting specifically on the incarnation and the life we are called to live as a response. Regardless of what served as the impetus for Christmas (and Lent as well), which some read with more sinister lenses than others, the liturgical calendar is a part of many Christians, including my own, devotional observance and is very meaningful and formative. Even if one denies the opportunity to use this season for a specific theological reason, we still have to ask if, as followers of Jesus, the way in which America observes this holiday is in alignment with who we are. I am simply coming to find that materialism and consumption are an antithesis to the way of Jesus. I am learning how to observe Advent and cultural Christmas in a way that honors Jesus.