I grew up observing the cultural celebration of Christmas. We put up a Christmas tree, hung stockings, received gifts and went Christmas caroling.
My upbringing was also largely disconnected from the Christian calendar related to Christmas.
With many in my religious heritage (Churches of Christ), I heard a familiar script on religious holidays like Christmas: Jesus was not born on December 25th. We do not worship the baby Jesus. We celebrate the life, death and resurrection of Jesus every Sunday.
As an adult, however, I’m learning to appreciate—indeed, even to adopt—the rhythms of the ancient Christian calendar. It’s affecting my prayer life for the better (through Robert Webber’s Book of Daily Prayer). It’s affecting my leadership in the Storyline Community and thoughts about spiritual formation (through initiatives like the Advent Conspiracy).
Given my bent for all things ‘story’, I love the way the Christian calendar is story-formed, particularly from Advent to Pentecost.
Christians are given the opportunity to journey through the story of Jesus via the Christian calendar: to wait for the Messiah in Advent; to celebrate the incarnation of God at Christmas; to declare the manifestation of God in Jesus to the world at Epiphany; to suffer with Jesus in Lent; to experience the death and resurrection of Jesus through the Holy Week and Easter Sunday; to receive the Spirit and be sent by Jesus into the world at Pentecost.
That the dates don’t line up misses the point. One can experience the story without that.
So my conundrum this holiday season is not as much about what to do with the Christian calendar as it is about what to do with the Christmas traditions I grew up with (Santa Claus, etc.).
I’m realizing that some elements of the Christmas holiday observed by the broader culture are at odds with the Christian story.
At the same time, there’s plenty of beauty and joy in those same Christmas traditions. I want to believe these good things come from God.
Carol Jean-Swanson, in an article she wrote for Mothering, articulates well this tension I feel:
Our jolly old Saint Nicholas reflects our culture to a T, for he is fanciful, exuberant, bountiful, over-weight, and highly commercial. He also mirrors some of our highest ideals: childhood purity and innocence, selfless giving, unfaltering love, justice, and mercy. (What child has ever received a coal for Christmas?) The problem is that, in the process, he has become burdened with some of society’s greatest challenges: materialism, corporate greed, and domination by the media. Here, Santa carries more in his baggage than toys alone!
How do we integrate our observance of the Christian calendar with the cultural celebration of Christmas? How do we embrace cultural traditions related to Christmas without hijacking the Christian story?
Answering these questions is particularly important to me now that I’m a father who intends to pass on the faith to his children.
Here’s my instinct at this point in my process: integrating the observance of the Christian story through Advent and Christmas with the broader cultural traditions will require us to embrace the elements of such traditions that reflect God and relinquish the elements that do not.
From a missionary standpoint, this instinct reflects the arduous work of contextualization—that is, framing the gospel and life with God in ways that make sense in a particular cultural context without rewriting or hijacking the Christian story.
What follows is my working list of what to relinquish and what to embrace in my own family’s participation in the cultural celebration of Christmas this year.
What to relinquish:
- Spending beyond our means and going into debt to buy gifts
- Buying meaningless gifts for people
- Getting caught up in the consumer rat trap that is Christmas shopping (did you know that Americans spend $450 billion/year on Christmas gifts?!)
- Breeding our children for selfishness and greed by overemphasizing how Christmas is about what they want and what they get
- Merit-based gift giving, where children are given gifts on the basis of being ‘naughty’ or ‘nice’ rather than as an expression of unconditional love from the giver
What to embrace:
- The spirit of generosity and gift-giving in Christmas that reflects the way God gave of himself for us in the incarnation
- The spirit of anticipation and waiting not only for gifts from others, but mainly for the Gift from God (My wife pointed out to me the way receiving gifts from others at Christmas might actually help a child to know what it’s like to receive a gift from God…brilliant.)
- The relational elements of spending time with family and loved ones that reflect the way God gave relationally to us in the incarnation
- Giving to others with no strings attached, just to make their day, regardless of what they deserve—again reflecting the incarnation
- Giving to the poor and needy (Did you know that the original “Saint Nicholas” of Myra (4th Century) was known for giving generous gifts to the poor? It reminds me of how Jesus was born in humble circumstances to bring good news to the poor.)
What do you think about the way I’m trying to navigate all this? What elements would you add to the lists about what to relinquish and embrace?