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?
Great stuff, Kiser. God stands in judgment in elements of all cultures; and there are elements of all cultures that He would affirm, as well. I think you’ve done a good job of sorting out the consumerism & emphasizing the “good will toward men.”
It’s funny how the battle lines can change in churches. A majority of my folks have been programmed by Fox News, and they are wary of giving in on the “War on Christmas.” So I was roundly criticized for trying to appease the old conservative guard & calling it a “Holiday Party.” OH NO. We were going to have a CHRISTMAS Party, because we’re not going to take the Christ out of Christmas.
Charles, you put words to many of my feelings and thoughts about Christmas from these past few years. As Nick and I have started and continued some family traditions, it has become very apparent that we’ve needed to “weed out” some of our consumer-mentality upbringings regarding Christmas. There must be dozens of presents under our tree, because a tree without presents under it looks sad. The stockings must be stuffed to the max, even if it means buying snack packs and gum just to take up the extra space. Christmas morning is for opening presents. Christmas afternoon is for playing with said presents. While all of these ideas created fun childhood memories for both of us, we’ve realized they are not essential for the holiday. Every year we try to simplify. (I really like your thoughts/suggestions on this!) Hopefully by the time we have children in our home, we will have some meaningful traditions that not only inspire joy and fun, but also shield our kids from that monster of American consumerism. And THAT is why “Charlie Brown Christmas” is the ultimate holiday movie. Good grief!
Jesse, you get snack packs in your stocking???
Really glad to know you have a blog! I will certainly be back and thanks for stopping by and leaving such a great comment! Oh…Merry Christmas!
Dylan and I have been thinking about this a lot, too. Thanks for sharing a few of your thoughts and that quote. I’m reading an interesting book by Noel Piper called Honoring Christ in Our Traditions or something like that. I’ve only read the first two chapters and the bit about Santa Claus, but I’ve read enough to recommend it. Merry Christmas to you and yours!
You summed up my thoughts about Xmas quite well. I would add one query about celebrating it from the Christendom aspect: how can Christ-followers join the world, especially our Western-culture, in celebrating what the birth of Christ is about, without “prostituting” it? Churches seem at times to go from one extreme to the other: some avoid celebrating Xmas as you pointed out, while others embrace it to the point that it seems like another Church commercial. (This was intended to be a question, not a sermon.)
Man, those are some excellent thoughts about Christmas, I really think you and Matt both had great posts today on this topic.
Julie, Yes–Goldfish and Oreos are usually what turn up as the extra space-fillers. Nick and I don’t exchange Christmas presents, but we do fill stockings for each other. The first year we were married, I had packed his out and he hung mine up with 2 items in it. I actually made a big stink about it, went out and bought MYSELF items to go in MY stocking, and then made up rules that they have to be full. This year I’m repenting of my ways. 😉
It is good to hear that you are struggling or at least thinking about this issue as well. Hollie and I have been in much prayer, meditation, and study concerning this holiday. We as a family have decided not to celebrate any longer for many of the reasons listed in your relenquish list as well as the embrace list and in the history of the holiday. Please let me explain the embrace list;
The spirit of generosity and gift-giving in Christmas that reflects the way God gave of himself for us in the incarnation
God doesn’t reserve his gift-giving for any one time of the year, nor does his giving ever stop.
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.)
God doesn’t reserve his gift-giving for any one time of the year, nor does his giving ever stop.
The relational elements of spending time with family and loved ones that reflect the way God gave relationally to us in the incarnation
Spend time with family and loved ones all through the year, continually giving of yourselves to others.
Giving to others with no strings attached, just to make their day, regardless of what they deserve—again reflecting the incarnation
Again, there is no one time of year for giving. This is something we’re instructed to do all the time. Mostly we need to give of ourselves, time spent with someone else is the most important.
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.)
I won’t go into a long drawn out speal about the original St. Nick, but there is a whole lot more going on than the giving of gifts. Do some research and find out who his companion was and what he gave or took.
Anyway, sharing with you as you share with the world. Much love is given in sharing the truth, no matter how it makes us feel. Truth isn’t always easy, but it’s still truth.
Love you bro!
I like your question about prostituting Christmas. I think you’re right — there’s a way that the church can commercialize Christmas in the same way department stores do.
Thanks for sharing. I appreciate your convictions and courage to go against the grain.
I do wonder, however: has your family stopped celebrating birthdays, too? I know Hollie makes some awesome cakes.
I ask because the principle behind the two occasions – Christmas and birthdays – is somewhat similar. On both occasions you take time out to give gifts, appreciate the one who was born, etc.
Does throwing a birthday party mean that you’re not thankful for the birthday boy/girl every other day of the year? Certainly not. A birthday party is only a special way of celebrating the one you’re thankful for every other day of the year.
Similarly, celebrating the birth of Christ / giving gifts at a special time of the year does not take away from or negate the obligation for celebrating Jesus / giving gifts during the rest of the year.
Christmas is just a special way of experiencing one part of the Christian story.
One hesitation I have about not celebrating Christmas is the way it forces us to isolate ourselves from the broader culture.
If the broader culture is emphasizing generosity, particularly in the birth of Christ–no matter how broken the American Christmas holiday is–shouldn’t we participate as a way of coming alongside of people who are seeking God (perhaps without knowing it)?
Jesus entered into our human mess and came alongside us as both human and the embodiment of God. Wouldn’t it be fitting for us, and even Christlike, in the season where the broader culture celebrates the incarnation to take a similar posture and come alongside the broader culture (mess and all) as it reaches for God?
It may be more of a stumbling block for non-religious people for Christians NOT to participate at all in a holiday that focuses on the birth of Christ and generosity. Catch my drift?
Oh, and I did research on St. Nick before I wrote the ‘rethinking christmas’ post. I’m not sure what you’re referring to about “more going on than giving gifts.” You’ll have to explain.