Christmas – religious holiday or cultural holiday or yes?

Charles Kiser —  December 6, 2011 — 2 Comments

What are we going to do about Christmas?

For the first time, I feel like I’m entering into the debate in a serious way – my own life and family rhythms are on the line. What am I going to do about it? Up to this point, I’ve gone into default mode – I do what my family has always done. Wanting to be more responsible and adult, I’m trying to reflect intentionally on it this year.

The debate has gone something like: should Christmas be observed as a religious holiday or as a cultural holiday?

In other words, is Christmas about Jesus, or is it about a time of celebration and gift-giving with friends and family?

Practically, people respond to the question by observing the Christmas season in a handful of ways:

  1. Observe it as a religious holiday but not as a cultural holiday. Jesus should be stripped away from the commercialization and materialism of the holiday season. Jesus is the (only) reason for the season. E.g., the message of the little movie Charlie Brown’s Christmas. Also anyone who uses the language of “taking back Christmas for Jesus.”
  2. Observe it as a cultural holiday but not as a religious holiday. I grew up with this perspective in Churches of Christ. The line of thinking: a) Jesus wasn’t born on December 25 (which is true); b) Christians don’t worship the baby Jesus; c) Christians remember the life, death and resurrection of Jesus every week in their gatherings; d) So Christians don’t celebrate Christmas the way the rest of the “world” (used often very negatively) does. We did, however, celebrate Santa and presents etc. with the rest of the “world”. I suspect most atheists prefer to celebrate Christmas this way, too. Irony intended.
  3. Observe it as a religious/cultural holiday. This approach rolls it all up into one big holiday ball: we sing Silent Night and Jingle Bells right alongside each other; we talk about both Santa and Jesus; we buy gifts for family and we go to Christmas Eve service to celebrate the incarnation; we even try to talk about how the cultural values around Christmas (e.g., gift-giving) emerge from the story of Jesus. Yet we certainly disapprove (though sometimes succumb to) the extremes of materialism and over-consumption that occur in the broader culture during this holiday. I suspect most Christians fall in this camp.
  4. Observe it as separate religious and cultural holidays. This perspective is new to me. In fact, I just read one writer’s proposal about this approach in an article today in USA Today. She proposes that we don’t try to meld the two together or fight about how we should celebrate either the religious or cultural expression. What if it wasn’t either/or but both/and? What if we just distinguished between the two and practiced them as separate holidays that happen to overlap (and fall on the same day)?
  5. Observe it neither as a cultural or religious holiday. I have friends who eschew the whole season of Christmas as a combination of #1 and #2. The cultural practices are unacceptable expressions of materialism and commercialism. The religious practices are unacceptable because Jesus wasn’t born on Christmas. So they don’t practice either.

Personally, I’m leaning toward #4. For these reasons:

  • As a missionary, I cannot hide from cultural practices but must rather engage them as a way of helping people see God in the midst of them. In my world, there is no secular and sacred divide. All is God’s.
  • As a believer, I cannot say that the cultural expression of Christmas is altogether bad – giving gifts, helping those in need, and spending quality time with friends and family are all quite good things. I can affirm these things without affirming materialism, greed and selfishness.
  • As a believer, I also cannot deny the historic Christian faith and the Christian calendar that’s been around for 1600 years. I’m ready to get past the fact that Jesus wasn’t born on December 25 and that Christmas first emerged in conjunction with a pagan holiday (so did Easter, by the way) and use the Christian calendar (re:Advent and Christmas) as an opportunity to live into the story of Jesus with my family and church. I find tremendous solidarity with the people of God in doing so.
  • I’m concerned about what will happen if my family celebrates Christmas as a religious/cultural holiday. Will my kids ask me questions like: “So are Santa and Jesus cousins?” Or, “So is Jesus Santa’s Helper or is Santa Jesus’ helper?” How do you pull all that off without getting confused yourself?

What do you think? If you’re willing to engage the debate yet another time – share with us how you’re choosing to live out the Christmas season and why. And make sure to be nice about it (as opposed to naughty).

Charles Kiser


I’m a pastor, missionary, and contextual theologian in Dallas, Texas. I’m committed to equipping and coaching Christians to start fresh expressions of Christian community in Dallas County — communities of hospitality, inclusion, justice, and healing.

2 responses to Christmas – religious holiday or cultural holiday or yes?


    Glad you engaged the debate. I put it off another year….

    I like what you’re saying about option #4. A question I’ve been wrestling with is whether or not the Santa Claus tradition (not to mention the new ‘elf’ tradition I was introduced to this year) eventually builds a level of distrust in our culture between children and “traditional” stories? I can imagine some child somewhere thinking, “if they lied to me about this, then how can I believe that?”

    Since most of us would fall in the camp of children who have faced this delimma, I suppose that we’d answer it did not effect us strongly. Still, is it ‘OK’ to perpetuate and even threaten children with a cultural myth when we are supposed to be truth-tellers?


      One of my friends took this route with Santa Claus – they told their 3 year old daughter that Santa Claus is also known as Saint Nicholas. He was a follower of Jesus who lived a long time ago who gave gifts to children (he actually did), but he is not alive anymore. We want to be like Saint Nick because he was like Jesus and gave generously to those in need. That is the spirit in which we give gifts at Christmas.

      I like that!

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