But I am sure I have always thought of Christmas time…as a good time; a kind, forgiving, charitable, pleasant time; the only time I know of, in the long calendar of the year, when men and women seem by one consent to open their shut-up hearts freely, and to think of people below them as if they really were fellow-passengers to the grave, and not another race of creatures bound on other journeys. And therefore, uncle, though it has never put a scrap of gold or silver in my pocket, I believe that it has done me good, and will do me good; and I say, God bless it!”
Charles Dickens, “A Christmas Carol”
I don’t want to talk about the War on Christmas™. I think it’s silly. To call it a tempest in a teapot seems an insult to both tempests and teapots. If Christmas for you is a largely commercial enterprise, then I assure you, no one is stopping you from lighting up your house and buying things. If you are concerned with right worship of the incarnate Son of God, I don’t see why you need the cashiers at Walgreens to help you with that.
Whoops. I said I didn’t want to talk about that, didn’t I? I’m like a magpie, distracted not by shiny objects but by overblown news stories. I do want to talk about the bad rap Christmas has been getting from some quarters, but its not the atheists or ACLU complaining this time. It’s people on Team Jesus.
A few years ago I went rather sour on Christmas myself. I watched the movie What Would Jesus Buy, immersed myself in the Buy Nothing Christmas campaign, and lamented the state of Christmas in America. In many ways, I still do. There is no doubt that a significant number of people go spending crazy at this time of year. We are sent the message that love means spending yourself into piles of unsecured debt, and many of us buy it. We buy the message, we buy the stuff, and we suffer the consequences all year.
That’s only one problem with the modern American Christmas. I also became concerned that as a Christian I was not really focusing on the birth of Christ. The Christmas season was eventful and exciting and fun (usually), but it wasn’t particularly reflective or spiritually meaningful to me. I’ve written about the challenges of trying to make the season sacred before, including in this post.
Still, I’ve made my peace with Christmas in the last couple of years. I’ve become very deliberate about keeping Advent, rather than pinning all the meaning to Christmas day. My husband and I have tried to make wise choices in our Christmas spending, and we’ve worked to communicate the spiritual significance of the season to our children. And I’ve been content with the results – not perfect Christmases, but good ones.
Now, after being the agitator that suggested posting this at church, it feels a little strange to be defending Christmas against arguments from other Christians. I know a growing number of people who object not just to how we celebrate December 25th, but the fact that we celebrate it at all. Sometimes the critique is that we are celebrating it on the wrong day. Sometimes it’s that the day the church did choose, long ago, was already taken by a pagan festival. I’ve also heard that since the Bible doesn’t tell us to celebrate the birth of Christ, we should avoid it. The only feast days or holy days we ordained are those established in scripture. Add back into the mix the Christians who were already lamenting the consumerism (as I have done), or the stress and busyness of the season, and it can seem like a mighty army of voices complaining about Christmas.
I think I understand all that. I am aware the December 25 was celebrated as the birthday of Sol Invictus – the Unconquered Son – in the Roman Empire. That festival was certainly an impetus for placing the celebration of Christ’s birth on the same day. You can call that syncretism or you can think of it as “myth become fact”, a phrase C.S. Lewis gave us. Here he is on the subject of mythology and Christianity:
The heart of Christianity is a myth which is also a fact. The old myth of the Dying God, without ceasing to be myth, comes down from the heaven of legend and imagination to the earth of history. It happens — at a particular date, in a particular place, followed by definable historical consequences. We pass from a Balder or an Osiris, dying nobody knows when or where, to a historical Person crucified (it is all in order) under Pontius Pilate. By becoming fact it does not cease to be myth: that is the miracle.
If the scriptures themselves use imagery that evokes the ancient sun gods (“the sun of righteousness will rise with healing in its wings…”), I’m willing to pardon the church fathers fusing the Unconquered Sun with the Unconquered Son. It was an idea ripe for appropriation.
As I said, I suppose there’s an argument to be made that the early church allowed too much paganism into its practices. I’m not making that argument, but it can be made. What seems far more dubious to me is to assume that those practices, completely decontextualized from the ancient world, turn modern Christians into pagans. When a family gathers near their tree and sings “Happy Birthday” to Jesus, I don’t think that worship is transferred to an ancient solar deity. I don’t want to speak for Jesus, but I think he knows what we’re doing; he understands the intent of our hearts and our desire to celebrate his coming. And I can’t imagine that the Unconquered Son. the one who is both Suffering Servant and King of Kings, is offended if we’ve gotten the day wrong. I’m petty about how my birthday is celebrated. I’m sure that Jesus is not.
Of course, there is no scriptural command to celebrate the birth of our Lord. We are free to follow where conscience leads us as Christians, but I would encourage us not to try to force our conclusions on others. That includes followers of Jesus who celebrate differently than we do (or not at all). It also includes the cashier at Walgreens.
One more thing. There’s a reason I placed that wonderful quote from “A Christmas Carol” at the beginning of this post. One of the running themes that we hear and repeat every year is that people are awful at Christmas time, that the season of love, joy, and peace brings out the worst in humanity. Children become greedy little monsters, grandmas in Christmas sweaters flip others off in traffic, people trample each other for the latest game system.
There’s truth in that dark picture. It’s one of the reasons I do not shop on Black Friday. But it’s not the whole picture, is it? I admit that my position at the church is giving me a bias. I am in charge of collecting gifts for our church’s Angel Tree and I know how amazingly generous many people are at this time of year. My office looks like Santa’s workshop right now as I sort the gifts for distribution. A few weeks ago, at the end of a busy service, someone in my church came up to me and asked, “Can I just give you cash for the tree and let you buy what’s needed?” I replied that, yes, that would be fine, took the cash and tucked it into a pocket. Later I pulled it out and realized that one person in my congregation – a congregation of modest means, I assure you – had handed me $150.00 to buy gifts for complete strangers.
I don’t know about you, but for me $150.00 is real money.
That, too, is Christmas. It’s not just greed and consumerism. Its people delighting in caring for those in need. It’s the Christmas years ago when an elderly couple brought my husband and I a huge box of food when we most needed it. This year it’s even the pleasure some are taking in paying off layaway bills for strangers. There are thousands of expressions of kindness and generosity and embrace that happen every Christmas season, they just tend to get less press than people being trampled. Perhaps we see what we expect to see, depending on our own attitude toward this time of year.
Well, Scrooge’s nephew defends Christmas far more eloquently than I can. I’ll just continue in my quest to make every Christmas a bit more reflective, a bit more worshipful. But I don’t have any angst about participating in this particular holiday. And whether you choose to celebrate Christmas or not, whatever your reasons, I wish you a peaceful, happy December 25.