I was driving from Plano to Norman on Saturday, which is about a 3-hour drive. I had plenty of CDs in my car to keep me occupied, but I really just wanted to listen to Christmas music, since it’s after Thanksgiving and not a sin to listen to Christmas music anymore. I don’t own any Christmas CDs (a fact which needs remedying), so I had to scan the radio for a station broadcasting Christmas cheer. There were less than I expected, but I found a few to keep me company. Eventually after crossing the Texas border, I had to find new ones without static, and stumbling upon the Christian station in Dallas that I grew up listening to, I heard them say, “98.6 KJHG*, the real Christmas station.”
Now, let’s say I’m an alien. I’m not a hostile alien, though, I’m a friendly alien. Like Casper, except he was a ghost. But he was friendly, see? Anyway, I’m an alien, and I come to earth (America, specifically) around Christmastime, and I see the decorations on the houses, I see all the lights, and I see Santa at the mall, and I see families traveling to get together, and I see gifts under Christmas trees. Then I’m listening to the radio and I hear about this “real Christmas.” And (remember, I’m an alien) I’m totally confused. So I ask my human friend, what is this “real Christmas”? Is there a fake Christmas? Is someone lying to me about Christmas?
He proceeds to explain to me that a lot of people celebrate Christmas only with gifts and Santa, but Christians believe that Christmas is about celebrating the birth of Christ, who they believe came to save them. So I ask, “Well, okay, but what does that have to do with Santa and the Christmas tree?” And he says, “I don’t know.” Because he doesn’t know. Because there is no connection.
Oh, you might be able to take Christmas back to its roots and explain to me about St. Nicholas and the origin of the Christmas tree and the tradition of giving gifts in celebration of God’s greatest gift to us, Jesus, and I’d believe you. In fact, that would deepen my appreciation of my favorite holiday, and I’d be grateful to you. But that wouldn’t change the fact that the vast majority of America, and probably the world, has become complacent with the disconnect between these two Christmas traditions, the tradition of Santa Claus and his gift-giving in contrast to the tradition of Christ’s birth. To most of America, Christmas is about gifts and spending time with family, and Christ’s birth is a distant memory. And the insistence of many of us Christians that our Christmas is the real Christmas is insulting to the people who love Christmas for secular, though still perfectly good, reasons. Reasons like family and the looks on their kids’ faces when they open a desired gift and good food and wonderful music.
Of course, Christmas is about Jesus at its core. But even Christians don’t live that way. Christians across the country will make an effort this season to pay attention to Jesus and not leave Him out of the Christmas celebrations. This is some kind of noble, but there’s almost a defensiveness to the way many of us approach Christmas. When I see the words “Happy holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas,” I bristle, as if the intent behind the more broad statement is full of anti-religious malice. And then those two words, “Merry Christmas,” turn out to be the only things that separate my Christmas time from that of a non-Christian. Like most everyone, I will anticipate the gifts I’m getting on Christmas and I will spend a bunch of money on gifts for the people I love, and I’ll enjoy spending time with my family. And none of that is wrong. But I’ll try to shoehorn Jesus into that somewhere, instead of making all of it about Him.
I won’t pretend to have the answer to Christmas’s problems, but I can at least notice a tendency of Christians trying to fit Jesus into our culture’s traditions, instead of taking the traditions of our culture and redeeming them for God’s will. This wouldn’t mean that I avoid gift-giving or –getting, or that I don’t sing Christmas carols that don’t talk about Jesus. But it would mean that I do all of these things differently from non-Christians. And I definitely shouldn’t pretend that Christmas is mine and no one else’s, and then treat it just like everyone else does.
I think a future post will focus on what the differences look like. This is already a long post, and it wasn’t my original intent to talk about practical solutions, only to bring the problem to light. I’m also only 23 years old, and I’m not married and I don’t have kids. So my level of wisdom on the struggles of carrying out a God-centered Christmas is pretty limited. However, I will leave you with this: a vast number of the people celebrating Christmas in this country aren’t Christian and don’t celebrate Christmas because of Christ, but that doesn’t mean they’re doing everything wrong, or that their Christmas isn’t real. Christians can’t pretend to have a monopoly on Christmas; in fact, the exact opposite is true. Christmas is a part of the world’s culture now. We should treat Christmas how we should treat all of the good things in this world’s culture year-round: we meet the culture where it is, and then we let the Gospel determine our response to the culture. That response should be more than fitting Jesus in.
*I’ve changed all names to protect the innocent.