I’ll show my hand before attempting (however feeble) to play the holiday game. I love Christmas, and love everything about it. I’ve been known to watch the movie “Elf” on June 26 (because now we are closer to Christmas than we are away from it), I almost exclusively wear my Santa hat in December as headgear (unless of course I’m wearing my elf hat instead). I not so secretly hope to get a shot at the Santa job someday. I think one of the best lines ever written comes in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe” when C.S. Lewis wrote, “Always winter and never Christmas.” That is the kind of Advent anticipation I get excited about. And whether you like it or not, it seems pretty clear to me that when Santa comes to town at the end of the Macy’s Day Parade on Thanksgiving morning, that in our American culture (if there is solidarity about anything) we collectively shift gears toward Christmas. I welcome the big guy with open arms.
But I know my enthusiasm is not shared by everyone.
There is a particular movement within the church, that encapsulates historical precedent, sound theology and a particular emphasis on “waiting” that ties to push-off, “Merry Christmas,” as long as possible – claiming Advent anticipation as its core belief. There is a lot to be learned and valued by this perspective on most of December: that the commercialism that seems so out of hand isn’t the meaning of Christmas nor should Santa be Christmas’ primary spokesman. Reclaiming Advent is no easy task. From this perspective it becomes off-putting to have trees, decorations, lights, and Christmas carols playing as they start to go up earlier and earlier every year in an attempt to boost sales. There is even a group, called “Advent Conspiracy” (http://www.adventconspiracy.org/ ) whose mission is to support those who are working in a faithful and subversive way to redirect the attention of December toward Advent, rather than secular holiday cheer. Yet there is a downside. When the wider culture is saying, “Merry Christmas,” as early as November, and the church remains silent, or whispering softly, “Happy or Blessed Advent,” it can feel a bit empty. This view can also lead to Christmas wars within the Christian community itself over whom and when certain decorations are to be displayed – as if decoration control, rather than preparing for Christ’s coming was the point of Advent in the first place.
The Reason for the Season
There is another popular movement among Christians to promote “Jesus is the reason for the season.” This is a catchy slogan that has been around a long time. I remember as a child in Lutheran school that it was the emphasis – teachers had buttons, there were banners, (and though I don’t remember exactly) it was probably the focus of our devotions, chapel services and Sunday morning church. Here the emphasis is again away from the commercialism and sentimentality of Happy Holidays and toward a more focused approach that Christ is operative part of the word Christmas. Did you know the word Christmas is actually an amalgamation of Christ’s Mass – a Eucharist celebrating the birth of Jesus? For more sacramentally focused Christians this makes perfect sense considering the incarnation of God into the ordinary – a child in a manger; the body and blood of Christ in bread and wine. For other Christians with less emphasis on the Lord’s Table and liturgical seasons, the emphasis tends toward making sure there are public displays of nativity sets and fighting with secular authorities to keep them in town greens and squares. There are some who refuse to shop in places where they are greeted, “Happy Holidays,” rather than, “Merry Christmas.” The fight continues about using “X-Mas” rather than “Christmas” and can get a little heated, but there is the reason for X-Mas too. In Greek (the language of the New Testament) the first two letters in the word “Christ” are Chi and Ro – their numerals are X and P. You may have seen Chi Ro crosses before. They look like a large P intersecting the X. Using the Chi (X) for Christ is simply an abbreviation, but people like to fight about the littlest things sometimes!
Finding Holy Ground
While things can get a little out of hand when it comes to staking out some holy ground in what are supposed to be holy days, I see why people can get bent out of shape. There is something holy about being called out of the wider culture, or set apart in some real way, there is an empowerment to feeling like you are above the fray, or a confidence in believing you have the real nugget of truth. As the Grinch once learned, Christmas doesn’t come from a store. And Scrooge learned that joy and generosity can go a long way. The Ice Witch learned that Aslan was indeed on the move. Yet, in my view anyway, there are some folks who try to preserve Advent with such sincere purity or keep the Reason for the Season (focused on the crèche and away from Santa Claus) with such intensity that the unforseen consequence is to look like they are still really just saying, “Bah Humbug” to everyone else.
The real St. Nick lived from 270-343, and was the Bishop of Myra – a town in modern-day Turkey. Legend has it that he did wear red and had a long beard, though pictures and iconography of him typically depict him as a thin man. (All those cookies and glasses of milk must catch up with you after seventeen centuries!) He became famous because one night he tossed bags of money through the window or hole in the roof and they landed in the shoes of the three girls who lived there. Why did he give them the money? It would be enough for each of them to be married and serve as a dowry to potential suitors. Otherwise this poor family would have been unable to support them into adulthood. His generosity kept the family together, gave them the gift of a future, and had an impact that not only made Nick a hero in his own day – but his legacy still inspires the generosity of giving and helping others way beyond the walls and history of the church. His saint day is December 6 –the day of his death – and being close enough to Christmas; his link into this time of year, the stockings you hang up, and the surprise packages he leaves behind for us still all flow from his deep faith – not his marketing background, or uncanny ability to find and employ flying reindeer.
With Santa on his way December 24, we shift back to December 25 and our celebration of Christmas, however it is we get there. Many people have many different traditions. I did a quick survey of fellow Lutheran pastors and discovered a diverse understanding of Advent, Christmas, what gets decorated, when, how that is both similar and vastly different between home and congregation, and found the numerous options inspiring. The common thread between all the varieties of expression was the joy, faithfulness and attention these friends and colleagues put forward to proclaim Christ’s coming among us: which really is the point.
Did you know that Christmas as we know it was one of the most successful evangelism campaigns of all time?
Early Christians celebrated Easter – connected to the dates associated with Passover from early on. Over time preparation for Easter, especially for newcomers who would be baptized on Easter or the Easter Vigil eventually became the forty days of Lent. A similar festival – Epiphany (the coming of the wise men to the child Jesus) was celebrated on January 6, and eventually the weeks preceding preparation became what we would now call Advent. But Christmas, at least early on, was primarily Christians’ attempt at throwing a better party than the pagans celebrating the winter solstice. The Roman celebration the Birth of the Sun on December 25 (when the days were first noticeably longer than December 21) was co-opted by the Christians in order to celebrate the “Light shining in the darkness that the darkness cannot overcome” (John 1:5). Once Emperor Constantine became a Christian; Christmas as a holy day on December 25 became official in 336 (St. Nick was still in Myra). Eventually the pagans became Christians and with the influence of Northern Europeans on the story over the course of centuries the decorations of greens became Christmas trees and wreaths, Santa moved to the North Pole, and the gifts brought by either Santa on December 25 or the Wise Men January 6 gave reason for everyday people to share gifts with one another in celebration of Christ’s coming to us – God’s ultimate gift to the world.
As you think about your own traditions, the parts of the story you emphasize – from preparation in the bleak midwinter as we cry out form the darkness, “O come o come Emanuel,” or as we claim joy to the world that came upon a midnight clear on a silent night, the questions I ask you to consider are –
-How do your holiday traditions engage this secular post-Christian age and the people you meet in it?
-Will others see your practices across this December as the Grinch or Scrooge or “those judgmental Christians” full of hate and division?
-Or is your witness to those around you in an increasingly spiritual but not religious society a place to invite people to enter a story with real meaning, hospitality and joy?
This December, let’s throw a better party. Let’s show our hands that we are here to welcome others not yet part of the story. I’m going to start by wearing my Santa hat.
Ho, ho, ho,
“Even though I am free of the demands and expectations of everyone, I have voluntarily become a servant to any and all in order to reach a wide range of people: religious, nonreligious, meticulous moralists, loose-living immoralists, the defeated, the demoralized – whoever. I didn’t take on their way of life. I kept my bearings in Christ – but I entered their world and tried to experience things from their point of view. I’ve become just about every sort of servant there is in my attempts to lead those I meet into a God-saved life. I did all this because of the Message. I didn’t just want to talk about it; I wanted to be in on it!” (1 Corinthians 9:19-23 – The Message)
Special Thanks to Elesha Coffman’s Article, “Why December 25?” Christianity Today. December 8, 2008.
[Online Available: http://www.christianitytoday.com/ch/news/2000/dec08.html]