Christmas

The time has come around again.  I’ve promised for the past couple of years a post on this topic, so here it is.

First, what I write here is a reflection of my individual conscience.  I do not necessarily advocate what is to follow for anyone except myself.

Having children, like nothing else, has forced me to seriously consider what we do at Christmas time in our household.  For some years, especially after my wife and I were married, I have been comfortable with the notion of observing Christmas as a religious holiday on a very basic level, of taking the day to remember the birth of Christ even if only for the evangelistic reason that one might be able to speak of Jesus on this day and that people might listen as they might not at other times.

I am fully aware, as I write, of the (near) consensus among non-institutional churches on this matter: that we don’t know when Christ was born and that the holiday has demonstrably Catholic origins.  In my experience growing up, I never sat through any strident anti-Christmas sermons — mostly the holiday was ignored and we treated the Sunday closest to it as we would have any other Sunday — but I was definitely taught the conclusions above in Bible classes and I accepted them by and large.  I did not accept any religious understanding of the holiday and saw it simply as a time when family members could exchange gifts.  The closest we got to ‘putting Christ in Christmas’ was my aunt’s insistence that my grandfather read Luke 2 to our gathered family on Christmas Eve.  My grandfather — I can now see this as a reflection of his graciousness of spirit even as he had firmly held convictions on the issue — never argued with this.

Having children, though, has caused me to see all of this — both the practices of my upbringing and the practices that my wife and I have engaged in since we were married — as a terribly inadequate response to this season.

In one sense, I don’t have a problem with the view that I inherited from my upbringing.  When American society was dominated by Protestant Christianity (prior to say 1960 or so), it made sense for our little counter-cultural movement to protest the (so we thought) excessive attention given to this one day.

Things are most assuredly different now, however.  We live in a society that is driven by a consumerist mentality (I don’t feel the need to argue this; I take it as a given — if you want to argue it, feel free to do so in the comment thread).  The consumerist mindset affects everything we do from our homelife to our jobs to our churches to our public life to our holidays.  In America, with the creeping advance of secularization in religion and in public life in the 20th century, holidays both secular and religious in origin have become little more than opportunities to buy things, to “stimulate the economy,” or however you care to phrase it.  The consumerist mentality is total and pervasive; there is virtually nowhere that it can be escaped.

Many Christians give little thought to the way that social factors such as this one affect their spiritual lives.  We see the television (whose almost sole purpose is to advertise to us) and the radio (ditto) and the Internet (ditto) as essentially neutral forces that can be used for good or evil.  We don’t realize that there are very, very few public or private spaces where we are not marketed to anymore (e.g. the sides of buses, clothing, billboards…the list is endless) and the insidious ways that the technology with which we have surrounded ourselves crowds out God and encourages us to focus on “stuff.”  And we bring this into our churches and into the way we do holidays.

Nowhere is this more true than in our approach to Christmas.  We pride ourselves on knowing that December 25th isn’t Jesus’ birthday and then we turn right around and fully participate in the orgy of materialistic excess that is the modern Christmas.  We’ve allowed ourselves to be steamrolled by the consumerist juggernaut that is Santa Claus…and we never even knew what hit us.  (Already this morning I’ve visited the blogs of a number of “conservative” Christians crowing about their “Black Friday” purchases.   In large part, this came about because, in expelling Jesus from Christmas, we left a vacuum open for other darker forces to come in and occupy.  We haven’t realized that when we emptied Christmas of religious content, we left a big gaping hole and didn’t fill it with anything.  Santa Claus and the consumerist mindset walked right in and filled the void.)

This year (and the coming years) will be different for my family.  They have to be.  We’ve come to the conclusion that our girls can’t be raised healthily with the notion that Christmas is all about getting stuff.

In my next post, I will talk about the specific things we are doing to address the problem.  As always, your comments are welcome.

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18 responses to “Christmas

  1. Thanks for sharing. Christians of all denominations need to reconsider what is truly appropriate in ‘celebrating Christ’s birth.’ I wonder if keeping the religious nature and adding the consumerist mentality is worse.

    On a side note, not all of us were fortunate enough to get by with ignoring religious Christmas in our non-institutional CoC. One year, I heard a sermon titled “Away from the manger” with the repeated refrain to turn away from the infant Christ. I shudder just thinking about it.

  2. I also want to add that I look forward to reading your future thoughts on this issue.

  3. Chris,
    A good provocative post. A couple thoughts, both of which we’ve talked some about before (over pinto beans at Wendell’s): in the absence of any sense of the liturgical year in Churches of Christ, we have settled for the calendar. Your experience among NI churches parallels mine in the so-called mainstream. Exhibit A: you will look in vain for Christmas celebrations (not so much in some places) but leave out Mother’s Day and you’re ripe for a fight. Or worse, Memorial Day, Veteran’s Day or Fourth of July. Another example, there are churches which last week held special Thanksgiving services which in three weeks will not hold special Christmas services. Secondly, there isn’t much incarnational theology afoot in the churches for folks to draw from. Here is what I mean…I understand the origins of the practice of Christmas, and I understand the resistance to celebrate 12/25 as the birthday of Jesus. But I don’t understand a lack of teaching about what difference Emmanuel means for us in our everyday lives. What does it mean that God is with us in the birth of Jesus, and how should God-with-us there impact how we live as God’s people here? I think teaching along these lines might check “consumerist juggernaut”-istic tendencies. I also think I just restated what your post says…thanks again.

    I’m looking forward to hearing more from you on this.

    • Thanks for chiming in on this. You’ve anticipated me a bit on the question of the liturgical calendar. My second post (and it may lengthen to a third one at this rate) delves in to that.

      I like your comment:

      “I understand the origins of the practice of Christmas, and I understand the resistance to celebrate 12/25 as the birthday of Jesus. But I don’t understand a lack of teaching about what difference Emmanuel means for us in our everyday lives. What does it mean that God is with us in the birth of Jesus, and how should God-with-us there impact how we live as God’s people here?”

      This (huge) oversight on our part gets to the heart of the issue. Why is it that so many churches of Christ can’t so much as bring themselves to speak of the Incarnation (much less actively celebrate it)? Might it have something to do with the (sometimes problematic) Christology of our forebears?

      More to come soon…

  4. More good stuff! Christmas is the feast of the Incarnation – a more precise phrase than ‘celebrating Jesus’ birthday’ given our cultural assumptions about birthday celebrations.

  5. I don’t agree that a non-religious celebration of Christmas leaves a “vacuum.” We’re on our third generation of such in my family, and it’s really not a big deal. Can’t create a vacuum if something was never there to start with. If someone personally chooses to celebrate it as such, okay (Romans 14; I Cor. 8). Not for me and mine, though.

    OTOH, the religion of materialism does have a corrosive effect on our spiritual life. I would expect we’re all wise enough to realize it’s no less present the other 364 days of the year, though. It’s just popular to talk about it at Christmas, I suppose because the evangelical/denominational world brings up the subject then.

    • Hey Jeff,

      Thanks for chiming in on this topic. Would you mind describing in a bit more detail (however much you’re comfortable with) how your family observes Christmas?

      • Sure. We emphasize two things: sharing and family. It’s a time to help others and to be with our family. Once they’re a bit older, we’re planning to take them to help with volunteer work around that time. And there’s all the usual Americana traditions: tree, lights, gingerbread house, Rankin/Bass animated specials, gifts on the morning of the 25th, etc.

        We do discuss Jesus’ birth and its importance with the kids (often we in churches of Christ go to the opposite extreme of ignoring it), but that’s when it comes up in our reading schedule, not necessarily December 25th.

        OTOH, it is worth noting that two of the four gospels don’t mention Jesus’ birth at all. It’s not unimportant, but it’s not all-important, either. Balance in all things.

  6. I would say Jesus’ birth in mentioned in 3 of the 4 gospels. John’s powerful opening surely counts.

  7. Jeff,

    Thanks for sharing. I think what you’re doing is really valuable. That is to say, no matter how we choose to celebrate Christmas in our families, we have to be intentional about what we’re going to do and what we want our children to learn from the experience.

    That’s probably the biggest lesson here. I wouldn’t claim that everyone should follow the particular path I’m taking in my family. I just wish that more preachers and teachers in the churches would focus on helping families celebrate the holiday constructively (whether as the birth of Christ or not). It appears to me that you’re doing just that and I think (FWIW) that’s a good thing.

    How old are your children?

  8. “OTOH, it is worth noting that two of the four gospels don’t mention Jesus’ birth at all. It’s not unimportant, but it’s not all-important, either. Balance in all things.”

    See, this the type of thing that I find frustrating with members of the CoC. This is a group that fights tooth and nail for the practice of a weekly Lord’s Supper on the basis of two verses. The very incarnation of the Son of God is not “all-important”? Of course it is, it is just not only-important.

    And without controversy great is the mystery of godliness: God was manifest in the flesh, justified in the Spirit, seen of angels, preached unto the Gentiles, believed on in the world, received up into glory.

    The fact is that the Church Year encompasses many events in Christ’s life Christmas (birth), Epiphany (baptism, adoration of the Magi), Easter (Crucifixion), Whitsunday (Pentecost), etc. So its a bit of a strawman argument to suggest that the Church’s focus on Christmas is overdone.

    This leads me to a question on Chris’ thoughts on the celebration of Christmas liturgically (i.e. congregationally) vs. private devotion. Are your thoughts primarily with respect to private devotion or is important to celebrate as a body of Christians?

    • Hey Ken,

      Thanks for this post (which I rescued from spam land earlier today).

      To your question: I am writing with private devotion in mind. That said, I think that a congregation that has come to mutual agreement on celebrating Christmas corporately should do so (or should be able to do so) freely without fear of undue criticism from other congregations.

  9. “The very incarnation of the Son of God is not “all-important”? Of course it is, it is just not only-important.”

    Last I checked, those were the same thing.

    How did Paul boil down the gospel? “Jesus Christ and Him crucified.” It is the death, burial, and resurrection that are all-important.

    Are the events of His birith important? Certainly. Were they the fulfillment of centuries of prophecy? Of course. Were they necessary for the other events to take place? Yes.

    But was His birth at the core of the gospel? No. That’s the death, the burial, and the resurrection. That’s the part that’s all-important.

    We weren’t called upon to remember Jesus’ birth through a memorial. His birth wasn’t symbolized by the act during which our sins are washed away. You could be saved without shepherds following a star to where He was born; you can’t be without Christ dying for your sins.

    • I get your point, Jeff. ISTM, though, that both are absolutely necessary: no coming in the flesh, no DBR. In other words, Jesus’ death is salvific precisely because he came in flesh, lived a human life and suffered and died bodily. If he had just pretended to have a body (as the Docetists and some of the Gnostics asserted) his death would have been of no effect.

      That said, I get what you’re trying to say. Paul does summarize the Gospel in terms of death, burial and resurrection. I think, though, he assumes the place of the incarnation, as Matthew, Luke and (probably) John do.

      Or am I missing something?

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  12. “We emphasize two things: sharing and family. It’s a time to help others and to be with our family.”

    For the life of me I couldn’t think what was disturbing about the above. Then it hit me, it is the exact same as the “good secular Christmas message”. You know the one that always appears on the sitcoms about the true meaning of Christmas.

    Althought it is a good message, it’s just somewhat tangential to the Incarnation.

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