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.