It’s about a week before the day designated as Christmas, and I feel as though I’ve been bombarded with just about every interpretation of what that means (or doesn’t mean) to the point of utter fatigue. Part of it stems from a glut of Hallmark movies (a result of snowy days and retirement). But considering how all-encompassing Christmas is between Thanksgiving (or is it Halloween?) and New Years’ Day, I have thoughts and questions on what to do with this “holy day” from a Christian standpoint.
I grew up in a Christian family under the influence of a grandfather who was a minister. Christmas was kind of a big deal, but the emphasis was on presents and being with family rather than “the birthday of Jesus”, the explanation being no scriptural basis for the celebration of Christ’s birth. Over the years, I’ve met those who believe the holiday should be ignored or even banned among Christians. But most people celebrate Christmas in some form or fashion, even if they refuse to call it that .
For those interested in history (all three of you), Christmas was established as an official holiday in the Fourth Century by Pope Julius I (the guy who incidentally gave us our present day method of marking daily time passage, the Julian calendar). He no doubt chose the date of December 25th as sort of a public relations move, since it coincided with the pagan festival of Saturnalia. Unfortunately, his choice of date seriously contradicts the scriptural account which speaks of shepherds being in the fields with their flocks. I don’t know what the weather is like in Israel this time of year, but no self-respecting shepherd would be sitting out in the middle of a field in northern Michigan on December 25th (although there are some hunters and ice fishermen who might consider it).
The Puritans, upon reaching the New World, chose to reinstate the ban on Christmas under penalty of a rather hefty fine for the time of five shillings, but most everyone else in Europe and the colonies celebrated it. What we know as Christmas traditions really started in Victorian England and took off with the advent of commercial advertising. Once someone discovered the money to be made, there was no turning back. For many folks, Christmas became a secular, commercialized holiday. The Hallmark Channels, in particular, have built a cottage industry around it.
Going back to the religious aspects of Christmas, I find a validity in the arguments supporting the position that the church should not sanction Christmas. There is no specific command in the Bible we are to remember Christ’s birth, and certainly no indication it occurred on December 25th. Many of the traditions associated with Christmas, such as the Yule log and Christmas tree, are drawn from pagan traditions. And the rampant consumerism which has become associated with the season is certainly not consistent with Christian teaching.
In all other things, we scrupulously teach that Christian practice and belief must be based on specific command or example drawn from the scriptures, and anything else is in violation of God’s command. Even though we may not “officially” celebrate Christmas as the birth of Christ, does our engaging in seasonal traditions still violate our standard? Maybe just as importantly, do those outside the church interpret our observance of Christmas as indicating our agreement that it is an officially sanctioned event?
From what I’ve observed, the world has a varied and, for the most part humanistic, interpretation of Christmas. Based on the myriad of “Christmas movies” found on television, Christmas is a magical time that somehow miraculously changes dysfunctional lives and makes all things right. It is a time when we all somehow become more loving, joyous and giving, all becomes right with the world, and every ending is a happy one.
I don’t mean to sound like Scrooge or some sort of grumpy old curmudgeon. I enjoy the Christmas season; as someone who fights an annual battle with Seasonal Affective Disorder, the more lights the better. I love the carols, the beauty, and time spent with friends and family. It makes a long, dreary winter much more endurable. But I take my holiday with a good helping of proviso.
If I wish to celebrate and honor Christ, let it be on a daily basis through recognition of Him as Savior and Lord. His birth was important, but the focus of the Gospel accounts is on the fulfillment of prophecies made hundred of years prior to His birth, so we would recognize it was what God had planned all along. More important to the Gospel writers were His life and His teaching, and especially His death and resurrection. Jesus emphasized the last two events by instituting a memorial feast which we observe each week. That alone should tell us where our focus needs to be.
While some argue that Christmas brings people’s attention back to Christ I would respond it’s not particularly effective, for several reasons. What the Catholic Church may have originally intended as a religious observance, the world has distorted into something entirely different, more of a celebration of self than of God. The time people spend thinking about baby Jesus during Christmas tends to get packed away with the Nativity and the rest of the decorations. Whatever ‘peace on earth and goodwill toward men’ develops during the holiday season usually evaporates with the New Year (given what happens on Black Friday, I’m not sure it even shows up any more).
If we want people to know Jesus, we need to introduce them on a daily basis by what they see in us. The “spirit of giving” associated with Christmas should be a constant identifying characteristic of anyone daring to call themselves a follower of Christ, not just when the calendar turns to December. And the church should be the very embodiment of peace and goodwill in the way we love and treat nonbelievers and each other.
I have no problem with anyone celebrating Christmas; anything that encourages us to think about Jesus is a good thing. But we also need to think, live and breathe Christ on December 26 and the 364 days afterward.