Friday, December 21, 2012

Keeping Christmas out of Christ

Around this time of year you tend to hear this phrase a lot: "Keep Christ in Christmas," or "Jesus is the reason for the season."  And a lot of people get upset about the "war" on Christmas, which is supposedly waged by secular society removing the phrase "Merry Christmas" from its collective vernacular and replacing it with "Happy holidays."  Christians become upset because they feel that the religious significance they have placed on the holiday is being removed, and that the religious significance of the holiday is slowly being choked out of our culture.  Whether this is true or not is beside the point for my purposes.

A few weeks ago our small group was talking about our favorite Christmas traditions.  One of the group members grew up in Papua New Guinea, where Christmas was celebrated minimally, if at all.  Those dutiful Christians would celebrate the holiday by worshiping together at a local church, and then the holiday was over.  No gifts, no tree, no music, no cookies or family get-togethers - just going to church to join with other believers in celebration of the miracle of God become man.  

This description of a "celebration" of Christmas really resonated with me, and it caused me to reflect on how our culture really and truly celebrates Christmas as a cultural holiday primarily, and how some segments of it do all they can to sprinkle a little Jesus on top.  And when enough Jesus isn't sprinkled to pacify what might be our feelings of religious guilt, we cry foul.  

Take this example: in November my wife and I considered ways to engage our children in the spiritual significance of Christmas this year.  We decided on a very cool Advent calendar that we would do each night with our kids, reading from the Bible, talking through the passage, and praying together.  This, we decided, was apparently enough to offset the overwhelming amount of materialistic and self-centered messages that our kids would receive.  After all, we wouldn't want them to think that Christmas was just about presents and food, would we?  WE HAD TO KEEP CHRIST IN CHRISTMAS!  What we were actually endeavoring to do was to offset the cultural influence of Christmas on our children with the spiritual significance of Christmas.  To be sure, it is a difficult struggle.

As I reflected on this, it seemed strange to me.  Why do we have to fight so hard to keep Christ in Christmas?  Shouldn't it be the other way around?  I would think that if we were observing the holiday rightly, we should have to work at keeping Christmas in Christ.  In other words, our focus during the Christmas season is on the cultural stuff of Christmas: trees, presents, food, family, etc.  Now, there's nothing wrong with these things to be sure.  It's just surprising to me that we think of Jesus after all of that stuff, and then we have to make special arrangements to fit Jesus in somewhere, such as making a point of going through a devotional Advent calendar each night.

Imagine that you lived in a culture that didn't celebrate Christmas - at least not in the American style of celebrating it.  You didn't have a Christmas tree, you didn't exchange gifts with anyone, and you didn't sing carols or bake cookies.  Would you really have to fight about keeping Christ in Christmas?  Would you have to go searching for the perfect Advent devotional to keep your kids engaged in the spiritual significance of the holiday?  Certainly not.  You wouldn't have to fight to keep Christ in Christmas, because he would already be in his rightful place.  If my kids never became accustomed to having a Christmas tree or presents, I wouldn't have to endeavor so hard to make sure that they remember the "reason for the season." 

I would like to suggest that the idea of "keeping Christ in Christmas" is painfully backwards.  What we need to do is keep Christmas out of Christ.  That is, we need to start and finish our Christmas celebrations and remembrances with Christ.  Any remembrance of Christmas that does not center on Christ then seems to me to be a matter of trying to balance the scales between spirituality and worldliness.

Am I saying it's bad to have a Christmas tree or presents?  No, I can't say that, because the base of our Christmas tree is currently chock full of presents, and I can't laud a standard that I don't follow.  I guess it's just something good to think about: how much of my Christmas celebration is culturally motivated, and how much is spiritually motivated?  

Is it possible to "do" Christmas in a way that is Christ-focused and Christ centered?  I think it is, but that's up to each family to decide, and we should definitely not go around judging people based on their level of cultural Christmas-anity.  

But from now on, I'm going to try to keep as much Christmas out of Christ as I possibly can.

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