Note: This past Sunday, during my father-in-law's sermon, he suggested that instead of grumbling when a cashier says "Happy Holidays", we could sincerely say thank you and ask which holiday they celebrate this season...not as part of our own agenda to tell them why they should celebrate Christmas, but just as a way to bless them and let them share about what's meaningful to them. I loved his suggestion, and it reminded me that I wanted to re-run this post. It was originally posted December 9, 2009. I'm re-posting it today because (a) I'm proud of what I wrote then, and (b) I could use a reminder about being conscious of my words and actions this holiday season.
Lately, on TV, the internet, and occasionally even in person, I'm hearing a lot of frustration from fellow believers about Christmas. Almost every day, I receive a Facebook request for a group called something to the effect of "Put CHRIST back in Christmas!" I hear Bill O'Reilly ranting and raving about the "secularization of Christmas." And as a Christian, I completely understand wanting our family to focus on the birth of Christ during this time. However, sometimes I also think about the message that Christians as a whole are giving to those who celebrate Christmas as a secular, rather than a religious holiday. Sometimes I worry that we come across as being rather hostile--'Give us OUR holiday back!' or 'People who celebrate Christmas and don't believe in Jesus are idiots!'
Much like Dan Merchant discussed in his book "Lord, Save Us From Your Followers", I would venture to guess that not too many non-believers feel loved on by Christians during the holiday season. I would venture to guess that some of them probably feel a pretty hostile response when they say that they don't go to church on Christmas Day, or that they believe Christmas is nothing more than a government sponsored economy boost. As a Christian, I strive to act and respond to others in such a way that they never experience hatred or hostility from me...only compassion and love. Because really, Jesus's message was one of love. I'm not perfect, and I don't always succeed at this, but I do try to be mindful of it.
Here's something that I didn't know until my first term in college--that both Christmas and Advent are symbolic celebrations. The Bible does not give us the actual date that Jesus was born, and it's pretty well accepted within both the religious and academic communities that in all likelihood, Jesus' birth was not on Dec 25th (read more about this here). Rather, early believers chose to remember his birth on that day for a few reasons. First, Dec 25th coincides with several pagan and secular celebrations, which allowed early believers to remember Jesus' birth without having to worry about being persecuted for their beliefs. Second, as more people came to believe and the persecution of Christians died down, the early church felt that it would be easier to substitute an "immoral secular" holiday with a "moral" one, rather than to eliminate a holiday altogether and schedule a new one (Augustine makes reference to this idea in his sermons).
So, "Christmas" was the religious significance that the church gave to a holiday that was originally secular, though known by another name at the time. Now, both the secular and religious celebrations have come to be known as "Christmas". And yes, the name "Christmas" does come from the name that those celebrating the birth of Jesus gave the day. However, many of the traditions that we continue to associate as part of the religious aspects of Christmas, like Christmas trees, are carried over from the secular holiday that pre-dated the religious holiday. Call it what you'd like, December 25th has long-since been a date that shared both secular and religious significance. And that's okay.
While I choose to celebrate Christmas for it's religious significance to me, I think it's important for us as Christians to remember that there has long-since been a secular significance to Christmas. And the secular celebration of Christmas doesn't in any way jeopardize the religious significance that we as Christians attribute to December 25th. Neither does the separation of church and state, which prevents state institutions from publically recognizing the religious aspect of Christmas.
Rather, the topic of religious vs. secular Christmas celebrations provides a great opportunity for us to have a dialogue with others about our beliefs regarding Christmas (while also allowing others to share their own beliefs regarding the day). Advent and Christmas are a particularly approrpiate time for this because as we remember Christ's initial coming into the flesh, it is a great opportunity for us also to remember and share that we do not need to be perfect people to come to Jesus--he has already come for us and will continue to come to us in the midst of absolutely any circumstance. There is no sin too great. No matter how broken we are or how much we've sinned when we turn to Jesus, he accepts us with open arms and tells us that he has already come to pay for our sins and that we've already been forgiven. What a comfort and blessing!
So, in my humble opinion, I think it's important for us to remember the historical significance of Christmas, and that it is and was both a religious and secular holiday. And rather than be angry and upset about that, let's use the opportunity to have a dialogue about our beliefs about Christmas and what it symbolizes. But in order to convey Jesus's Gospel of Love, we MUST do so lovingly and with respect.