There is certainly a warm, nostalgic feeling about the Christmas season. Social media fill up with pictures of Starbucks holiday cups and we get the play-by-play of Christmas trees being purchased and filled with homemade ornaments. Holiday parties become about as frequent as breathing and there is a general sense of camaraderie among people who wouldn’t otherwise interact.
As a local practitioner and neighbor, I’d even go as far as saying this season brings about the most opportunity for new relationships and shared life in the realities of everyday.
Last week I was talking to my 3-year-old daughter about Christmas. She knows we are going to see grandparents and cousins and even knows a thing or two about gifts being exchanged.
And then I asked her, "Whose birthday do we celebrate on Christmas?" With a big smile, she said, "Santa!"
Now, I get it. She’s 3 years old, it’s kinda cute and harmless and whatever.
But there is something to this.
Our family never talks about Santa Claus, but we regularly talk about Jesus and even go as far as trying to live like him as best we can. When we do talk about Christmas and presents, we try to talk about how we will be giving them away to friends, family, and people who need them.
But, despite our best efforts, Christmas is associated with Santa Claus. Now, if it were the historical “Santa Claus” who gave away his best to save the lives of some children, that’d be awesome. But, no, this is the Santa Claus of consumption who promotes values of selfish acquisition rather than sacrificial giving.
With all this being said — and as followers of Jesus — we have to ask the question: “Is it possible to celebrate Christmas and the birth of Jesus on the same day?”
To begin to answer the question, we have to first understand that Christmas and Jesus’ birthday are not synonymous. In fact, historically, they really have nothing in common.
Christmas as a holiday didn’t even come around for hundreds of years after the birth, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. As with many “Christian” traditions and holidays, it didn’t come around until after Constantine announced Christianity the religion of the Roman Empire in the fourth century. Its roots are largely pagan (like Easter) and it almost certainly isn’t celebrated anywhere near the time of year that Jesus would have been born in first-century Palestine.
So how in the world did Jesus followers celebrate the birth of their king for the 300 years until this holiday was constructed? Well, it seems they were quite content celebrating his birth by doing their best to live like him everyday of the year.
What could that have looked like?
It looked like a people who were radically committed to living out the values of a new kind of kingdom that Jesus came to inaugurate, not through power and acquisition, but through suffering and self-sacrifice. A kingdom whose manifesto was articulated on a mountain in Northern Galilee among a diverse group of folks who otherwise would have never been hanging out together. A kingdom that warned against the idols of money, power, and reputation and instead invited people to be marked by selflessness, sacrifice, and servanthood.
So, as we enter into a holiday season where we hear stories of people being killed under the feet of shoppers scrambling for the best discount in a mega-mart, and feel the internal disconnect between the myth of Santa Claus and the reality of a living Jesus, we are confronted with the very anti-kingdom constructs we have built around a holiday that somehow celebrates the birth of a homeless refugee who calls us to a whole new way of living. A way that is marked much more by a cross than a noble fir with an angel on top.
In short, the themes of consumption and selfishness run in direct contrast to the kingdom inaugurated in Jesus. For us to celebrate the birth of Jesus, the holiday would have to look a lot different than it does in its modern, Western, industrialized iteration.
Now that I have totally kicked your peppermint mocha off the balcony, lit a small fire under your Douglas fir, and crushed my daughters hopes and dreams, let me ask again the question I posed at the beginning, "Is it possible to celebrate Christmas and the birth of Jesus on the same day?"
Without hesitation I give a resounding, "YES!!" But not because it’s Dec. 25. Rather, because everyday we are to celebrate the birth of Jesus through the way we live, love and lead in a way that embodies the values of a kingdom whose king took the throne through offering the greatest gift of all; himself.
With that in mind, I can release my daughter’s preoccupation with Santa Claus (maybe even celebrate it! Okay, maybe not), because the faith we’re inviting her to live doesn’t look like one day a year.
It looks like 365.
Jon Huckins is on staff with NieuCommunities, a collective of missional communities and is the co-founder The Global Immersion Project, which cultivates peacemakers through immersion in global conflict. Jon has a Master’s degree from Fuller Seminary and writes for numerous publications including, theOOZE, RELEVANT & Red Letter Christians. He has written two books: Thin Places: Six Postures for Creating and Practicing Missional Community and Teaching Through the Art of Storytelling. He lives in Golden Hill (San Diego) with his wife Jan & daughters Ruby & Rosie. Jon sits on the neighborhood council & is passionate about advancing the common good of his place. He blogs here.