Don’t check your watch. This is something else all together. We know it will soon be the end of November and the end of Thanksgiving weekend. In the Christian calendar, it’s the beginning of Advent, the season leading up to Christmas. For many people, the time between Thanksgiving and Christmas is a tough time to get through. There are too many reminders of loss:
-the empty chair at the Thanksgiving table;
-the time when being alone turns to loneliness as everyone talks about family (some stores were closed on Thanksgiving to show support for families, but what if you are estranged from your family?)
-the bright red lettering over Macy’s front door proclaims “BELIEVE” — but believe what? The very word can remind you that you don’t believe anything anymore. What time is it in your life right now?
Can we be as honest as the Bible?
I’ve decided not to worry about the earlier-than-ever start to Christmas commerce this year.
Shortly after Halloween, with hardly a nod to Thanksgiving, stores and advertisers began going full-bore on the supposed “Christmas package,” namely, gift-giving, family fun, decorating, and entertaining.
It’s sad — this annual effort to derive profits from a facsimile of a 1950s Christmas — but other things are a lot sadder: an elusive economic recovery, continuing gun violence, racial violence, religious extremism, mounting rage, and intolerance at home and echoes of the Cold War in Europe.
Let commerce tread the line between gauche and tacky — merchants have salaries and suppliers to pay, after all. We have a troubled world to care about.
The path to that care doesn’t go by way of Wal-Mart or Budweiser. It is God’s path, and it goes by way of anticipation, promises, prophetic vision, a birth, a life, a death, and over all of it a sustaining grace that cares little for our seasonal receipts but cares intensely about our lives.
Maybe it’s good that commerce has declared its independence from religion and decorum. That clears the way for faith to have its parallel season — not in competition with commerce, but as the deeper reality that commerce can never attain, the deeper meaning we yearn for.
One of the dominant dogmas of the season seems to be both loud and clear: Our value as human beings is often dictated by our capacity to contribute toward economic growth.
This is what happens when Decemberism crucifies Christmas.
One may define “Decemberism” as a state in which the value of human life is determined exclusively by our personal rates of production and consumption. We notice this condition most often, of course, in December. Decemberism is the predominant religious tradition of the so-called “holiday shopping season,” and the significance of Christmas is consistently crucified as a result. As Victor Lebow states:
“Our enormously productive economy … demands that we make consumption our way of life, that we convert the buying and use of goods into rituals, that we seek our spiritual satisfaction, our ego satisfaction, in consumption … we need things consumed, burned up, replaced and discarded at an ever-accelerating rate.”
In striking contrast to the Christmas ramifications of God’s incarnation, to be a human of any value in our current context is closely connected with supply and demand, even if it all leads to our personal and public self-destruction.
Wizards! Caspar! Melchior! Balthasar!
Why fly straight to Fox Herod? Through
Unbounded night—! Bringing only news
Ripe for bloodletting. How black a star
You follow. Herod knows. How bizarre
A kingly claim. Will he oppose? Muse
Like Mary? Ha—! Mothers’ sons lose
Heads to swords & axes. Herod bars
The throne to Jesus. Who kills first?
Herod orders. Dash ’em every one—!
Every male child under two years old.
God’s son Jesus flees to Egypt. Thirst
Now that Dec. 25 is over, the real war on Christmas can begin.
Because, you see, that other “War on Christmas” that begins in late November and ends on Dec. 25 is a manufactured war. That war is fabricated by a television network that, despite the Bible’s repeated message at the birth of Christ to “not be afraid,” wants Christians to live in fear of some secular agenda to destroy Christmas. After all, there’s nothing like fear and a manufactured war to raise television ratings.
That’s a manufactured war because, as Diana Butler Bass has brilliantly pointed out, the season from late November to Dec. 24 isn’t Christmas. It’s Advent. If anyone were waging a war on a Christian season during the early part of December, it wouldn’t be on Christmas. It would be on Advent.
The real war on Christmas begins on Dec. 26, but no major television network will tell you about it. The real Christmas season, known as Christmastide, begins on the evening of Dec. 24 and lasts 12 days, ending on Jan. 5.
We’ve created a Christmas monster: a grotesque assemblage of pagan, Christian and capitalist symbolism into something that resembles something we’re both attracted to and repulsed by at the same time. We’re fueled by an admixture of both guilt and greed, while the domestic economy pins its annual hopes on our propensity for spending far more than we have or want to spend.
All in the name of baby Jesus.
It seems that we have no means of escaping the vortex of materialism, partly because whoever is the first not to buy gifts is the cheap jerk who throws the whole transactional nature of gift-giving out of whack. But one Christmas, a few years back, my wife, Amy, and I had finally reached our limit. We were in the midst of our Financial Peace budget slim-down and Christmas spending was an obvious target.
A generation or two ago, when America’s Muslims were new immigrants who made up an even smaller minority of Americans than they do today, they viewed the lights, trees, carols, gifts, and festive spirit of Christmas as a threat to their children’s Islamic faith.
But these days, a growing number of Muslims celebrate Christmas, or at least partake in some ways, even if they don’t decorate their homes with trees and a light show. Indeed, many Muslim families have created their own Christmas traditions.
“I teach my three children, who attend public school and happen to be born into an interfaith Christian-Muslim family, that we absolutely do celebrate Christmas because we are Muslim,” Hannah Hawk of Houston wrote in an email. Rather than putting up a tree or lights, “we celebrate the reason for the season, Jesus, by studying all that is written about him in the Quran and by examining historical theories.”
Every year, a chorus of Christians join together to bemoan the “War on Christmas,” lambasting their enemies for taking Christ out of Christmas, and yearning for the days when everyone remembered the reason for the season.
But have we all forgotten? There has always been a war on Christmas. In fact, conflict lies at the very heart of Christmas. To those who say that Christmas is all about peace on earth, a quick look at the second chapter of Matthew and the largely overlooked story of King Herod reminds us that this peace comes at a price. For it is the kind of peace that can only come through conflict. Before caroling, there was weeping in Ramah.
It’s no surprise that most Christmas pageants leave out the Herod story. King Herod jealously guarded his power, killing anyone who got in his way. When he learns of Jesus’ birth, he declares the first war on Christmas. Herod doesn’t just want to kill Jesus. He wants to destroy him, taking Christ out of Christmas once and for all. When his efforts are thwarted, he resorts to genocide to ensure Jesus’ demise, murdering every male infant in Bethlehem. This, for Herod, is a bargain to rival any department store sale: The lives of Bethlehem’s youngest? A mere pittance for unrivaled power.
In other words, Herod gets it. Herod, more than anyone else in the story so far, sees this poor, refugee child for who he really is — a rival king.
We are all hypocrites. I am a hypocrite. That guy over there shoveling his driveway is a hypocrite. You have most likely been a hypocrite at some point. Liberals, conservatives, Christians, and atheists — all hypocrites. This is not so much a statement of judgment as it is a statement of human nature. It is unavoidable and so wonderfully human. All of us have double standards and fail to practice what we preach, simultaneously looking down on others who do the same thing.
That being said, I am about to criticize something in which the act of criticizing will itself be an act of hypocrisy. I am criticizing the vast swarm of words, opinions, responses, and re-posts that have a tendency to take over the Internet and our modern-day consciousness. So now I will simply add to the chatter (though for your sake, hopefully briefly) and then depart to spend at least one day, God-willing, in some form of peace and quiet before Christmas, because really that’s why I’m so perturbed. It seems as if we are in a rather confusing tale about two Christmases.
There is one Christmas as celebrated by orthodox Christians in which we rejoice in the birth of Jesus into a manger, coming not as king, but as beggar and blue-collar worker, born amid dung and hay, eventually coming to signify and proclaim the reconciliation of heaven, earth, and nations, and trumpeting peace, joy, love, and life.
There is another Christmas that is on the surface very similar looking — the Christmas in which pundits on both sides use the day of Christmas as fodder to further their political, ideological, and religious views and people bludgeon each other to death with action figures.
Ah, Christmas! The most wonderful time of the year. A time to gather with family and friends, and, with a smile on our faces, pretend we aren’t quietly measuring who received the best present and which relative really, really needs to stop drinking. A time to hang tinsel and baubles from the tree, and a time to hang up our hopes of losing that last 10 pounds this year. Such a joyous season!
The real point here is that Christmas is what we make of it. For Christians, however, there are some very specific things you can’t do if you want to actually honor and follow the person we celebrate this season. So, I give you my “10 Things You Can’t Do AT CHRISTMAS While Following Jesus.” As with my other “10 Things” lists, this is not intended to be a complete list, but it is a pretty good start.
As we move into the Sundays following Christmas and begin to anticipate Epiphany, we face the terror of the coming week’s Gospel reading, the Massacre (or Slaughter) of the Innocents. While there are a number of stories in the Bible that are difficult to read/hear, Herod’s murdering the innocent children of Bethlehem in his attempt to kill a potential threat to his throne must be among the top.
Herod’s brutality is legendary. Most of what we know comes from the Jewish historian, Josephus. Matthew records that Herod became distraught when he learned from the Magi that an astrological sign had indicated the birth of a Judean King (2:1-8). When the Magi did not return to report the location of this newborn King, Herod realized that he been tricked and “he was infuriated, and he sent and killed the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under” (2:16). While scholars debate whether this event is historical or not, it is certainly consistent with what we learn about Herod from Josephus.
If there is indeed a “War on Christmas,” those on the anti-Christmas side of the war have lost — big time.
The television pundits, conservative politicians, and talk-radio loudmouths who believe there is a “War on Christmas” should look around, withdraw their troops, and quit screaming. Because if there is a war on Christmas, Christmas has won.
As Christmas approaches, tens of thousands of churches around the country are planning Christmas services and expecting packed pews. Their choirs are rehearsing Christmas music; and church members have taken the Nativity scene figures out of storage and put them on church lawns. Children costumed as kings and shepherds are learning to sing “Away in the Manger.”
Christmas cards with manger scenes are speeding around the country through the U.S. Postal Service or in the form of online animated greetings that play “Silent Night” and show the wise men following the star to Bethlehem.
It’s taken me a few years, but I’ve decided to relax about him. I refuse to beat myself up over his presence anymore. He’s okay. I mean, don’t get me wrong — he’s annoying and I have concerns. And I know that many of my fellow parents will disagree, and that’s okay. This makes me cringe, but that little Elf on the Shelf can stay.
After some debate, my wife bought the Elf on the Shelf in 2010. If you aren’t familiar with the Elf on the Shelf myth, it goes something like this: Apparently Santa is incapable of knowing if children have been bad or good on his own, so Dec. 1 to Dec. 24 that Jolly Old Elf sends his little elves to houses to spy on boys and girls. Their job is to check to see if children are being naughty or nice. So, each morning before anyone is awake, our Elf flies in from the North Pole and hides in a different spot in our house. When our children wake up — noticeably earlier in December than any other month — they look for him. Yup, it’s hide-and-seek every morning with the Elf. Then, the National Security Agency Elf spies on our children throughout the day. When our children fall asleep at night, the Elf flies back to the North Pole to provide Santa with a report on how our children have behaved. Then the Elf promptly flies back to our house, hides in a new place, and the morning hide and seek ritual begins again.
Truth be told, my children love it. They. Love. It. They can’t wait to wake up in the morning and search for that little Elf.
Last December, I decided to run after dark and entertain myself by running through neighborhoods, looking at lighted Christmas decorations as I passed by. It was a novel twist on my regular exercise, and I enjoyed gazing at the beautiful, the creative, and the tacky alike.
Then, I started noticing the insides of houses, too. The Christmas trees were lit and decorated; the insides of the houses seemed warm and inviting. Suddenly, instead of an independent adult on a crisp winter jog, I felt more like a homeless orphan from a George MacDonald Christmas story looking in at something I did not have and of which I could not be a part. Needless to say, the run lost its sense of adventure.
Recently, it has struck me how strange the situation was, both in what I saw Christmas to be and in my decision that I “didn’t have it.”
Nearly one in three Americans, including many with no little children at home and those with no religious identity, say they pretend Santa will visit their house on Christmas Eve.
Overall, 31 percent of U.S. adults play up the Santa role in their holiday season, according to a survey released Wednesday by the Pew Research Center.
Jesus, however, is still the star of Christmas.
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.
Nine in 10 Americans will celebrate Christmas this year, but a new poll shows that increasing numbers see the holiday as more tinsel than gospel truth.
This year more than ever, Americans prefer that stores and businesses welcome them with the more generic “Happy Holidays” or “Season’s Greetings” than “Merry Christmas,” according to a survey released Tuesday by the Public Religion Research Institute in partnership with Religion News Service.
And for one in four American adults (26 percent), Dec. 25 is simply a cultural holiday, not a religious holy day.
As we prepare for the coming of Christ, the third Sunday of advent is celebrated in joy. As followers of Christ, it is reasonable to be exuberant about the birth of our Savior. The amount of happiness that can seep from the soul in response to a virgin birth, a perfect baby boy, and an adorable scene of livestock and shepherds befriending God’s family is immeasurable. Christmas music, Christmas decorations, and yes, even Christmas presents add to the joy and never fail to put a smile on my face.
This past weekend, as I tried to reflect on what it means to be joyful in Christ, my heart was temporarily hardened as I attended a Reentry Arts & Information Fair for returning citizens. I helped host a table for Becoming Church and their Why We Can’t Wait initiative.