Letter from the Editor: The Common Ground of Christmas

“Isn’t there anyone who knows what Christmas is all about?”

This exasperated cry comes from cartoon character Charlie Brown in the iconic Christmas special A Charlie Brown Christmas. Amidst the pressure to give gifts and send cards and find the perfect tree and perform the perfect play, Charlie Brown breaks. Christmas pressure has squashed out all the joy. His heart cry echoes our own, which is certainly why this show has maintained its place in the seasonal lineup since 1965. And like Charlie Brown, we need someone to step up and proclaim anew the real meaning of Christmas, as Linus did:

“Sure, I can tell you what Christmas is all about.

“And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them, and they were sore afraid. And the angel said unto them, ‘fear not, for behold, I bring you tidings of great joy which will be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a savior, which is Christ the Lord. And this shall be a sign unto you. Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes lying in the manger.’ And suddenly, there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying, ‘glory to God in the highest, and on Earth peace, good will toward men.’

“That’s what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown.”

It’s easy to either succumb to the commercialization of the season or become overly protective—and pushy—about the Christian aspects of the holiday.

Each year we listen to Linus’s speech and our hearts cry with relief, because Christmas pressures haven’t changed much since 1965. We still struggle to keep the meaning of Christmas at the forefront, either succumbing to the commercialization of the season or becoming overly protective—and pushy—about the Christian aspects of the holiday. Linus’s answer to Charlie Brown was spot-on truth. But the way we go about practicing and celebrating that truth is much more complicated.

Christmas celebration doesn’t happen in a vacuum, where only those who agree with Linus (and Christians) exist. Many people celebrate Christmas without a thought of its Christian origins. The whole season now has traditions and elements that are cultural more so than religious. Christmas provides common ground for those believe what Linus said and those who do not. The sentiments of goodwill, giving, and community find fullness in the gospel, in God’s willingness to come to earth and be with us.

And so this issue of Christ and Pop Culture Magazine highlights the ways the secular aspects of Christmas can pave the way to the sacred, when we step up like Linus did and proclaim the goodness of God.

In “Family Dinner and the Presence of Christ,” Erin Wyble Newcomb shares the common ground her extended family has in celebrating Christmas together with a luxurious, leisurely meal:

All of us agreed to the meal in lieu of gifts for each other, because it gets too hard to exchange presents as the years go by. We don’t need more stuff, but we appreciate that each family present sets aside the time for a sit-down meal. The cost is a precious weekend evening in the midst of a packed holiday calendar. It’s worth it. As the years have passed, we’ve committed to our new tradition. As the years have passed, it’s become less of a new tradition and more just, well, our tradition.

[ . . . ]

Each year, this tradition is one of the most fulfilling of all the Christmas events that we inscribe on our calendar. It is joyful and hopeful, a kind of reassurance for all of us that love still binds us together in spite of our differences and our distances and our directions. It’s not a religious event, per se, but it buoys my spirit to love and be loved, to place myself within a tradition of ever-present love.

Family is the most common context for Christmas celebrations—and the one most wrought with tension when beliefs are varied. But Newcomb casts a beautiful vision for modeling God’s “with us” with family. These principles are reiterated by Amanda Wortham in her feature, “The Best Senior Christmas Murder Pageant Mystery Play Ever! (CUE APPLAUSE NOW).” Wortham connects the rather humorous experience she had leading her senior class play with the way we can share Christmas with those who celebrate differently:

This Christmas, you are welcome to adopt my Senior Play Approach and force those around you to steamroll through traditions with no explanation or apology. Or you can show a little more thoughtfulness, step back, and consider what we are inviting the world to observe. The birth of Jesus is a mind-boggling concept, and its celebration has evolved into some weird rituals. We ask little children to recite passages about a virgin. We sing cheery songs about an infant born to die. We reenact the story of a pregnant teenager denied basic hospitality and forced to give birth in a barn, surrounded by animals and filth. We gloss over the less beatific characters; King Herod, thirsty for the blood of infants, is often relegated to a footnote, if he appears at all. We romanticize the ending, when sweet Jesus and his parents flee to Egypt, becoming the world’s most famous refugees.

Understanding how non-Christians receive our faith-based rituals will help us do a better job of inviting them in and introducing them to the Messiah we worship. Conversely, we can seek out the good in the cultural aspects of the season to find common ground, just as Collin Huber finds in the movie Elf. In “Wonder, Belief, and Buddy the Elf,” Huber explains:

Elf is counter-cultural in that it encourages a cultivation of that old magic we once knew as children. There is no better season than Christmas for demonstrating the human desire for wonder and belief. We long to be awed and to believe in something beyond ourselves. When we cheer for Buddy, our enthusiasm sprouts from the well-tended soil of that primal spirit. Despite the fact that the film portrays nothing explicitly religious, it illustrates themes inherently spiritual that pluck at our deepest desires. No matter our age, we never outgrow that yearning for childlike innocence, for the freedom to wonder and believe.

Whether spoken aloud or not, we all long for something greater to believe in, something wondrous to wonder at. Christmas is common ground for us to identify with those around us how we too long for goodness and wonder and peace and love—and how we’ve found all that and more in the Messiah whose birth we celebrate. As you read these features and the support articles, we trust you will be encouraged and inspired to speak of and demonstrate the ever-seeking love of God to those you celebrate with. Merry Christmas!

—Erin Straza