We have entered what is often called “The Holiday Season.” Anchored by Thanksgiving and Christmas, this time of year often results in family visits, big meals, and presents. These holidays, especially Christmas, also come under fire from multiple sources. Aren’t these just excuses for gluttony and crass commercialism? Don’t these holidays possess religious foundations that go against our separation of Church and State?
What these questions imply is often called “The War on Christmas,” by one side of course. Do we say “Merry Christmas” or “Happy Holidays”? Do we put up manger scenes or Santa and his sleigh? The essence of this debate goes deep. It comes down to a battle over time and space.
The defining of time and space occurs more than we might think. Memorials, whether they be plaques, statues, or giant monuments, set aside ground for the particular purpose of commemoration. Graves in part also share this function. Lincoln called the cemetery and battlefield of Gettysburg “this hallowed ground.” July 4th means a day off, parades, and cookouts. But few do not also know that it is time set aside to remember and celebrate American Independence—and hence America herself.
We are called upon when encountering such time and space to remember, to celebrate, and to even imitate that which is noble and beautiful in them. Christmas is no different. Does Christmas merely celebrate time for family, giving gifts, and competing with the Jones’s for better decorations? Or does it truly commemorate the birth of Christ and the beginning of the incarnation of God Himself upon the earth?
Some Christians attempt to by-pass this debate altogether. They refuse to celebrate Christmas. Their reasoning is multi-faceted. Christmas was originally a pagan holiday, celebrated in many instances as the birthday of pagan gods. Christmas is celebrated in such crass, commercial ways that it becomes a religion dedicated to secular, material gain. Finally, we should celebrate Christ’s birth—and resurrection—all year, not just certain days.
I respect this position. I agree that Christmas has become too often a pull for more and more stuff. In doing so it teaches us the wrong principles of our material goods. I also understand that Christmas has pagan backgrounds. Further, I concur that Christ’s birth should be remembered and celebrated all year, not just one day.
At the same time, I disagree with them in not celebrating every December 25. The crass commercialism Christmas often becomes is not essential to the holiday. Christians can refocus it, at least in their own lives and congregations, just as they have let it drift. We can read Old Testament prophesies of the coming Messiah, topped off by the Christmas story itself as presented in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke. These times can permeate the season, not just be an afterthought to a Christmas Eve service. Gift-giving can itself become a moment to remember, an imitation of Christ’s many gifts made possible by the present of presence in the incarnation.
Christ’s birth should be an object of our thinking and our prayerful praise year-round. Yet setting aside a day makes that day sacred time. Setting up a manger scene is similarly setting aside space in which the Gospel of the incarnation is proclaimed. These can certainly be empty symbols—just as Baptism and the Lord’s Supper can be empty when not properly received. Yet done rightly, the celebration of Christmas can remain a time when Christians rejoicing remember God become man, the moment when Heaven broke onto earth, God crashed into time, and the central event of world history began to unfold before the eyes of poor shepherds.
Finally, let us recall that holidays are not new to Western commercial culture. The Old Testament is filled with Holy Days whose intention included remembering the great deeds of the Lord. Just as the ancient Hebrews set aside days in which to commemorate the great deeds of God, so let us do the same. During this holiday season, Merry Christmas, the Savior is born.