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The Reality of Christmas and Our Culture

This time of year, there’s a common dilemma we face.

On the one hand, we really want to feel “the Christmas spirit.” But on the other hand, we have a hard time hearing the “still, small voice of God” in all the noise, chasing around the malls, the parties, and the pressures of the season.

On the one hand, we recall, fondly, the Christmas mornings of our childhood, including the joy of opening presents. But on the other hand, we fear creating Christmas mornings of our own that are overly focused on presents.

On the one hand, we know Christmas can put us in touch with the deepest yearnings of our hearts and souls, tug at our heartstrings like no other holiday. But on the other hand, we know that Jo Robinson and Jean Coppock-Staeheli, co-authors of the book, Unplug the Christmas Machine, are onto something when they write that Christmas has been cheapened into little more than “a long and elaborate preparation for an intense gift-opening ritual.”

When I feel this way, I find it helpful to remember a couple things.

First is to remember that Christmas, the way it is now, wasn’t always this way. Believe it or not, as little as fifty years ago in this country, Christmas was celebrated much like we now celebrate Thanksgiving: it was a peaceful, gentle, non-materialistic holiday centered around food and family.

For hundreds of years, right up until the mid 1900s, people did not begin preparing for Christmas until about now: mid-December. And there was a much greater understanding that December 25 was the first day of Christmas, because there was a greater understanding that Christmas was a season, and lasted until January 6, which is the “Twelfth Day of Christmas,” or Epiphany.

Oh, how things have changed in a fairly short period of time! Today, as some people often lament, we get our first “holiday sales” catalogs in the mail around Halloween. And now, mid-December, about the time our parents or grandparents were starting to think about Christmas – we’re being told to HURRY IN for LAST-MINUTE shopping. And on December 26, newspaper ads will beckon to us with their “post-Christmas” sales.

Part of me laments what our culture has done to Christmas. I feel like we’ve been robbed of something precious.

But – as I wrote in a “Faithfully Yours” column a few years ago – another part of me doesn’t want to become a “Pastor Lindley.” Pastor Lindley is the fictional character in Phillip Gully’s book, Christmas in Harmony:

“Though he was nice, Pastor Lindley had a few alarming tendencies, chief among them his sermons encouraging us to remember the reason for Christmas – that it wasn’t about presents and cookies, but about God sending his son to be with us. [As a young child,] I feared my parents might take his message to heart. I had nightmares about running down the stairs on Christmas morning to a tree with nothing under it, and my father sitting in his chair, a Bible balanced on his lap, smiling and saying, ‘Your mother and I have decided that this year we’re just going to thank God for the gift of his son, because that’s the only gift we really need.’”

Is there a third way? A way to avoid the empty commercialism and hurry of this time of year, and yet does not turn us into Pastor Lindleys or Scrooges?

I think so, and I think it’s found by remembering that the pressures we feel are from the way our culture is currently celebrating Christmas, not from Christmas itself.

And so the second thing to remember is that, ironically, the first Christmas was full of hustle and bustle. We tend to romanticize the manger scene, making it part of a fairy tale celebration where the “cattle are lowing, the baby awakes, but little Lord Jesus no crying he makes” and where Jesus, Joseph and Mary bask in the glow of candlelight and adoration. But read the story as presented in the Bible, you get a story that’s real…which is to say one we can relate to.

The way the Bible tells the story, Christmas is the story of a young, confused girl giving birth to her first child far away from home. That child is understood to be the Lord and Creator of the Universe himself, entering the world -- not in might or power or full-grown majesty, but as a naked, newborn, and vulnerable infant. And shortly after the birth, Joseph and Mary must hurry from Bethlehem and flee to Egypt because a paranoid king is plotting their child’s assassination.

And yet that story IS announced by the angels as “good news of a great joy.” Emmanuel, God-with-us.

In other words, we do rejoice at Christmastime, but not because we’ve had a good year, or because of the gifts we give or receive, and not even because we’re surrounded by loved ones.

We rejoice at Christmas because God is near, and in our midst….that God enters into life not in some ideal form, or into ideal lives, but just as life is, and just as we are, if we only take pressure off ourselves to create Christmas, and allow Christmas to be.


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