Christmas C.S.I.

My posts of the past two weeks have generated some fun and interesting discussions around Christmas.  While I am not a fan of the “war on Christmas” rhetoric adopted by evangelicals operating from a victim mentality, I do agree that Christmas as a religious observance is in trouble.  My contention, however, is that the threat to Christmas does not come from a godless, atheist society, but from within — from Christians who really don’t understand Christianity and plug their faith into their lives where convenient.  When Christians don’t get Christmas, we can’t whine about how mean atheists and non-Christian believers are to our holiday.  There are three things that Christians have done, engaged in, or allowed to happen that we can blame on no one else.  Christmas as we know it today is exactly the Christmas Christians have created.

The three things I “blame” are these:

  1. commercialization — the process of exploiting something for profit or benefit
  2. secularization — the removal of spiritual and religious meaning from religious practices and observances
  3. ignoration (a made up word) — the intentional decision to not know too much about something in order to simply relax and enjoy it

Commercialization — A 1950s Evangelical United Brethren brochure proclaims “Christmas provides an ideal opportunity to raise money to pay off winter bills.”  In the 1930s and 1940s, churches were primary outlets for Christmas tree sales.  Some of the earliest religious Christmas decorations were manufactured and sold by churches.  Churches competed for sponsors to broadcast their Christmas Eve services — as early as the 1920s in radio and ever since the 1950s on television.  Coffee mugs, bumper stickers, refrigerator magnets, and a slew of other junk with religious slogans are a multi-billion dollar industry fostered and supported by the church.  Nativity sets were an early cash cow in religious American society.  Religious leaders were swept along in the profiteering spirit of the American Dream, and Jesus, Mary and Joseph were as sellable as anything else.  Sacrilege is sacrilege only until its price is met.  One Nashville church has over $50,000 in decorations it puts up at Christmastime — in a city of above average homelessness and hunger.  It is not alone — such Christian religious icons as wreaths, trees, twinkle-lights, snowmen, elves, sleighs, snow, candy canes, etc., adorn an estimated 55 million churches in the United States.  (At least the candy cane was designed as a shepherd’s crook — a way to commercialize the poor and marginalized from Jesus’ day!).

Before I get totally dismissed as being a crank, my point is not that we shouldn’t have or do these things.  My point is that our leadership in making such things happen equals a “seal of approval” on them.  Collectively, we have seen the potential to turn a profit by exploiting Christmas, and this is commercialization pure and simple.  The Charlie Brownian lament shared by millions before and since the 1965 Christmas special that Christmas is “too commercial” is our own fault.  Not only have we NOT opposed it — we have propagated it!

Secularization — This term is often used interchangeably with commercialization, but they are not the same thing.  Secularization has nothing to do with exploitation and turning a profit.  Instead, it is about reduction and limitation — the removal of things spiritual and religious from something fundamentally religious.  Communities that prohibit the display of Nativity scenes on public property want to remove any religious overtones from Christmas.  In fact, let’s say “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas” since we don’t know who we might offend by assuming they are Christian.  A growing number of Americans report that they want to be able to celebrate Christmas in peace without Christians burdening their celebrations with religion.  And the church acquiesces.  Not only that, it colluded.  A church pays for billboard space that promises, “A Christmas Eve Experience for people who don’t like church.  Come for egg nog, hot chocolate, cookies and carols!  No prayers, no sermon — a 100% guilt-free experience guaranteed!”  Jesus wept.

A church in a neighboring community has Santa, hat in hand, standing reverently in the Nativity scene on the church lawn.  One rural church has no Nativity scene, but they do have reindeer, a candy cane, and a snowman in lights in front of the church.  I saw a notice for a “Reindeer Egg Hunt” (!?) on Christmas Eve morning for children, and I cannot begin to count the number of churches where Santa will be stopping by to meet the kids.  It is rare to see a sanctuary without a Christmas tree these days, though we have tried to sanctify the old Pagan symbol with chrismons.  I remember a Nashville church a number of years ago sending us out into the bleak midwinter with a rousing version of “Rocking Around the Christmas Tree” as postlude.

Once again — making too much of a little thing?  Maybe.  I certainly feel Scrooge-ish bringing it all up.  But it is evidentiary more than condemnatory — it explains why we are where we are.

Ignoration — I heard this word in a Bruce Cockburn song and stole it, making it my own.  People prefer the myth of Christmas to Christmas.  We love the idea of the holiday more than the actual holiday.  Strip out the fantasy and what are you left with?  We want to sing “We Three Kings of Orient Are” and not have some smug twit (guilty!!) point out all the biblical and theological inaccuracies.  We don’t want to wait until Christmas to sing Christmas hymns — theological integrity be damned!  As I have been told many times the past two weeks by pastors — “People don’t care about that stuff.  They want four weeks of Christmas, not Advent.  They don’t give a flip whether there were three kings or forty magi or whether they arrived before, after or with the shepherds.  People could care less.”  (Unless it is about whether Mary was a virgin or not… then people seem to care…)

I made the mistake of mocking the high-profile pastor who preached about “the birth narratives from the four gospels” and pastors and laity from all across the land — including this pastor’s congregation — let me know how stupid it was for me to make a big deal over such an insignificant thing.  “It’s all in the Bible,” responded the offending pastor.  “Who said what doesn’t make any difference.”  Instead of letting it lie, I idiotically pushed further.  I wrote back:

Were we to take the first two chapters of Matthew and Luke out of the Bible and lay them side by side, not knowing that they were both about Jesus, we would rightfully believe they were accounts of the birth of two completely different children.  They have very little in common, and they contain so many contradictions and divergent points that they are irreconcilable.  Only because they are both attached to the stories of the adult Jesus do we find creative ways to smush the two tales together to make one story — and even then, the story we have contains a whole lot of padding that appears nowhere in anyone’s Bible.

It is one thing to be ignorant of something that is hidden, obscure or difficult to comprehend, but it is quite another to have all the information available, to be connected to a community that supposedly studies and understands this stuff, and then to choose not to accept the best available knowledge in favor of a version fraught with inaccuracies, inconsistencies, and outright fiction.  These same folks will get hostile at the suggestion that the birth narratives we DO have are parabolic or metaphorical and not historically accurate at all.  The only way to contend that these are historical and factual is via the path of ignoration.

The result is that we do not know our own story, and the most holy and sacred night in our ritualized Christian year is a bizarre monstrosity (bright, shiny, fun, festive and pretty, but a monstrosity nonetheless) of our own creation rather than a faithful celebration of the birth of the Savior of the World.

So what?  I am describing the problem, but what’s the solution?

  1. Pastors — do a better job.  Tell the stories from Matthew and Luke together (lectionary be jiggered!) and point out both what is actually there and what isn’t!  Set the context into which the Son of God was born — this means use Advent for Advent, and don’t end the story at Christmas Eve, but let it play out through Epiphany — make sure people see how these things are connected.  Oh, and redeem salvation from the private and personal escape from the wrath to come that modern thinkers superimposed on the story and preach the salvation story of the redemption, restoration and reconciliation of God to God’s people.  Make salvation big and beautiful again — make it be about all of us instead of individuals disconnected from the whole family of humankind.
  2. Laity — hold pastors accountable and stop looking for entertainment and pandering.  You get enough Frosty and Rudolph out in the rest of the world.  Get curious about Jesus again.  Ask hard questions.  Read the actual Bible accounts.  Look for contradictions and confusions then figure them out together.  Seek to understand why these stories exist and why Christmas was important to two of the four gospel writers — and while you are at it, figure out why it wasn’t important to the writers of Mark, John, Paul’s epistles and the later authors.  Oh, and check out the birth narrative in Revelation (just to mess with your head a little).  Have fun getting the lowdown on the real story.

9 replies

  1. Dan, I was born a Baptist but married a Methodist. However I am a chemist and always looking for truth in conclusions that can be replicated. Craig Venter (look him up on Google) has announced the following conclusion: We have started with a single cell fnctioning normally and physically removed the genome; the cell stopped functioning. They then replaced the genome from a laboratory that had synthesized it to be different.from the first genome. The cell resumed functrioning but in a slightly different way. It’s like taking an automobile and replacing the driver.
    This is a profound statement about life and the approach to synthetic life. Those people who believe in a paranormal component of life must not react by denying this demonstration just because it is directed at synthetic life in the lowest possible organisim.
    Please send me your reaction. H.F.McDuffie

    • Harold, if I am catching the implication, it is no wonder Christmas in the United States is what it is — we took the core and replaced it with a different core, and it is ridiculous to believe it could continue to function the same way with a different “driver.” However, I would substitute “spiritual” for “paranormal.” What drives Christmas is no less “spiritual” today than at any other time in history — it is simply a spirit and essence of commecialization and secularization. For me, the heart of the gospel stories of Jesus’ birth are less dependent on the supernatural aspects of the story than on the promise of hope for justice, restoration, peace and fairness in the world. Our salvation (biblically) is not escape from the wrath to come and the fires of hell; it is instead a rescue from all that which destroys and decays a fullness of life. Following your analogy, my feeling is that we replaced the genome of peace, justice, mercy, and reconciliation with the genome of individual entitlement, fulfillment, acquisition and comfort — poor substitutes at best.

  2. And how about tying Christmas to Easter–it is the beginning of the journey to the cross. I have had the realization in latter years that we compartmentalize the two. However, I must admit I did squirm at a Baptist Christmas musical presentation when one of the anthems was entitled “The True Story of Christmas” and included videos of the crucifixion and Christ on the cross. I guess I really wanted the “feel-good schmaltz”.

  3. A small quibble: “the most holy and sacred night in our ritualized Christian year” isn’t Christmas (I hope). Taking “night” at its word, that would be Good Friday, I believe–and certainly Easter is rightfully the center of the Christian year.

    But I take your overall point. I’d like to see you go further on the recommended remedies, which seem to center on the “knowledge” part of Christmas rather than the “celebratory” part. What do you tell the altar guild? What do you say when the parents want Santa to come to the kids at church (like he has for the past four decades)?

    Perhaps one possibility is to take the traditional nativity scene and move the characters around. Have the wise men walk slowly to the creche from a distant point, arriving in January. When people ask about it, it could be a way to open the conversation about the distinctions between the birth narratives. It’s not perfect (would still be a creche scene and Jesus would be portrayed as an infant still), but maybe something as small as that could begin to redeem our less-than-informed traditions?

    • Shannon – one year we had cut-outs of the 3 kings and put them on the church lawn – very far away to start and each week they got closer until Epiphany Sunday when they came into the church.

    • Shannon, please note that “ritualized” is there intentionally. Most church goers would name Christmas Eve as a higher importance to them than Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, or the night Jesus appeared on the road to Emmaus — all arguably contending for “most important night” status.

  4. Yours is an interesting view. I tend to agree that it is much easier, and frankly fun, to focus on the lights and glitter than to thoughtfully consider the true meaning of Christmas. I blame some of our behavior (I include myself as well) on the fact with live in a fast food world. Everything we do, know or believe must be prepared instantly and simply swallowed without thought to what it is we are eating or why.

    I must believe that God intends that we are more than what we have become and are becoming.

    I have no solutions – only thoughts and questions.

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