Why is it that by the time we make our way through all of the activities and obligations of Christmas, most of us are more than a little exhausted? Is there another way to think about all of this? This piece originally appeared in the January 2004 edition of The Christian Current.
o here it is, mid-January, and with Christmas now a memory, there is finally some breathing space to think about the shape of that season. There will be some with fairly serious regrets; overspent credit cards, disappointed hopes, and a haunting realization that most of our families simply cannot bear the weight of the heavily idealized media version of the season of “good cheer.” For all that people claim to love this holiday, many end up relieved that they have survived more or less intact.
“Let the pagans have their holiday,” writes theologian Rodney Clapp, but I’m not so sure. “Let the pagans have Christmas as their most significant holiday. Easter is the central Christian holiday.”
He is right about Easter, of course. The feast of the Resurrection is ours; our central, world-defining proclamation of what God has done (and is continuing to do…) in the recapitulation of the whole of creation. But to simply throw in the towel on the feast of the Incarnation?
His is not a new suggestion. For long stretches in many quarters of the Protestant world, Christmas has been at least downplayed, if not altogether suppressed. Scots Presbyterians and English Puritans had the whole works outlawed in their respective countries, writing it off as being part of “papish” superstition. In England, it was the widely read and highly sentimental Christmas stories of Charles Dickens, along with the influence of Queen Victoria’s German-born husband Albert (who popularized the common German Christmas tree), that returned the holiday to a place of widespread acceptance. Not really the purest of pedigrees for a Christian feast day.
Of course, the roots of Christmas are not particularly pure… but they are, from an evangelical missional perspective, quite brilliant. When the early missionaries began to engage the North of Europe, they encountered the Winter Solstice festivals, complete with evergreen trees, wreaths, candles, blazing fires and food galore. These festivals celebrated, in the dark of winter, the promise of the gradual return of the sun. “Great festival,” the missionaries effectively said. “Great symbols of light and life. Now, do you want to know something about the true source of light and life?” And so was born a mid-winter festival marking the birth in time of the Light, the timeless Son of God.
Why would we give this up? Particularly now, in this society in which it is one of the few times of the year when a wider population even considers speaking our language and telling our story, if only in a vestigial way?
No, we formed this feast by wedding the raw material of a pagan feast to the deep truth of Christian gospel, and there is no reason to give it back. We should, though, work to reclaim our expressions of it as more clearly ours. Pay more attention to the season of Advent (which is actually more about preparing for the return of Christ than it is about getting ready for Christmas), and hold off on the marking of Christmas until December 24th. Once there, reclaim the idea of the 12 days of Christmas, which carry us through in festive mode to the January 6th Feast of the Epiphany, on which day is told the story of the visit of the magi. Resist the overspending and the over-sentimentalizing of the overly busy (and increasingly pagan) materialistic version of Christmas, and take our stories back. Worship together, eat and drink and play together, even exchange gifts as signs of affection and as reminders of the gifts of the magi. In fact, set a spending limit on gifts, and then actually have fun buying gifts within that limit. Take a corporate pledge to avoid Boxing Day sales, and a corresponding pledge to share food with a friend or neighbor or stranger who knows not our Christmas. Do what it takes to break out of society’s ordinary version, and into the extraordinary feast it all could be.
Who knows? Maybe next year, with your VISA bill in reasonable shape and your spirits buoyed from having shared food and story with that neighbor, you just might have found yourself enlivened, rather than exhausted, by this great feasting time. In an age in which we are increasingly a minority in the wider society, this may just be one of the most subversively powerful acts of resistance imaginable… and it is right at our fingertips.