Dying to Preach
It is in the flowing cup that the cradle has significance.
The celebration of Christmas is not commanded in Scripture. For those of us with a high view of Scripture, perhaps this thought makes us wince. It should. After all, this un-commanded celebration demands more time, energy, and financial resources than any other day of the year, all expended to celebrate a day not celebrated in the New Testament. How did we get here?
A Smidgeon of History
Perhaps you know the answer to the question already, but it's quite simple. Ancient pagan holidays celebrated the winter solstice. There was also a tradition that celebrated the birth of the ancient god Mithras on December 25. By the fourth century, Christians robbed the day of its original meaning and changed the significance of the day when they decided to celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ. Since the date of Christ birth was unknown, this date -- the twenty-fifth of December -- was sufficient. Thus was born the "Christ mass," or Christmas. They took a pagan holy day and hijacked it for a Christian celebration. Again, you probably knew that.
What you might not know is how the Christmas season developed. Throughout Christian history, and American history, the celebration of Christmas revolved around a single day. Today it is a season that begins in late September and ends in mid January with after-Christmas sales. The idea of a Christmas season began with the advent of the Macy's day parade in 1927. Since it was the "Thanksgiving Day Christmas Parade," the implication is that Thanksgiving marks the beginning of the Christmas shopping season. When we say Christmas time, we mean the retail season. While Christian celebrations get smaller, the shopping season gets longer. Less Christmas more retail. I'm not confident Jesus is the reason for this season.
In fact, early Christians did not celebrate birthdays, they celebrated death days. They would stop to remember the martyrs of the church as special occasions. For the earliest Christians, Christmas was more about communion than consumption. Is it possible to return to it?
I'm not a pessimist. It's just that while I imbibe the frothy sentiment of what Christmas used to be in America, I must pan out to see a wider frame. My normal Christmas vision is a very tight shot of me and my family around the fire. However, As the camera pans out past the living room, even further where the guy in the argyle sweaters is holding the boom mike, and even further still so that my frame now encompasses all of Christian history, I see the truth in perspective: my celebration is contextualized within the last 60 years in American history. My Christmas is small. Christian history is large.
The traditions of being bludgeoned with marketing and 31 days of gluttony only go back so far. That's where I find myself. A father of two standing in the customer service line of history, wanting very much to trade in my country's understanding of Christmas for one a little more authentic; a little lighter and more adaptable to the future my children will face. The older, simpler version. Christmas 1.0.
The Freedom to Choose
Knowing that Christmas is bigger than the present Christmas season, I have completely lost the freedom not to do anything.
Truth always limits -- that's a part of being set free. And, at the same time, I do have the choice to decide what I will do with Christmas. What do I do? Well, here is option one. As the father of two girls, I could isolate them from all things yuletide; like a Monkish Grinch holed up in my spirituality - nestled far away from the materialistic mess of this world. When people wish me Merry Christmas, I will smile while I sneer, secretly wondering if they know the real meaning of Christmas. I become the lonely covert truth, singular in my understanding of the real meaning of Christmas.
Steven W. Smith is a preacher and author who is attempting to die in the pulpit and call a generation to do the same. He is the Dean of the College, and Professor of Communication, at the College at Southwestern. Follow him on Twitter.