It starts every year, right after Thanksgiving, commencing with the biggest shopping day of the year and finally ending with the welcoming of a new year. It causes stress and intensifies family divides. Of course, I’m referring to the great debate about how (and whether) Christians ought to celebrate holidays.
Indeed, the debate about Christmas has become just as common and all-consuming for many Christians as the holiday itself, and for many this is by design. Beginning with Thanksgiving and ending with the New Year, many Christians begin a marathon of holiday abstinence, preferring the bare minimum when it comes to traditions, entertainment, and exchanging gifts.
Others find such abstinence to be nearly impossible, and seek to make the best of their situation by co-opting secular celebrations and icons and making them distinctly Christian in order to serve our own purposes and to quiet our own consciences.
Finally, many Christians spend the season in a funk, sent into a rage whenever someone at the supermarket wishes them “Happy Holidays” rather than “Merry Christmas” or when “Christmas” is spelled in the shorthand, “X-Mas”. The “War Against Christmas” is well underway, we are told, and we are losing. The fault belongs to those who refuse to take a stand.
It becomes very confusing and exhausting indeed for the undecided Christian to navigate through this labyrinth of opinions and passions, especially because this is not simply a personal choice. It is, in fact a choice that impacts those with whom we share Christmas. Those who abstain often hurt the feelings of those who expect a traditional Christmas. Those who co-opt Christmas often become stumbling blocks for those who despise Christmas. Those who become angry and agitated anger and agitate those around them.
God help the non-Christians, who tend to observe the entire mess with an air of amusement and aloofness. They have enough to worry about over the holidays. They’re glad they don’t have to over-think the meaning of every tree, candle, angel and mythical iconic saint.
Personally, I’ve had experience within every one of those ideological Christmas camps. I’ve had the arguments every year, each year my argument varying a little bit differently with the next. I believe strongly that the Christian ought to be willing to abstain from any sin which entangles and entraps us, even if our culture deems it good. I believe in embracing good and distinctly Christian aspects of our culture and the Christmas season, even if they seem silly to others. I also believe in doing so fearlessly, even if my distinctly Christian celebration may offend others.
Frankly though, I think Christmas could be so much more enjoyable and beneficial for us if we backed up a little bit and allowed ourselves a little bit of perspective. What if our unbelieving community, neighbors, friends, and relatives aren’t trying to steal Christmas, or change it into a completely secular holiday? What if a Christmas tree isn’t a pagan symbol or a metaphor for the cross, but instead just a beautiful centerpiece that reminds us of the holiday itself? What if Christmas is a Christian celebration with some elements that aren’t distinctly Christian or anti-Christian in nature?
In other words, what if what we’re raging about or abstaining from is actually just more examples of God’s grace to us? When we hold a sunrise service on Easter Sunday, do we complain that the sun is distracting from Christ’s resurrection? When we hear a beautiful love song, do we despair that it’s a godless pagan love anthem, or do we praise God for the existence of love in the world at all?
The way we answer these questions will dictate how we respond to Christmas, the culture around us, and the people we run into every day. My personal approach is to focus primarily on the gospel, not just during Christmas time but during every day of the year, and to see each and every holiday, celebration, and popular cultural event in light of that gospel. I mourn the fact that many in this world do not love Christ as they could, but I rejoice in the fact that they – that we - are shown grace each and every day by a Father that doesn’t hesitate to shower us with gifts – whether we appreciate them as such or repudiate them as idols.
This is my humble approach to the Christmas season. I think it may be the best one in this beautiful fallen world.