Some curmudgeonly and nostalgic thoughts about this “holiday season”

So, we come to the end of another long, long “holiday season” that now begins sometime before Thanksgiving and lasts until at least New Years Day and, this year, anyway, through the day after that. Let me say first that I thoroughly enjoyed this year’s “holiday season” because it afforded special opportunities to spend time with family. I have absolutely no complaints about the family or religious aspects of these holidays and the season surrounding them–except that it’s difficult to separate those wonderful aspects from the not-so-wonderful ones. And that the church-related events have dwindled considerably over the years.

This is a side bar but not a totally irrelevant one. I wonder how many people know that, for the most part, the Puritans and their religious offspring (up through the 18th century and some into the 19th century) did not observe Christmas at all.  To them it was a pagan holiday. There is some debate about it, but some historians believe even Isaac Watts, the great hymn writer, author and composer of Joy to the World! did not celebrate Christmas. (One thing I’ve learned from hosting this blog is that any time I make a statement someone is going to contradict it. So, let me say, yes…I know there’s debate about this.) Joy to the World! was not written as a “Christmas carol.” It was written to celebrate and anticipate the second coming of Jesus Christ and his kingdom on earth. (To me the lyrics sound very premillennial, but I’m not sure Watts intended that.) All that is simply to say that “Christmas” has not always been a holiday embraced by all Christians; many strongly opposed it. Even Luther condemned bringing trees into houses and decorating them. (I believe there’s a verse in Jeremiah that condemns it as well!)

Okay, back to my main message. I absolutely love watching my granddaughter (now 2.5 years old) enjoy her first Christmas–the first one where she actually understood some of what was going on. And I very much enjoyed the family gathering, feasting and gift-giving and game-playing, etc. What I DIDN’T enjoy was the extreme commercializing of Christmas and all that went along with that: near riots in stores (apparently there was an actual riot in the Mall of America!), crowds of people rushing around in the streets and malls and grocery stores, competition to see who can give the most impressive gifts (not in my family!), and, above all…Santa Claus.

Okay, now I know I’ve touched a nerve with some people. Fine…if you like Santa Claus (and the Easter Bunny), fine for you. I don’t. Thank God (!) the church where we attend now doesn’t have a man dressed in a Santa Claus costume come into the church with a sack full of little presents for the children and give a kind of “children’s sermon” and hand out the gifts. (Yes, that actually happened in one church we attended some years ago!)

It may sound petty to some of you, but I really do think Santa Claus is something we could all do without. This one figure, totally divorced from his original saintly personage of history, has become far too visible leading up to Christmas. The songs (“he sees you when you’re sleeping….”), the picture cards featuring him, the mall
“opportunity” to sit on his lap and have your picture taken with him, but especially…the deception aimed at children! To my way of thinking, allowing children to believe in Santa Claus is simply wrong–especially for Christians. What are they going to think about parents’ veracity and sincerity when they learn the truth? How many harbor doubts about God because their parents told them God and Santa Claus are watching them and then they found out (usually from a friend at school) that Santa Claus is a myth?

I was raised in a very strict fundamentalist (Pentecostal) home and church. Santa Claus was pretty much treated as demonic. That’s one thing I don’t regret about my strict upbringing. I don’t think I ever missed out on anything by not believing in Santa Claus. (And I’m sure I was one of those children who went around demythologizing him to friends at school!) And I know I didn’t miss out on anything by not believing in the Easter Bunny! We raised our daughters without those symbols and I am sure they didn’t miss out on anything important.

I’m not one of those (like my friend Rodney Clapp) who advocates Christians giving Christmas back to the pagans (the majority of Americans) because it has become a pagan holiday (again as it was in Roman times). On the other hand, I can respect that. I value SOME traditions and customs and practices of this overly long holiday season. I love our church’s Advent observance (even though that wasn’t part of my upbringing–we considered churches that observed the church calendar liberal or dead). I love Christmas Eve service. I love the annual Christmas concert we attend at a large church in the area. (We also attend that church’s Easter concert and twice now we’ve found ourselves sitting very near George and Laura Bush!) I love the warmth of family eating together, singing together and playing games together near the decorated tree and crackling fire in the fireplace. I love watching my granddaughter open presents on Christmas morning.

What I don’t love is feeling pressure to get “just the right gift” for someone and fighting crowds at the stores and in the streets, addressing Christmas cards (this year we didn’t do it!), putting up Christmas lights on the outside of the house, etc., etc. But all those things are minor compared with Santa Claus. I despise him and the way he has taken over so much of the attention that should go to Jesus this time of year EVEN in Christian contexts.

What I MISS is the childrens’ Christmas pageant at church. When I was a kid it involved Saturday practices, costumes, learning a “part,” getting “Christmas candy” in a sack after the pageant and..of course, the play itself. I was always relieved when it was over, but I actually enjoyed being in it even if only as a shepherd or casual bystander outside the “stable.” I also miss Christmas caroling. And it just isn’t the same without snow, anyway! I miss gathering at the church on a (usually) Wednesday evening hear Christmas and going out around the neighborhood in groups with little song books and flashlights, stopping especially at homes of elderly people and “shut-ins” and singing carols for them. We often went to nursing homes and the people there were so appreciative (well, most of them). And then going back to the church for hot chocolate and baked Christmas treats.

And I miss our church’s New Years Eve “Watchnight Service.” Does any church do that anymore? I learned as an adult that the custom was started by the Moravian leader Ludwig Nicholas Count von Zinzendorf in the 1700s. (He also started the custom of Easter “Sunrise Service.”) The whole congregation, all ages, gathered at the church around 5:00 PM for a potluck dinner together. Then we went to the sanctuary for singing and “testimonies” of what God has done in people’s lives during the year. After that we had desserts and fellowship and then (usually) a Christian film. I still remember some of those awful films like “The Gospel Blimp” and “Without Onion” and, later, Billy Graham films like “The Restless Ones” and “For Pete’s Sake.” Then we would have the Lord’s Supper and right at midnight the organ would play as people prayed “around the altar” for Jesus to return (or something). (I remember as a teenager praying that Jesus would NOT return until I grew up and got married!) At our church we had a post-Watchnight Service tradition of everyone going to homes of people in the church for late night/early morning snacks and fellowship. I remember falling asleep at most of those events as my parents and other church folks chatted and sometimes prayed together into the wee hours of the morning.

Over the years Watchnight Services became shorter and shorter–beginning later and ending earlier. Then they stopped altogether. I wonder if any church still has a Watchnight Service anything like the ones I enjoyed as a kid? Or any at all? I haven’t seen one advertised on the “Religion Page” of a newspaper in years. The same with Easter Sunrise Service. As a kid I experienced it as a highlight of the year for our whole church. We gathered around 6:00 AM at the church for a worship service celebrating Jesus’ resurrection and then went together for breakfast at the Settlement House (our little church didn’t have a basement or fellowship hall). Then we all went back to the church for Sunday School and another Easter worship service. I miss singing “He Arose!” Later, when I was a teenager, our church joined with other evangelical churches for a “Union Easter Sunrise Service.” Then, gradually, that stopped as well.

I wonder what happened to those special events that most evangelical churches enjoyed and that were so much a part of my religious formation? And whatever happened to Sunday evening services–those more relaxed, informal gatherings? I don’t know of any church that still has a regular Sunday evening service outside of rural and small town churches. In the last three churches we’ve attended those cozy Sunday evening services where people suggested songs to sing and gave testimonies,etc., simply stopped without explanation.

My wife and I were talking about these changes and came up with the theory that they are due to TV. Even good Christian folks can’t tear themselves away from Sunday night TV. (When I was a kid we had TV sometimes, but I never saw The Wizard of Oz until I was an adult because it was always on Sunday evenings! We didn’t have VCRs and Tivos to record shows back then. But we do now, so why don’t people just record their favorite Sunday evening programs and watch them later?)

All in all, I must say that I barely recognize Christian church life anymore–it’s changed so dramatically. Sometimes for the better and sometimes for the worse. But the most outstanding change is how little time we actually spend at church and how little we actually know our fellow congregants because, for the most part, we only see them on Sunday mornings. “Church culture” has changed dramatically. Does Christian life stay the same when church life changes so dramatically? I’m not sure it does.

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  • Terry

    “This one figure, totally divorced from his original saintly personage of history, has become far too visible leading up to Christmas….”

    You mean Jesus, right?

    The (overall) way you described Santa, Roger, sounds exactly like how many of our brothers and sisters describe Jesus. I think that is far more a problem than Santa himself and the cultural aspects of the holiday. Christians being involved or even celebrating with and in culture is one thing; Christians not living Christianly, and in the power and reflection of the King is another.

    • rogereolson

      Well, I didn’t mean Jesus, but your point is valid. I just don’t hang around Christians like that (i.e., who treat Jesus like Santa Claus).

  • Andy

    I enjoyed your memories of the good parts from the fundamental charismatic background that we have in common. I, too, remember falling asleep at homes or even during the watch-service. I remember one time (I was a teenager) they were praying as it turned midnight and I thought they should notice it was now the new-year. All I could do was nudge my brother and point to the clock.

    I can usually ignore the holiday chaos, but this year was worse. My kids showed me the you-tube videos of Black Friday crowds and my response was, “is it really this bad out there?” I think the videos woke me up, a bit, to the materialism that is out there. I think it jarred more than just me. I would guess that a lot of non-Christians were also forced to think a little in response to those videos.

    As for Christmas, while I understand the view of your friend Rodney Clapp, I disagree. It seems to me that while Christmas has certainly become very materialistic, it still is CHRISTmas and a HOLIday, and the world is forced to at least acknowledge the birth of Christ once a year. I can work with culture on this one. I kinda agree with you on Santa, though!

  • traveller

    Since I am approximately your age my memories are very similar to those you express in this posting. Times are different and change is inevitable. Nevertheless, I sympathize with your story and the final comments about the loss of community because of the passing of these traditions and gatherings. But I also observe that much of the concern about the situation in the current expression of church articulated by younger Jesus followers goes to this very point of the loss of community. While I doubt that many, if any, of the traditions we experienced as children and youth will return, I do believe there are new traditions arising that may prove to be as meaningful and memorable as those we experienced during our younger days. Yes, we are still in the transition period so it is difficult to know the ultimate outcome but I trust God will provide the wisdom and knowledge for good choices to be made among his people.

    On a separate note, I appreciate your books and blog and the work done by all at Truett. May 2012 be a healthy and joyous year.

  • Robert

    My wife was raised Christian; I was not. Both of us were led to believe that Santa Claus was a real, present-giving person. Both of us turned out okay. Nevertheless, before welcoming the first of our three kids into this world, we did make a conscious choice not to incorporate Santa Claus into our “holiday” traditions.

    Our concern was not that a childhood belief in Santa (or the Tooth Fairy or Easter Bunny) would presage some kind of permanent breach of parent-child trust, nor were we concerned that our propagation of the Santa myth would somehow result in a lifelong impairment of my childrens’ ability to discern fable from metaphysical truth. Our concern is simply that you cannot serve both God and mammon, both Jesus and Santa.

    Bemoaning the commercialization of Christmas is clearly beyond cliche, but it’s a dead horse that bears continued beating. The myth of Santa Claus, the gorging on treats, the (relatively) rich people exchanging gifts they don’t need and often won’t use, it is downright offensive when held up to the light of the gospel and in view the amount of suffering in the world. We need not all be martyrs, and there’s nothing wrong w/ enjoying God’s gifts, but it is a problem when Christmas becomes nothing more than an exercise in buying and getting “stuff” and celebrating a fictional character who gives people varying amounts of stuff based on their good works.

  • I did not tell our children that Santa Claus was real (1970s) for the very reason you have stated. Why make it harder for them to believe in God, whom they could not see? Same for the Tooth Fairy and Easter Bunny, etc.

    You are also right about church and the changes. I doubt that these changes can be reversed. The church is going to have to re-conceptualize, and the challenge is very great. It will really be a test of faith for a lot of Christians. If you have any ideas, I’d like to hear them.


    • rogereolson

      I’m very attracted to intentional Christian communities. Unfortunately, most of them I know I could not join. They tend to have too many strange rules. But the idea of Christians living in a semi-communal arrangements, living together as a church as an extended family, comes close to what I read about in Acts. Again, unfortunately, most of the ones I know tend to extremes of some sort. Somehow we need to find the balance between individualism and community. Whether to watch TV should be a person’s choice and what to watch should be between her and God. But addressing the pernicious influence of TV and seeking to counteract it through Christian education from a very early age should be the church’s task (in addition to the family’s). (Families find it difficult to do without the church’s help. I know from experience.) Close to where I live is a large intentional Christian community and I visit there often. I can’t help but admire their ideal of community, but I have some problems with the specific ways in which they work it out which seem to me too conformity-oriented.

  • Simeon

    What church is that you go to for these big Christmas and Easter celebrations?

    • rogereolson

      It’s called Homestead Heritage or Homestead Ministries. It’s Pentecostal-Anabaptist (a unique combination). I don’t go along with everything they believe or do, but their music is superb. This past December 17 there were at least a thousand people attending the annual Christmas concert including many of the prominent people of the community (judges, city and country officials, university presidents, etc.). Because the concerts have become so popular you now need a ticket to get in. The church also hosts fairs showing off their living history farm, craft village, etc., with great gospel music sung by several choirs, at Thanksgiving. They are open for tours and food (they have a great restaurant) M-S. About 45,000 people go there annually to look around, buy, enjoy the scenery, etc. If you have $5,000 that you don’t know what to do with you can buy a rocking chair made by one person by hand in their craft village store. They built President Bush’s ranch house in Crawford, TX.

  • Zach

    I’m with you 100%. I was really encouraged (and frightened!) listening to Walter Brueggemann’s NPR interview and how he so insightful remarked that the dominant narrative of our time is consumer capitalism. It’s hard not to see that in the way we do church and christmas nowadays, as you mention. I wonder how many pastors even make note of the fact that the birth of Jesus (Christmas right?) is about poverty, about how Jesus is divine and Caesar is not! In any case, Christmas (especially in our churches) needs to be deconstructed. Badly. And I’m not a deconstructionist!

  • Dean

    I was having a conversation with my mother about this last evening. She is 80 and I’m in my early 50’s. She was mourning the loss of the value of the church to more and more people in our culture. I mentioned that the world is much different than one of 40-50 years ago and that people have changed too. I observed that there are far more subtle and various distractions from the value of the church in these times and it takes diligence and discipline to choose the things that provide the deeper value. I’m learning to divest myself of things I don’t need to watch or read or listen to in order to plant deeper things in the soul. I think you are right…we don’t need the secularized and materialized version of special days but we do need the sincere substance of spiritual community and family found in traditions like Christmas pageants and Watchnight services.

  • Patricia

    My Hindu son-in-law was shocked by all the presents his children received this Christmas. He considers the Festival far too materialistic and I guess how we in the West celebrate Christmas doesn’t do much to support the message of the Christian gospel when so many people in the World are in such dire need. Not that middle class Hindus aren’t very often materialistic either but my SiL has always been an admirer of Mahatma Gandhi and the simplistic lifestyle, which he presumed was the Christian viewpoint as well.

    In addition to Santa Claus/Father Christmas and the awful Easter Bunny I personally find the American celebration of Halloween, which is spreading here to the UK, every bit as grim as the Anglo American commercialisation of Christmas and hate it when Ministers/Pastors invite children up to the front of the Church on Christmas morning to show off their new toys and gadgets. Not only do children from less well off families feel uncomfortable but it gives completely the wrong idea of the true meaning of Christmas.

  • Justin Driscoll

    Dr. Olson

    I have had a similar conversation with a few of my friends over these past few weeks, specifically about how to approach Santa Clause with my children. My son is five and my daughter is two. Without any encouragement or teaching from my wife and I the kids know all about Santa Clause. In fact everywhere they go, except for our church and our home, they hear about and are asked about Santa Clause. Admittedly we have not told them Santa Clause is not real, but have more or less ignored their comments about him. I think next year we will tell my son the truth but my daughter might be a few years off before she can comprehend the difference between real and fake. Either way thanks for pointing out some great thoughts about this time of year.


  • Agree with it all, think we need more prophetic voices. I struggle, not theoretically but actually, every year with what a constructively alternative approach is.

  • Fred

    Curmudgeonly is right…but I’m with you all the way. I too miss the sunday night services. It always seemed to me that those who attended sunday evenings were the most serious about their faith. Here’s an idea. On Superbowl Sunday, let’s schedule church at 12:00 a.m.

    As far as music is concerned, I go to a local mass. Catholics have our music beaten hands down.

    • rogereolson

      I once attended a church (Pentecostal) on Super Bowl Sunday. The pastor had placed a large TV right in front of the pulpit and closed the worship service in time (around 11:30) for everyone present to watch the game with snacks and everything. Needless to say, I never went back to that church! (But, then, I’m not a football fan anyway. I realize it is some people’s real religion.)

  • Fred

    Correction. I go to mass on Christmas eve.

  • Derek

    In a brief discussion today, someone thought that Luther was the originator of the Christmas tree but you refer to him as being against decorating trees. Any idea on the origins of the Christmas tree?

    I know this is a total aside from the rest of the comments which have been posted but was curious.

    • rogereolson

      I believe his comments against decorating trees inside houses is somewhere in Table Talk. No, I don’t know the origin of the Christmas tree tradition.

  • I am curious about one statement you made in your account of the church you grew up in: “we considered churches that observed the church calendar liberal or dead.” Why did you consider the church calendar (or churches observing it) bad?

    • rogereolson

      We were Pentecostals and therefore restorationists (in our own way). Anything NOT in the New Testament was at best suspect. Of course, we had our own traditions not in the New Testament. I didn’t say we were consistent! 🙂 I suspect the real reason for our antipathy to the church calendar was simply that “they” (non-Pentecostals and especially “mainline” churches did it).

      • Margaret

        I have really enjoyed this whole page. I warmly agree with your assessment of the way Christmas is (generally) celebrated today.

        As for consistency – John Donne observed that Man is consistent only in his inconsistency. Remembering that should help us to avoid taking ourselves too seriously.

  • I had actually never even heard of New Year’s watch services until my early 20s. My wife is from Mexico, and the first time I visited Mexico with her was for Christmas and New Year’s. That church still has a service, beginning at 10 or 11 p.m. I think, and I really enjoyed it. I miss it when we are not able to travel to Mexico for the holidays.

  • For a lot of reasons I can be in sympathy with everything said here. Esp. the commericialization side of Christmas. However, I like to think that the Christmas holiday affords Christianity a small window of opportunity to share the gospel of Jesus with the world. And what better time to do it than at this time of the year when the Christmas story has been blended into nearly every avenue of commerce. Literally wrapped up with a box placed on the top. I definitely am one who will use those opportunities for a “light touch” of seed planting (evangelicism) to begin future discussions in a more easy, natural fashion.

    The world is savvy to the commercilization side of things and the focus can more naturally be placed on personal/family themes; societal themes of charity, homelessness, etc; spiritual themes; you name it, its there to be talked about! And I like those opportunities very much. Pagan or not its what we are given by God to use.

    Now my Swedish background very much likes the Santa Claus aspect of Christmas… somehow its mythology got blended into the Christmas story for me at an early age and I feel no guilt over having a little fun with it. In fact, our Western world could do far worse in our mythological comportments than Santa Claus when I look around at all the paranormal TV shows and movies that I see… from pictures of hell, demons, vampires, to monsters and space aliens, to even sasquatch reports out West. Mythology can be used by Christians just like Paul would do with the Greeks in his time. They’ll never be an event in a cultural society that can’t or won’t be mythologized in some way. Apparently are technocrat/scientific smugness hasn’t released us just yet from thinking about the spiritual side of things… again, opportunities.

    At one time I was thought about writing for the biblical justifications of “Santa Claus” – themes of giving, charititableness, forgiveness, love, thoughtfulness, planning for other’s needs, generosity, and so on. Our kids grow up soon enough to learn all of society’s ill-favors and a spot of childhood fantasy isn’t uncommon when watching Saturday morning cartoons, reading to our kids children’s books of fanciful tales and stories, etc. If you begin to cross off Santa Claus then do we next do in Peter Rabbit, Mother Goose, Harry Potter (!) or whatever children’s stories you may wish to add to the Christian sanctification list of “good reading” approved by the Church of Christ?

    And what of all the fanciful tales we tell ourselves everyday when getting up, going to work, driving along the highway, having dinner with friends, playing ball on the courts, etc? They may be grownup tales but if God were to “pop” all those little bubbles of fancifilled delight that we tell ourselves I think we’d become very sterile, unimaginative, uncreative, uninteresting creatures. Perhaps even “beastily” in the sense of a humanity that has no room for dreams and tales and stories.

    Not all things at all times must be our version of reality and truth. Our society may not have as pronounced a mythology as the Greeks and Romans, nor the Mayans and the American Indians, but throughout history we see civilizations full of mythological distinctives. I think we can allow some for Santa Claus without getting too upset over its Un-Christian ramifications.

    I probably could go some further with this on the psychological/sociological level of things but I think its a start. And so, yes, I dread hearing Christmas songs sung by pop stars known for non-Christian songs, and watching Timothy Burton movies on the dark side of Santa, perhaps one fake church contata too many as they look beyond the needs of the immediate neighbors because of limited budgetary constraints (and hearts, I might add). But then again, what can God do with each and every one of these souls as they sing, write and act?

    I once had a friend who was on the original cast of “Jesus Christ Superstar” (one of my favorite rock operas of all time!) who came into an unbeliever and left with herself, her husband, and about 90% of the cast as followers of Jesus. Crazy. But a really good story about what God can do with songs and musical scores and production.

    So have a little faith. And like the Polar Express, “Believe a little.”



  • box = bow!