A good friend of mine recently posted an attack on the “commercialization” of Christmas. While I trust that his heart is in the right place, I worry that his head is not. The following post is a response to him, but it is also more. I believe Christmas is one of the best things American Christians do. If anything, I believe we should celebrate it louder, and with more lights.
The Gospel in the Incarnation
We must begin with the most important point, as everything else follows from it. My friend believes that celebrating the birth of Christ is meaningless in a post-Christian world. We would be better served by preaching all of Christ’s life, and not just his birth. An Incarnation out of context means nothing. Christmas alone is useless, only the whole Gospel will do. It is this all-or-nothing desire to preach the Gospel that drives my friend’s critique of the holiday.
I would contest that Christ’s birth means more in a post-Christian context, and that the whole Gospel story is contained in this one event in a way that America desperately needs.
If America has a god, he is distant. He is a creator, though how he got creation to this point is somewhat uncertain. He is a god of love—that is certain. We can be fairly sure he wants us to act righteously. But he does not involve himself in the public square, for church and state must be separate. Indeed, he hardly involves himself in the church, since he equally accepts Christian, Jew, Muslim, Buddhist, Wiccan—even the sort of irreligious man who refuses to accept him.
The result is a god who does not intervene in the affairs of men. Poverty and homelessness cannot rouse him from his slumber; the cries of the oppressed will not bring him near. Let drug addiction and domestic violence do their worst, he does not hear them. Bigotry, hatred, partisan politics, these reign on earth. Let those who care build their charities; they do so unaided. God may commend them, he cannot help them.
Christmas says otherwise. Christmas says God Almighty does exist, that he does care. He hears the people crying out for justice, hears the cries of the oppressed, and he will not sit idly by while they suffer. God came down. And not only did God come down to set the world aright—that alone is fantastic—he came down to suffer with us.
He did not come as a king with an army at his back: he came as the child of an unwed mother. He came with the epithet “bastard” ready on his neighbors’ lips, for Joseph was not the father. Who was? He came when there was no room for him, and rested in the spittle-covered leftovers of a sheep’s lunch in the back of some farmer’s cave. He was sought by those in power, men who wished to kill him, and he was forced to flee into a foreign land. God became a refugee.
In the birth of Christ we see that God hears us and saves us, for he was born among us. In his Incarnation we see his crucifixion already looming backwards in time, because from the moment he was born, he was suffering alongside us. In a world of injustice, a world with an apparently useless god, the birth of the Christ-child is a powerful testimony. We should not be quick to discard it.
But my friend does not take issue with Christmas plain and simple. He objects to the way we celebrate it. He is tired of the same old songs, and suggests Handel’s Messiah as a richer alternative. Furthermore, in the bright and shining traditions into which we throw so much spirit and decoration, he sees the threat of idolatry in already idolatrous culture. Finally, he rejects the concept of a “season of giving,” saying that we ought instead to be in the spirit of giving the whole year round.
Hark! The Herald Angels Sing.
I should confess up front that I have a serious bias towards traditional Christmas music, and a much lamented inability to fully appreciate classical music. Consequently, I probably get far less enjoyment out of the Messiah than my friend does. But I don’t think this disqualifies me from disagreeing with his attitude.
One of the beauties of Christmas is that our culture, which is so suspicious of tradition, so ready overthrow the old in favor of the new, makes an exception once a year. Old and young find common ground in common tunes. We cease to be individuals tied off into the fashions of our brief decade, and become a culture that spans generations.
And those songs evoke emotions of merriment, laughter, and fellowship. It is this liturgical function that makes the “same old songs” so important. Like the back-and-forth of a familiar church service, the steps of a dance learned long ago, it leads our hearts down familiar paths. Every year we approach the season to be jolly, and these songs are played to remind us what that feels like. Do away with these, and Christmas is just winter.
As for replacing traditional Christmas songs with Handel’s Messiah, I admire the call to a richer tradition, but I am skeptical as to whether this is the way. Encourage people to go see the Messiah performed? Certainly. But Christmas songs are meant to be played in the background or sung along with, and the Messiah is unsuited for either of these purposes. To play it in the background would be to do it an injustice. Asking the average man to sing along would be an even greater affront to the majesty of the piece. As one of those average men, I can testify to that fact.
Popular music may not rise to the heights of the best that classical has to offer, but it is accessible, and it is flexible. If you want new songs and better, then compose them. Put them out there. In a few generations, they may become traditional. But one does not improve the tradition by discarding it. Throwing out the whole of popular Christmas music to be replaced by classical choral pieces does nobody any good.
Deck the Halls
My friend not only has problems with Christmas music, but with all the bells and whistles and hype we attach to it. He fears that giving a celebration like this so much attention, when we—as a culture—give God so little, is idolatrous, or at least a temptation to idolatry.
This is simply wrong. Lights and trees, caroling and mistletoe, presents and sleigh rides—these are simply celebration as it was meant to be. Moderns have forgotten how to party, how to feast. We have forgotten how to make much of something which calls for joyful traditions, for merry rituals, and for liturgical exuberance. We have forgotten how to deck the halls and lift up a glass of eggnog when the occasion calls for it. And the commemoration of our Savior’s birth is certainly a time that calls for it.
If anything, we should extend feasting and jollity of this kind to other places. Sundays should include decoration, feasting, and fellowship. The Resurrection should be at least as joyously observed as the Incarnation. What about Pentecost? Ascension Day? Why don’t we throw ourselves into these as much as we do Christmas? Our God is the God who ends the world with a wedding feast, and we are only really making merry on one holiday in the entire liturgical year. We should be ashamed.
Tis the Season
Finally, my friend thinks that the tradition of gift-giving, and the treatment of Advent as a time of selfless service and peace on earth, are wrong because the spirit of giving, of selflessness, and of peace ought to extend across the whole year.
In this, I think he totally misunderstands the point of holidays.
We go to Church on Sunday, not because the other six days do not belong to God, but because they do. We tithe ten percent because the whole hundred belongs to God. Holidays do not exist to restrict spiritual truths to one time of the year. They exist to remind us of something that is true year-round.
And this is why Christmas is necessary. God sends help to the needy year-round. He suffers with us every time that we suffer. He gives himself to us in every moment. But we forget. We lose sight of that. And because we are forgetful, because we lose sight, we gather together every year to remind ourselves that Jesus is Immanuel—God with us.
Likewise, we forget that we are to be giving, to be selfless, to seek peace and bring jollity to those who need it all the time. Christmas reminds us of this. It stands bright and shining and warm in the middle of the cold, dark winter so that we will not forget how God has treated us, and how we ought to treat others.
Christmas is the most powerful holiday in the American calendar, and is easily the most explicitly Christian in ways Easter long ago ceased to be. We pack so much emotion into this season that still features crèches, Christian carols, and even performances of Handel’s Messiah. It is a powerful testament to the love of the Father, and a picture of how God’s people ought to be the whole year round. For a brief moment in the middle of winter, heaven descends to earth, peace and goodwill reigns among men.
If our culture has a problem, it is too little Christmas, not too much.
This Christmas I will not be toning down my celebration, but ramping it up.
“Joy to the world, the Lord is come.
Let earth receive her king.”
And when she does, let it be with fanfare.