The more I think about Christmas traditions, the more I discover a strange amalgam of silly (but fun) cultural traditions, Christian symbolism, and unbridled consumerism. For instance, consider the following symbols of Christmas that would be unrecognizable in first century Israel: snowmen, reindeer, pine boughs, holly, bells, sleigh rides, electric Christmas lights, electronics wrapped in colorful paper and ribbons. Perhaps we can separate these things from “the reason for the season” or point to how they developed from the real gift of God With Us and the generosity of a real Saint Nicolas. I love a lot of these things, and I freely admit to buying a lighted garland to put on our mantle, and listening to Christmas songs that range from the profound (“O Come O Come Emmanuel”) to the ridiculous (“Christmas Don’t Be Late”).
Nonetheless, I am perplexed by people who fiercely defend these traditions and the use of phrases like “Merry Christmas” or “Christmas Party” as opposed to less specific references to “holidays” in the name of Christianity. To be perfectly honest, I’d feel more comfortable if a sale on sweaters at Old Navy stayed far away from my worship of Christ. I wonder if people concerned about the alleged “War on Christmas” are engaging in a deep conflation of Christianity with American Traditions. I want to suggest that while there is nothing wrong with bringing a pine tree indoors and putting some sparkling ornaments on it, it has little to do with the birth or life of Christ.
The more I think about the influences that go into the celebration of Christmas, the more uncertain I am about the appropriate Christian response. I think the holiday season helps me, in its best moments, to develop virtues like generosity and hospitality. I spend a lot of time thinking about other people, what they need and what they like, as I try to buy the perfect gift. I also think there’s nothing wrong with the things we associate with Christmas that have more to do with December at certain latitudes: piles of snow, snuggling up by a fireplace, time off work to spend with family. I think there is a profound message of incarnation in “In the Bleak Midwinter” even though I highly doubt the infant Christ ever saw any “snow on snow.”
I’m therefore torn between my affection for American (and global) holiday traditions and my awareness of potential syncretism. Christmas seems the time we most easily conflate our consumer culture with a religious celebration, a tendency that the documentary What Would Jesus Buy? highlights effectively. I hesitate to identify an advent longing for God’s peace with a childish anticipation of new toys. Around this time of year, I find myself in a difficult posture of enthusiasm and skepticism, and I wonder if those who aggressively trumpet Christmas as an expression of Christianity want to also cling to a harmless infant Christ rather than a challenging God who made a radical choice to dwell among us.
My current compromise is to enjoy the traditions, but think of them as separate from and unrelated to my contemplation of a God who became incarnate to save us, after centuries of waiting, and who is still saving us and will bring true justice again. But perhaps it reflects the spirit of advent that I’m a bit uncomfortable with my current state, and long for God to bring real peace to our broken world.