The rear seating in our 2004 Yukon must have some kind of magnetic field that provokes good questions from kids. This week it was, “Why do we decorate trees at Christmas? What does that have to do with Jesus being born?” I don’t remember asking such sophisticated questions at age 7.
But at age 37, I have an answer. I told our precocious progeny, “Not everything we do to celebrate Christmas has to be Christian, as long as we keep Christ at the center of our celebration. Some of what we do can be merely cultural.”
But I remember there being a respectable, gracious military family in my church in high school who gave a different answer: Decorated evergreen trees have nothing to do with Christ, they said. Christmas is a pagan holiday, and we won’t celebrate it.
I’ve heard this argument go back and forth over the years. Christmas was stolen from the pagans; or no, it’s been stolen from the Christians. I predict that both arguments will enjoy a long life on social media (if “life” is what you call something on social media).
But I think there’s a better view: Christmas means what we mean by it.
If I have concerns about the celebration of Christmas, it’s what we modern Westerners (my intended audience in this article) have done with it. Not all of it is bad, but some of it is. If I want to teach my kids discernment, I’ve got to make some distinctions among the various things people mean by Christmas.
Christmas means what we mean by it
It’s helpful to view cultural artifacts such as holidays through linguistic lenses. Just as words don’t always mean what they used to mean (take, for example, a charged word like gay or a prosaic one like prevent), holidays can and do grow away from their origins. And just as a dictionary’s job is to tell us what gay and prevent mean today, not what they meant in 1899, a theologian’s job is to observe what Christmas has become, not necessarily to tell us what it was.
That’s because a theologian is supposed to apply the unchanging truth of Scripture to the changing world of circumstances.
So let me give this a shot: what do I think we Westerners mean by Christmas nowadays?
I follow the analysis of a respected teacher of mine who distinguishes three holidays: the commercial Christmas, the cultural one, and the Christian one.
The commercial Christmas is about buying stuff, which isn’t necessarily wrong: I surely hope people will take advantage of my own company’s Christmas sales, because I believe our product is truly good for people and for the church. And we’re not the only company on the planet selling good things worth having. Hey, I’ve got a wishlist; and I’m excited about the things I’ve purchased for my own family.
But of course the Bible warns about greed, and a faithful student of Scripture has to apply that command to commercial Christmas. A man’s life doesn’t consist in the size of his storage units. Christians therefore ought to have a wary relationship with commercial Christmas. It’s a very powerful force.
As is cultural Christmas. Christmas trees, candy canes, stockings hung by the chimney with care, family visits, poinsettias, green and red, holly berries, Frosty the Snowman, Santa Claus, bowls full of jelly—the symbols of cultural Christmas are numerous, and they’re ubiquitous. I am literally surrounded by them as I write.
What does it all mean? In other words, what do people mean by these symbols of cultural Christmas? I think Westerners, Americans in particular, mean nostalgia. The iconography and customs of this second Christmas are “cultural liturgies” whose job is to connect people to the past in an otherwise unstable world.
I think such things can be harmless and even beneficial fun—and the great majority of Christians seem to agree with me. There aren’t a lot of holdouts from cultural Christmas, and there haven’t been for a long time. Traditions bind cultures together, and in this fractious era that’s not so bad. Plus, the Christian symbols that are used in cultural Christmas—manger scenes, say, and Christmas carols—are evidences of God’s common grace preserving a testimony to his Son in an unbelieving world.
The commercial and cultural Christmases can be viewed through Christian lenses and practiced with Christian faithfulness (it’s a good thing to buy gifts for others; it’s a good thing to enjoy one’s benign cultural traditions). These two Christmases don’t have to run counter to the third. But neither are they doing much to help it.
Only Christians will and should be interested in promoting Christian Christmas. The Bible doesn’t tell us to turn Christ’s birth into a holiday, but it is one, and we shouldn’t miss the opportunity to form our own Christian cultural liturgies.
Now, we haven’t missed it. We have beautiful carols celebrating Christ’s birth (many of them performed and even written by unbelievers—what a world we live in), we have Christmas plays and cantatas at church, we have readings of Luke 2 on Christmas Eve.
I wonder if one of the healthy things we can do to preserve and promote this third and most important Christmas among our kids is simply to carefully distinguish it from the others. Let our kids know that there are three different celebrations going on at the same time, with some overlaps and some tensions among the three. This is not strange: it will always be the case when multiple people celebrate the same occasion. Point at a given symbol and quiz your kids; make them do some analysis: which of the three Christmases is that?
I think they’ll quickly pick up on the distinctions and start shouting them out every time you pass a different Christmas symbol while driving down the road. There’s cultural Christmas, Dad!
Your kids will pick up on not just what you say but what you love. It takes the grace of God for even adults to love Christ more than swag, to be more thankful for the incarnation than for a new gadget. God has given grace to our culture by preserving Christmas as a holiday; surely he will give believers even more grace at this time of year.
Mark L. Ward, Jr. received his PhD from Bob Jones University in 2012; he now serves the church as a Logos Pro. His most recent book is Authorized: The Use and Misuse of the King James Bible (forthcoming, Lexham Press).
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