I suppose I could have written this column any time after Thanksgiving. In fact, there was a Christmas-centered event here in Powell even before we gave thanks and carved our turkeys. Americans have been complaining for years that the commercialization of Christmas was pushing the opening of Christmas shopping season earlier every year, but their complaints haven’t made any discernable difference. I’ve seen Christmas-themed displays as early as October.
In the last couple of years, though, I have delayed writing a Christmas column until just before the day arrives. By that time, we’re worn out by the commercial and secular stuff and take a deep breath. It’s not that the secular activities surrounding Christmas bother me. I long ago learned that there are two Christmases. One involves shopping until you drop, going to parties and going to bed early so Santa can visit. The other features the story at the center of Christianity. That’s not likely to change any time soon and that realization helps me focus on the sacred Christmas.
That focus actually explains why I have waited so long to write a Christmas column this year. Most of the pre-Christmas stuff is a distraction that stands in the way of really thinking about the birth of that baby. During the decades of Christmases I have experienced, the noise tends to ebb during the few days before the big day, and I can turn my thoughts completely to the real Christmas.
It might sound odd, but I have actually been thinking about whether we should continue to celebrate on Dec. 25. The real nativity most certainly did not take place on Dec. 25 or anywhere near it. There is no way shepherds would have their sheep out in the fields in the dead of winter. From what I have read, the real nativity probably happened in late summer or early autumn, so maybe we should switch Christmas to Labor Day. We could shop during warmer weather, and trips to visit family would be less likely to be disrupted by snowy roads and socked in airports are among the benefits of that change.
But we were stuck with Dec. 25 by the church, several centuries after Jesus was actually born. The reason Christian leaders picked that date is a bit uncertain, but the most common explanation is that the church took advantage of cultural celebrations that took place at the winter solstice. The days stopped getting shorter and began growing longer, and people celebrated the return of the sun. The sun lights the world, of course, and that fits right into the Christian belief that the birth of Jesus was the arrival of the Light of the World. The people were already used to celebrating in late December, so the church turned its celebrations into Christmas. The date is deeply embedded in our culture so we’re probably stuck with it.
However, there are Christians who think we should put less effort into Christmas, and some would even abandon it completely. A few months ago, I read an opinion piece in a Christian magazine — which I lost and can’t remember its source — that argued churches spend too much time and energy on Christmas and Easter at the expense of doing the church’s work all year. I have also read about churches that simply don’t celebrate Christmas. One pastor I read said he doesn’t celebrate Christmas because it isn’t a Christian celebration at all. He says many of our Christmas customs — the Christmas tree, for example — have their origins in the pagan celebration of the winter solstice. The Bible prohibits worshipping God with such articles.
I’m not sure I agree with his position. The major aim of the church is converting pagans into Christians, and if a person can be converted, why not a symbol like the Christmas tree? An object or activity may be a spiritual symbol to you, but mean nothing to me. The Christmas tree is such an item, so why should it be abandoned?
Still, these Christian critics of Christmas have a point. Christmas just about drowns us in a sea of activities and symbols, many of which are not the least bit sacred, and it’s easy to get caught up in the commercial and social events at the expense of the spiritual. Granted, Christmas leads to many acts of charity toward the needy or others in need of help, but those people have needs all year around when there is no Christmas spurring charitable acts. More to the point, people need to see Christians behaving like Christians all year around.
In a past Christmas column, I made reference to a secular Christmas song that we don’t hear very much, “The Secret of Christmas.” The song ends with the thought that the Christmas secret “is not the things you do at Christmas, but the Christmas things you do all year long.”
That’s something to think about this Christmas. I wish you all peace and good will during this holiday season and beyond.