Christmas has always been a difficult season for me. As a pastor, I was adamant about Advent as preparation for the coming of the Christ child—knowing all the time that most members of the church were preparing for something else. As a husband and father, I found often myself at odds with the rest of the family about Christmas decorations, the amount of money sent on gifts, and the place and role of Christmas cards. I wanted to pare down the externals and keep focus on the true meaning of the season. That being said, I never found myself supportive of the effort to deride the use of the term “Xmas” by those who wanted to put Christ back into Christmas.
Recently a friend told me that she was celebrating the Christmas season differently this year by taking religion out of her celebrations. Her focus would be on enjoying the season as it is, instead of how it should be. This was not an anti-religion action; just a pro-Christmas one. I decided to follow, in my own way, what this wise woman had suggested.
So, this year I am consciously focusing on the holiday season without trying to make sure that I can shoe-horn Christ into the celebration. Instead, I am going to recognize the holiday season for what it is—a folk holiday with its own folksy stories, songs, and practices.
I am willing to acknowledge that the Christmas that I had hoped would happen in the past, was a figment of my imagination (and the church’s). In truth, the story of Jesus’ being born in a manger in Bethlehem, shepherds gathering around, and wise men eventually arriving from the east is also a folk tale. The Advent and Christmas hymns we sing in church are folk songs.
If we sing Christmas hymns in church during Advent—a definite No! No! during my tenure as a pastor—the world will not come to an end. Nor will a global tribunal be summoned to adjudicate the severity of the theological damage done to the kingdom of God.
So, I have started off by doing something that I have dreaded and or avoided for most of my adult life—I have decorated my apartment. My small tabletop tree has a prominent place in front of the fireplace. (It’s small enough that it doesn’t block the TV that is directly above it.) I recovered the ceramic Nativity set that my mother made in 1981 and it is the first thing I see when I come in from the outside. In the hallway, outside the bedrooms, I have a table covered with ceramic and glass angels. And I have a pine wreath on my apartment door.
Yesterday, our church bulletin had a listing of about 15 shut-ins. I, who has never been in favor of sending Christmas cards, will be sending a Christmas card to each of them. I have never been a big fan of elaborate lighting systems for homes during Christmas. While I can’t decorate the outside of my apartment, I am going to spend a couple of evenings driving around to enjoy the lights. Hearing this, my daughter asked if they could go along.
I even went Black Friday shopping on Thanksgiving evening—a No!No! in the past. As a result, all my Christmas gifts are purchased and wrapped. As a confirmed introvert, I often find excuses for NOT attending Christmas parties. No turn-downs or lame excused this year, I am looking forward to 5 parties.
Nativity sets, angels, Christmas trees, multi-colored lights, and even Advent hymns do not change the reality of this folk holiday. Children are flush with anticipation and excitement. Many adults are sad or depressed because of losses, broken relationships, or unfulfilled dreams. And then there are the multitude numbers of men, women, and children who are homeless or facing life-changing illnesses or other circumstances that will prevent them from attaining their fair share of joy and wholeness.
Experiment with taking Christ out of Christmas is not about walking away from faith or rejecting religious traditions. It is, however, an admission that the Christmas season is not under the church’s control—and it should not be. If Christ is to come, it will not be because we have celebrated Christmas properly. If Christ is to make an earth-shaking difference in the world, it will not be because we have deleted Xmas form the vocabulary, with everyone saying “Merry Christmas” instead of “Happy Holidays.” If Christ is to come, those of us who care about the Christ are going to have to be as concerned about that coming in July as in December. If Christ is to come, that coming will only be accomplished when those who claim to be followers actually do follow and treat life as if the reign of God were already here.
The good news of the season, my friends, is that we are not waiting for anything that is not already here. Whenever you show care for someone else—feeding them, sheltering them, or caring for them—Christ has come. Whenever you bring a smile to a young child, or companionship to a shut-in, or compassion for a family faced with illness or death, Christ has come.
What are you waiting for? Actually, if there is any waiting during this season of waiting for Christmas to happen in human hearts, it is God who waits—waits for you!