Christmas is a favorite time of year for many - full of hot chocolate, warm crackling fires, and the joy of gift-giving. However, this time can also be full of inner conflict as we wrestle to find the balance between retail Santa and baby Jesus. This dilemma perfectly illustrates the challenge of discerning "Christianity in culture." Many of the cultural traditions promote wonderful things, as do many of the very different "religious" traditions seeking to co-exist on the same day.
Over the years we have seen some incredibly creative solutions for this "dilemma” as people strive to incorporate Jesus into the cultural Christmas traditions and vice versa. These include but are not limited to: buying gifts for baby Jesus; decorating the cultural tree with religious ornaments; wise men riding reindeer; and many others. Some ideas incorporate the love and mission of Christ...and some are just silly.
Others see the situation as Jesus vs. Santa and find it easier to reject one or the other entirely, labeling them as too much in conflict to ever happily co-exist. On one extreme of the spectrum the most "devout" launch a culture war and reject anything related to the cultural celebration in efforts to “reclaim” Christmas. Some are inclined to destroy "Happy Holidays" slogans that "leave CHRIST out of CHRISTmas," call Christmas trees idols, and gift giving greed. Good ole' Saint Nick is condemned as a pagan and any church building outfitted in cultural forms of decor risks being shunned and/or verbally attacked.
On another extreme some feel unable to justify their Christmas dreams with the birth of the Holy Son and decide to celebrate his birth "every day," and join the culture party for what it is. Hundreds of dollars are spent transforming homes into the North Pole and include joyous family outings in search of the perfect tree to decorate together while dancing to Jingle Bell Rock. They drink peppermint lattes and stay up late watching The Santa Claus while wrapping gifts for school teachers, co-workers, friends, family, neighbors, kiddos...and a few extra for anyone who happens to stop by. Kids are bribed into submission with reminders that Santa “knows if you’ve been bad or good,” and the toy of the year is idolized. They may go to church on Sunday, but really this time of year is about Santa Claus, wearing red and green, Christmas lists full of wants, decorating cookies, and maxing out the credit cards in the name of generosity and bringing "joy" to those you love.
When Christmas is seen from this "Jesus vs. Santa" perspective, it’s as though we must choose between being a grinch or a pagan. Efforts to blend them into one can turn out as awkward as peppermint communion (Santa bowing at the manger – really?). Christmas gets a hard wrap because it seems like a holiday that was stolen from religion and replaced by retail, when its history is not that simple. I have learned to recognize the reality of Christmas as two different holidays struggling to co-exist on a shared date. It’s an important time of year around the world and like any other cultural interaction, it has some good things and some bad that must be discerned by those committed to following Jesus. Christmas is not about rejecting Santa Claus and other cultural expressions of this season, but about allowing Jesus to redefine the experience.
Christmas Giving Redefined:
Several years ago my parents began a new Christmas tradition. Each year they purchase animals from World Vision's gift catalog for others in desperate need around the world. On Christmas morning we open gifts and find a tiny farm animal figurine representing what was donated on our behalf that year. An included card tells the story of how this animal will save/change the lives of others that we may never meet but with whom we are in fellowship through this gift of generosity and selflessness.
My parents encouraged us to keep these animals in our pantries as reminders, which we did. Each time I reach into my fully stocked pantry, these animals stand guard to remind me of the life-saving value that one chicken or goat may be to a family. They also remind me not to take my abundance for granted. My parent’s gift to these families was food and life and to me it was perhaps the greater gift of heart-changing perspective and thanksgiving throughout the year. The joy exchanged though this kind of generosity impacted not only those giving and receiving, but a family on the other side of the world. Now that’s a gift.
For example, Geoff and I donated toward clean water initiatives through World Vision and presented the donation cards with wrapped Brita-filter water bottles as reminders of that gift. Each time I drink out of that bottle I remember to give thanks for my clean water and about the existing need for this vital resource in many parts of the world.
My sister and her husband went a step beyond and spent significant time discerning what donations would be the most meaningful for everyone. My brother and his wife opened a framed picture of their daughters as newborn preemie twins, and then read about the donation made to March of Dimes in their honor; nothing could have touched their hearts more at that moment as they reached to hug their healthy two-year-olds. My parents are passionate about fighting world-hunger, so they made a donation toward food-aid in their honor and wrapped a can of corn. Their donation in our honor went toward fighting human trafficking...and we cried the rest of Christmas. Best. Tears. Ever. These are only a few examples of the opportunities available to change lives this Christmas, at home and abroad.
The Christmas Opportunity
By doing this we give gifts to ourselves, those we love, and others around the world in a way that truly defines the joy of giving.If you don't have a favorite charity already, we are obviously fans of World Vision and their far-reaching global impact. Here is a link to start your Christmas shopping early!
World Vision Gift Catalog