Christmas is huge – the largest grossing global festival. It’s enormity means, swept up and carried along it passes us by without containing all we wanted it too. It just happens around us. We end up out of control, our Christmas and our children’s, family’s and friends’ Christmases are shaped not by our choices and decisions and priorities but the priority of our culture and media and shop-keepers. It becomes about…about what?
How can Christmas not pass us by?
There are three ways that we can approach culture, including Christmas. Some things we might choose to receive – to accept them as good or neutral and enjoy them. Some things we might choose to reject – separating ourselves from them. Many things we might choose to redeem – to turn, adapt, transform, change, adjust, or alter for good and for God.
Caught in the cultural tsunami that is Christmas we can end up dead in the water – receiving by default, failing to redeem, rejecting what should be a priority. Whose the major figure for your children – Santa or Jesus? What’s your family’s main understanding of Christmas – a time to get, or a time to remember what we have received in Jesus? What is your major understanding of Christmas – a time to when people come and stay, or the time that God came to dwell?
We can take control, especially if we plan now. What can we receive? What should we reject? What (and how) can we redeem?
Redeeming Christmas – how today’s normal was yesterday’s radical!
Christianity’s great heritage of redeeming things for God and for good should not surprise us. It is at the very heart of the gospel: ‘For God did not send his son into the world to condemn the world (that would be reject!) but to save the world through him’ (John 3:17). Many aspects of Christmas as we celebrate it today are rooted in radical acts of redemption by our fore-runners. They took aspects of culture and turned them to be used for God and for good.
Here’s three examples:
There is no biblical data to accurately locate Jesus’ birth. December 25th originated in the reign of Roman emperor Constantine (AD306-337) who after a vision of Christ was converted and adopted the culturally significant pagan festival of Saturnalia to celebrate Christ’s birth. Saturnalia celebrated the rising of the sun from the darkness of winter. It parallels the Bible’s metaphors of Jesus bringing light into our dark world and light into our dark hearts. Constantine and the early church simply took the most important pagan festival of the time and redeemed it for Jesus.
The lights and baubles
During Saturnalia lights and lanterns were spread around a home in a protective hedge to ward off evil spirits. Sometimes gifts were offered to appease them in the hope they would leave your home. There are even stories of people leaving trails of gifts to the homes of people they wanted to curse, hoping to entice the evil spirits to haunt their enemies’ property.
Consciously or not Christians redeemed these practices, taking the lights and glitter and baubles and associating them with celebrating Jesus, the ultimate light of the world and defeater of evil. So decorate your tree with all the lights you want, string them across the mantel piece and hang them from the curtain rail in celebration that Jesus is the light of the world, the protector from evil. Use them not to ward off evil but welcome Jesus. Give gifts to celebrate Jesus, God’s greatest gift.
The Christmas tree
A pagan symbol of eternal life is the fir tree. As other trees appear to die in winter losing their leaves and colour the fir remains bright and living; eternally green throughout the year. The early church adopted the fir tree as a celebration of eternal life brought by God in Jesus, bringing it into homes and churches as the culturally familiar symbol of eternal life. The distinct cone shape of a fir tree meant ‘spire’ shapes symbolised eternal life in pagan religions. So early Christians went further and struck spires on top of their churches as a visual, culturally understood signal that here, in the church and its gospel, eternal life was to be found. Hence throughout every village in England (and much of the world) a pagan symbol for eternal life (a spire) is redeemed and rises high proclaiming eternal life is found in Jesus. And in countless front-rooms bright shining symbols of eternal life are decorated and enjoyed.
Courage and Creativity
Instead of unconsciously accepting our culture’s approach; instead of aggressively rejecting and segregating ourselves from culture; could we bravely, creatively, lovingly redeem? Our fore-runners had courage (because many would have questioned their actions) and much creativity (to see how these things could be redeemed). Let’s emulate that courage and creativity and be those who redeem all we can for God and for good. After all should Christians not be those in our society most wild about Christmas?
Called first to family
Of course few of us will have such an impact through our attempts to redeem Christmas culture that it changes the very fabric of how society approaches this festival. But how about our family traditions – ‘the way things tend to happen’. What is good about how things tend to happen at Christmas in your family? What is not so good? How can you redeem it all – turn the negative and the neutral and the positive so they are used for God and for good?
Neither poopers nor pacifists; but planners
If we are always those who ‘reject’ we become party-poopers – the kind of people no one wants around and who end up in an isolated ghetto of negativity.
If we are always those who unthinkingly receive we become pacifists – those who just go with the flow, unreactive to the world around us.
Being those who redeem means being planners – those who are intentional and purposeful and come up with all sorts of ‘better-than-the-alternative’ Christmas traditions that are loved by our families and friends, keep the Christmas magic (or better still the Christmas miracle) central, and point toward God and his gospel this Christmas. In essence this is what the church tradition of ‘Advent’ is – a period to prepare and plan so to make the most of the arrival of Jesus.