This is a great perspective aligner on the whole issue of Christmas that has been going on this holiday season in the USA. I fully agree too – let’s get back to the core of Christmas and not get bogged down in the trivial.
I am nearly confident that if Christ were born in 2005 the brief verses involving the magi in Matthew 2 would read something like this:
Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, magi from the east arrived in Jerusalem, saying, “Where is He who has been born King of the Jews? For we saw His star in the east and have come to worship Him.” [But those who believed in the deity of the Messiah prevented the magi from worshipping Him because they were pagan Gentiles and did not call Jesus the Messiah but rather by the Greek name, Christ. Frustrated by their blocked attempt to worship the one who came to bring hope and salvation to all men, they returned to the east.]
The evangelical Christian movement today finds itself deadlocked in an ideological battle over Christmas. The American Family Association boasts nearly 3 million members and has an active campaign to put Christmas back into the holiday shopping season. Bill O’Reilly mentioned on The O’Reilly Factor that businesses should be thanking Christ for the holiday season that boosts their sales. Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert has ordered that the Capitol tree be renamed the “Capitol Christmas Tree” after it was changed in the late 1990s to the “Holiday Tree.” Never before has there been such an overt war against secularism at the holidays.
Satan is clever, make no mistake. It is possible for us to take our eyes off the deep issue, think we are fighting the good fight, only to discover we have our sights misaligned and are missing the target. Satan spends his time making sure Christ’s birth never gets the attention it deserves. How we play into that process is crucial to the bigger picture of the Church being salt and light to a dark world.
Before Christ was born, the ancient Romans had more holidays than any other culture in history. They were wild partiers who took every opportunity they could to drink, carouse and fornicate. In many ways, their religion was constructed around these opportunities to act like the gods they worshipped. One holiday was the winter solstice festival, appropriately named Saturnalia after Saturn, the god of farming. This celebration lasted from the Dec. 17 to Dec. 23 and was filled with decorating and partying. They even had evergreens that they would chop down and put up to celebrate the life of trees in the harshness of winter. This holiday eventually devolved into debauchery—so much so that the word saturnalia came to mean “orgy.” Early Christians coincided Christmas with Saturnalia to avoid religious persecution.
So where did the gift-giving and Santa Claus come into play? As early as the fourth century, Saint Nicholas, a bishop in modern day-Turkey, was known for a gift-giving lifestyle that benefited those who were impoverished. He once presented three dowries for three poor daughters to avert them from turning to prostitution in order to earn income for their family. There are also links to German and Dutch folklore that trace back to Christianity. Eventually, around the 17th century, these tales evolved into the notion we have today of Santa Claus. It is in the late 1800s that the commercial appeal of Santa Claus and Christmas took off to the astronomical economic figures we see today. It appears, unfortunately, that the birth of the Messiah has mostly played a backseat role to the mythological gods and folklore.
While the war we fight is ideological, we have apparently chosen to fight a battle over semantics instead of lost souls. Whether Christmas (from old English, meaning “Christ’s Mass”) or holiday (also from old English, meaning “Holy Day”) season is employed as the term of choice, Christians appear to have taken issue with the non-use of the term “Christmas” in stores.
While I don’t have an issue with the auspices of the debate, I think the larger war is left unfought.
Tell me, what relevance does Christmas have to a corporate executive who does not have a faith in Jesus Christ? Further, how do upset Christians appear to that executive when they demand that he recognize a holiday that he doesn’t understand or to which he doesn’t ascribe? As believers, why would we even want a corporation who cares nothing for the birth of Christ incarnate to capitalize on His observed birthday and name in their holiday advertising? Despite how duplicitous it is for these companies to fail to mention it altogether, it seems heretical for believers to demand that unbelievers trumpet Christ for financial gain.
It is as if the moneychangers returned to the temple demanding this time that the temple, be renamed a market. That idea is horrifying to us, yet we allow the celebration of our Savior’s birthday—the entrance of hope into the world and one of the holiest days in all of redemptive history—to remain commercialized and more about what Santa may bring the kiddies than about the hope of salvation to all our weary, wayward souls. We have let Christmas become what it is—an argument over semantics. Well, ’tis the season.
There are people who turn away and turn off the magi of today from worshipping because their corporate creed does not fit our warm, fuzzy sentiments about a holiday whose true meaning we only half-heartedly embrace amid the more tangible celebration of gift-receiving and merrymaking. We should be pointing them to the reason we have to celebrate in the first place!
Christmas is the celebration of the birth of our salvation. Unfortunately, it’s never been a holiday dedicated solely to its impact on all of humanity. Much of the debate today centers around the narrow-minded and hypocritical view some Christians take toward their perceived rights of ownership on the holiday season. It is almost as if we are trying to be recognized by the world for what we think, and in doing so, we have distracted everyone from what it is we celebrate.
My suggestion is humble and simple: instead of worrying over whether we call it a holiday season or Christmas—neither of which is actually historically accurate given, its unholy origins and current forms of celebration—let’s invite everyone we know to be magi, recognizing the star in the east, the Light of our lives, and coming to see and to worship the King wherein we find hope, joy, peace and life to all.
If we are fighting the ideological battle at its root—the heart—then those who disagree with our choice of semantics or holiday displays will discover that the hope we celebrate at Christmas is universal and relevant to all mankind. We will not have to engage in the battles we are in because our message would be more easily embraced this way. Not through attempts to strong-arm unbelievers into a faith they do not yet understand because they have not been invited to come and see the King for themselves. This year, let’s show them that Christmas (or the holiday season) is about more than an idealogical battle; it’s about a Savior.
Mike Parrish serves as the Minister of Students for Southside Baptist Church in Richmond, Virginia. He is a visionary communicator called to unite the Church by rethinking its strategic purposes in the world and teaching believers that they are catalysts for cultural change.