Re-Inventing Christmas

Re-InventingChristmas

It’s “the season” – the time of all things Christmassy. My house is decorated to an acceptably-low standard, my pants are cutting into my cookie-consumer waist, Nat King Cole is crooning a Yule-tide tune on Pandora. It’s beginning to look a LOT like Christmas.

And yet, people are complaining about “the war against Christmas”. Apparently, materialism and Santa are trying to edge in against Christ’s rightful place in the season. They will know we are Christians by the way we don’t say “Happy Holidays”, and all that. As with many of the culturally “big” holidays, I have some mixed feelings about it.

christmasgiftsPersonally, we have not told our kids about Santa. This decision also means I need to give my 6 year old a “don’t tell the other kids that Santa isn’t real and make them cry” pep talk before she goes for play dates at this time of the year. So far though, we are doing okay. Santa stories and Santa hats are fun, but there are no gifts from Santa under our tree. We do have a tree. We will eat ham. We will sing carols and go to a Christmas Eve service. We will exchange gifts. We will read the story of Jesus’ birth out loud to our children, and thank God for the gift of Emmanuel.

But having said all that, I’m still not willing to “defend” the Christian Christmas, because as far as I understand – we kind of invented it anyway. And rather than fight for Christmas “as it used to be” in the beginning, I want to put my energies into re-inventing it in the present.

Before you throw a candy cane in my direction, let me explain.

Believers have a long history of  ascribing spiritually significant meaning to celebrations. We are by nature people who look for meaning throughout the calendar. We celebrate rites of passage and comings-of-age. There are things we are commanded to remember (like taking communion), but there are also things we have the freedom to commemorate and remember, and to invest such acts with culturally significant meaning. Humanity has a history of creating traditions and turning them into “teachable moments” for the years to come. We do it in families (think of birthdays), in countries (think of Thanksgiving), in politics (think of MLK day). And we do it in spiritual communities too.

In his relationship with Israel, God commanded a number of specific “commemorative” festivals in their calendar to focus their attention and center their community. They were to remember the Exodus over Passover. They were to remember their need for the forgiveness of sin at Yom Kippur with the Day of Atonement. There were feasts for remembrance and celebration, commanded by God and commemorated by his people.

purim Over and above the mandated ones, though, the Hebrews also added festivals of celebration to their calendar. Both Hannukah and Purim were established by Rabbinic decree to commemorate significant times of deliverance.   The feast of Purim (for the Hebrew word “pur”, which means “lot”, as in “the casting of the lots”, as in “it was a risky thing”) celebrates the deliverance of the Jewish people which is recorded in the book of Esther. While God’s name is not mentioned in the book, it is included in the Canon of Scripture and God was clearly and rightly credited for having providentially raised up Esther “for such a time as this” in order to save his people.

Esther 9:20-28 records how Purim was established:

Mordecai recorded these events, and he sent letters to all the Jews throughout the provinces of King Xerxes, near and far, 21 to have them celebrate annually the fourteenth and fifteenth days of the month of Adar 22 as the time when the Jews got relief from their enemies, and as the month when their sorrow was turned into joy and their mourning into a day of celebration. He wrote them to observe the days as days of feasting and joy and giving presents of food to one another and gifts to the poor.

23 So the Jews agreed to continue the celebration they had begun, doing what Mordecai had written to them. 24 For Haman son of Hammedatha, the Agagite, the enemy of all the Jews, had plotted against the Jews to destroy them and had cast the pur (that is, the lot) for their ruin and destruction. 25 But when the plot came to the king’s attention, he issued written orders that the evil scheme Haman had devised against the Jews should come back onto his own head, and that he and his sons should be impaled on poles. 26 (Therefore these days were called Purim, from the word pur.) Because of everything written in this letter and because of what they had seen and what had happened to them, 27 the Jews took it on themselves to establish the custom that they and their descendants and all who join them should without fail observe these two days every year, in the way prescribed and at the time appointed. 28 These days should be remembered and observed in every generation by every family, and in every province and in every city. And these days of Purim should never fail to be celebrated by the Jews—nor should the memory of these days die out among their descendants.

Purim celebrates God’s rescue, but it was believing Jews who took the initiative to remember it.

I see Christmas as our own kind of “Purim”. God did not command and create Purim – His thankful children did as a way to remember and honor him. And just as Purim was “invented” by the Jews to remember God’s deliverance during the time of Queen Esther, maybe there is space for us to affirm that it is okay to have “invented” Christmas, even though it had Pagan origins. Yes, Christmas has Yule-tide origins around the pagan  winter solstice. Yes, Saturnalia, Juvenalia and Mithra the sun god have longer cultural credentials for the month of December than Jesus, who most certainly was NOT born on December 25th.

But, in a way similar to Mordecai, perhaps, Pope Julius I decreed that once a year, on December 25th, the church should remember and celebrate the wonderful truth that God had come to earth: born of a virgin, born as a baby, born under the law to redeem those who were bound by it.

Christmas celebrates God’s rescue, but believing Christians took the initiative to remember it.

Year by year, following the saints who have gone before us, we choose to invest December with meaning and set aside time to remember the wonder of the incarnation. When we choose a time of year to give gifts (and remember the Gift), to decorate trees (and remember the Shoot from the stump of Jesse), to put up stars (and remember the Star) and hang wreaths – we are not being cheesy cultural plagiarists. Rather, we are doing what people of Faith have done through the ages: using our freedom and creativity to create space for us to remember, to celebrate and to give thanks.

 

(Updated from the archives)

 

Who put the X in Xmas?

who put the x in Christmas?

I have a page of notes in front of me: preparation for a talk from the Psalms and the Gospel of John. The page is full of tiny writing, and – in keeping with the shorthand custom I learned while at seminary – has no small amount of X’s and Θ’s.

Why?

The Greek word for God is ΘΕΟΣ (Theos), and so I write the first letter, a Theta (Θ) as a shorthand for God.

Similarly, the Greek word for Christ is ΧΡΙΣΤΟΣ (Christos), and so I write the first letter, a Chi (Χ) as a shorthand for Christ.

The Early Christians did the same thing. The reason that the Fish became an emblem for early Christianity was not because of the large number of fisherman among the early disciples. The reason early Christians identified with a fish was because it had credal value. The Greek word for fish, ΙΧθΥΣ (Ichthus, from which we get ichthyology, the study of fish), also became an acronym for the foundational truths of the faith. The early Christians were the ones who believed in Jesus Christ, the Son of God (and) Savior).

In Greek, you would write those words this way:

IΕΣΥΣ (Jesus)

ΧΡΙΣΤΟΣ (Christ)

θΕΟΥ (of God)

ΥΙΟΣ (Son)

ΣΩΤΗΡ (Savior)

Put the first letters together… and it spells “fish”.

ichthus

So, this is just to say that I’m one of those Christians who has a list in my house that say “Xmas presents”. And I mean nothing but honor in writing it this way.

Just in case anyone was wondering.

 

Photo Credit: Jim – Ixthus door at Brite (Flickr Creative Commons)

Sliding in socks

I have fond childhood memories of sock-sliding competitions. With feet clad in our slipperiest socks, we would launch ourselves at one end of the long, wooden passage way, and run furiously down the length of the passage. About two-thirds of the way came the tricky part: stopping running, throwing your balance slightly backwards, and skid-sliding the rest of the way into the kitchen.

sock_sliding_by_eollica

This Christmas feels a little like I’m sliding in socks. There was frenetic activity, bursts of bustling behavior, but now I feel I’ve stopped running, I’m leaning slightly backwards, and I’m sliding into Christmas-base. I’m not moving, but I’m in motion. It feels like cheating. But there was enough momentum in the weeks past that now I get to “slide” into Christmas with relatively little effort the day before.

Also, I’m wearing socks.

Tonight is Christmas eve and we will eat ham. We have three desserts and one vegetable planned (because, priorities). Tomorrow, there will be sugar, carbs, and gifts. Most of those are joyfully given to and joyfully received by our children. There are a few gifts for the adults. My husband, noticing the dearth of gifts for me, stole off with our eldest on Sunday to add a few Mommy-treats to the pile.

I love that he did that, but truth be told, he didn’t need to. As I’m enjoying the final wheeeeeeeeee slide-int0-Christmas, I’m aware of so many (unwrapped) (invisible) (precious) gifts under my proverbial tree. I’m thankful for my family, my friends, for home and hearth, for ice-cream and laughter.

But this year I spy some new gifts under my blessing tree: a new community of friends and writers through Redbud, whose wisdom and encouragement mean so very much. I have readers (!!! this still amazes me!!), whose generosity and comments keep me writing. I have new followers friends on Twitter, whose insight and humor enrich my days. This year, I count an online community of thinking, laughing, challenging friends among my gifts.

And for all these, I thank my God, who is the Giver of every good and perfect gift.

Merry Christmas, everyone. May this Christmas rock your socks.

Photo credit: Eollica

Fear Not!

I am thrilled to introduce my friend and fellow Redbud writer Dorothy Greco to you. I love Dorothy’s thoughtful and thought-provoking writing, and her photos are just… well…. breath-taking. She is a regular contributor at Gifted for Leadership, and her work has appeared at RELEVANT, Christianity Today, Abingdon Women and more . You can visit her online at dorothygreco.com, and follow her on Facebook and Twitter.

angel fear not

Americans generally don’t associate fear with Christmas. We tend to sanitize and commercialize the holiday, throwing in omniscient Santas and schmaltzy music for good measure. Even when we dramatize the Nativity, it’s safe and tidy with the generous magi showing up like long forgotten uncles. But there’s more to this narrative–and that more is far from safe.

The back story could easily earn an R rating and instill fear in the most courageous of souls: angelic visitations, high risk pregnancies, a last minute escape, a jealous king, and the infanticide of baby boys. Mary, Joseph, and Zechariah were not the only ones who needed to hear, Gabriel’s word, “Do not be afraid!”

Two things strike me about the angel’s exhortation. First, God understands humanity’s innate tendency to gravitate toward fear. And second, there’s an unspoken implication that choosing not to fear is an actual option.

I haven’t always felt like I’ve had a choice in this matter. Raised in a home with an alcoholic parent, there was a notable lack of predictability which left me grasping for control. As a coping mechanism, I developed the sensitivity of a deer grazing in broad daylight–ever poised to retreat at the slightest indication of a coming storm. Eventually, that hyper-vigilance became as much a part of me as my dimples and brown hair.

Regardless of our upbringing, few of us have entered adulthood without witnessing or experiencing at least a few frightening events. Accidents, health crises, and large scale tragedies (such as 9/11 or the Boston Marathon bombing), all leave fault lines. For some of us, fear gets normalized due to years spent living in crime-ridden neighborhoods or being in abusive relationships.

Though each of us has unique histories with fear, our bodies respond in a similar fashion. Adrenaline surges, the heart goes into overdrive, muscles contract, body temperature drops, and organs deemed unnecessary for fight or flight (like the stomach) essentially shut down. And if fear persists, it impacts far more than our adrenal systems; it seeps into our souls and conditions our expectations. For some veterans, the simple sound of a car’s backfire can send them into a reflexive drop and roll.

So, was Gabriel onto something? Do we have a choice or is fear simply a chemical chain reaction–a byproduct of evolution–and therefore beyond our control? Based on my own life experiences and my understanding of Scripture, I think we can actually take back some of the territory lost to fear.

We first have to learn to recognize what fear looks like in our lives. For most of us, fear is connected to everyday worries. In contrast, many of the 40 million American adults who suffer from diagnosed anxiety disorders can recognize fear with their eyes closed because the anxiety they experience is far more acute. Understandably, some of these individuals organize their days to keep a safe distance from their personal cliffs.

But fear has many manifestations, some of which are difficult to identify. Sometimes it’s connected to a specific place (the dentist’s office) or activity (flying), but not always. In our current culture, most of us unreflectively say we’re “stressed” without piecing together that stress is little more than a euphemism for fear. In my own life, I’ve done some risky things (like sleeping under a highway overpass with runaway teens) and regularly enjoy the #1 fear on most people’s lists: public speaking. However, I continue to do hand to hand combat with fear on a routine basis.

Take last summer’s vacation. While in Zion National Park, our sons wanted to do the Angel’s Landing hike which has multiple dire warnings; “Not recommended for anyone fearful of heights. This hike has sheer drop offs.” My fear based imagination envisioned a sudden gust of wind pushing them over the edge. I tried to dissuade them but when that failed, I prayed non-stop until they re-appeared over the ridge.

This tendency to catastrophize, to expect the worst case scenario, has been with me as long as I can remember. While it’s impossible to discern exactly where it came from, I am convinced it has spiritual dimensions. It’s as if the enemy notices my moments of vulnerability, sidles up to me, and tries to convince me that my Father is not who He claims to be and is therefore, not to be trusted. Isn’t this the same tactic Satan took with Adam and Eve?

Paul wrote, “For God has not given us a spirit of fear and timidity, but of power, love, and self-discipline.” For us to walk in that power, love, and self-discipline, we need to ruthlessly part company with fear. In my own life, this has meant confessing any and all faulty theology. If I begin to doubt God’s advocacy or love for me, I recall Jesus’s willingness to come to earth and die on my behalf. If the fear persists, I’ll address it directly; “In Jesus name, I rebuke you spirit of fear. Go to the cross.”(It’s counter cultural and won’t necessarily endear you to the random person standing next to you in the elevator, but trust me, it’s effective.)

While we all need some measure of healthy fear to keep us from stepping in front of a moving train, I believe that God wants us to appropriate Christ’s resurrection power whenever we feel limited or constrained by fear. If that’s the case, Gabriel’s exhortation to “Fear not!” is just as relevant–and comforting–for us today as it was for Joseph, Mary, and Zechariah two thousand years ago.

Please Note: For those of you who have diagnosed anxiety disorders, this does not mean that battling in the spiritual realm will erase the valid benefits you receive from your therapeutic work and/or prescribed medications.

Martha Stewart and The Ghost of Christmas

 

Martha Stewart & The Ghost of Christmas Present

Confession: I am not one of those people who LOVES Christmas. I like Christmas, and I have good memories of family holidays and piles of gifts and too much food… but I was not one of those girls who just-couldn’t-wait to have a home of my own to turn into our personal winter wonderland each year. Much of this may have to do with the fact that I grew up in the Southern Hemisphere and our most popular Christmas Day activity was to go swimming at the beach, but I digress…

Our first Christmas as a married couple was spent in the USA, and it was the first year I felt the pressure to wave my Christmas wand and magically produce sparkle and memories and happiness in the living room. As it turned out, my Christmas wand had been snapped in two by the purse-string Grinch: we were broke. And Christmas sparkle costs. And even if we hadn’t been broke, I still don’t think I could have made it happen. Pinterest had not yet been invented, but I was already intimidated by it.

My knee-jerk reaction to the pressure was to boycott the whole thing. We don’t celebrate Valentines Day, we don’t decorate for the seasons – we could just add “not decorating for Christmas” to the list of ways in which I am Not Like Martha Stewart. (Also, I don’t bake brownies from scratch. And I can’t fold a fitted sheet, even though I watched the video a dozen times. And I don’t iron. Ever. That handsome genius going to a meeting in a crumpled shirt would be my husband. Sorry.)

But back to Christmas: in my heart of hearts I didn’t want to boycott it. I wanted a Christmas tree. No, I wanted a FABULOUS Christmas tree. I wanted something in my living room that would bring warmth to my hearth and literally put a twinkle in my eye. I wanted people who visited our little house to take a deep breath when they walked in and to say: “Wow! It’s Christmas in here! Your tree is gorgeous – I LOVE it!”

And that was when I realized what the problem was: I had been thinking about Christmas decorating as if it were for the guests who walked into our house. I was decorating so that OTHERS would love and admire it. I was looking for arts-and-crafty affirmation from friends, and feeling all tied up in knots because I KNOW I’m not arts-and-crafty enough to outbow outdecorate and outglitz anyone on Survivor Christmas Island.

It was at about 2am one December morning, as I sat nursing my firstborn child in a sleep-deprived haze, that the Ghost of Christmas Present gently pointed me in a better direction. I had been decorating with the hope that OTHERS would love it, and feeling frustrated that it wasn’t gorgeous enough and simultaneously snarky that I didn’t want to decorate anyway.

20131201-214304.jpgBut as I looked at our rustic (read: cheap) Christmas tree with its dim and gentle lights that morning – I LOVED it in all its quirky and quaint oddity, and the Ghost spoke to me: This is how you decorate. You decorate because YOU love it, and because those you love will love it. Decorate for your joy, for your family’s joy, and screw the rest.

Sometimes, the Ghosts of my imagination are quite rude. Occasionally, they are quite wise too.

The grinch has been fired, and Christmas decorating is no longer the emotional burden it was. Just as I can embrace that my house is not messy (I prefer to think of it as “well loved”), so too my house is not particularly Christmas-pretty. However, it IS decorated, and since I’ve set the bar really low, I always clear it.

Yesterday we dragged the Christmas tree down from the attic with our box of decorations. The kids put their less breakable art-project ones at the bottom, and we hung the glassy baubles at the top. Drape lights, affix star, and VOILA! Christmas in my house. We had a blast. The lights make me happy. We hung stockings on the banister. There is a wreath on the door. And we are DONE. Regardless of what anyone else thinks when they walk through the door, the important thing is that when WE come into our house we say “Wow! It’s Christmas in here! It’s home and we LOVE it!”

And you know what, friends? It is. And we do. Ghosts: be gone.

It’s Halloween, and I’m Confused

*Sigh* It’s Halloween, and I’m confused. Maybe conflicted would be a better word.

On the one hand: It’s Halloween and I want to belong. It’s the one day of the year when our neighbors open their doors to us, and knock on our door in return. It’s our annual opportunity to pound the pavement with our community: to admire cute littles, to exchange names and pleasantries.

I’m all about chocolate, and believe me – I’m all about dress-up.

A very pregnant Halloween. And yes, that's body paint.

Yes, that is body paint. I LOVE imagination, fancy dress, and I love community. I don’t want our kids to be the ones who say “sorry, we don’t do that”, or to skip a day of school in protest. In general, I’m one who looks for opportunities to engage with people and culture: to do so with love, grace and wisdom. But I’m a little lacking on wisdom on this one.

Because for all that I want us to use this opportunity to connect with our community, Halloween is also something I really don’t want to belong to. The decorations are grizzly: bats, witches, spiders webs, zombies and graveyards. Blood, slime and skeletons. They ALL fail the Philippians 4:8 test of things that are lovely, admirable, excellent, honorable and praiseworthy.

More than just unpleasant and unlovely, the themes are downright terrifying. My children are not yet at the age where they want to go to Halloween parties where the threat of horror movies looms large, but already they think Finding Nemo is scary because the kid loses his mother and then gets chased by a shark. Just a casual walk down our street trick-or-treating with the neighbors brings us across all sorts of decorative horrors, and I am not ready to talk explain zombies and ghosts with them. It’s awful. Truly, awful. That which is make-believe about Halloween is creativity designed to frighten, that which is true about Halloween is a realm of spirituality I’m deeply wary of. Satan and his minions are real and I don’t want to mess with that by making evil “approachable”.

So what to do? What to do? Can we accept the good without the bad? Is there a way of engaging positively and redemptively with this most awful of celebrations and escaping its evils?

In principal, the answer should be yes. After all, we celebrate Christmas and choose to embrace the telling of the Christ-story and the joy of giving, while eschewing the pagan solstice background and also hoping our children will miss the lethal spiritual lessons of materialism and greed which underlie our Western celebration of the day.

We celebrate Valentines day and choose to celebrate friendship and love, while distancing ourselves from the lies about romantic love which “completes us” and averting our eyes from the love=sex undertones which pervade so much of the adult Valentines day mania.

If we think that the materialism of Christmas or the erotica of Valentines Day are any less dangerous to our souls, perhaps we’re underestimating their power.

But all that being said – I’m still not sure about Halloween. I’m not sure what to think about it, and not sure what to do about it. Do we withdraw? Do we engage, but with all our conservative “I’m here but I’m not really loving it” vibes escorting us down the road? Do we seek to engage fully with our own Christian version of the themes: “Boo! Jesus loves you!”, or “There will be a day of the dead! And on that day, Jesus will rescue those who belong to him! Happy Halloween, and don’t eat too much candy!” Do we dress our kids as Lazarus and hope that someone asks us to give a reason for the “hope we have” (1 Peter 3:15)? Do we carve redemptive pumpkins?

christian pumpkin

My children want the candy and the adventure. They want to be like their friends. One of them wants to dress up as a spider, the other as a mermaid. Part of me bristles at the thought of the spider (because, ew!) and adores the idea of the mermaid – but then again, God created spiders but did not create mermaids. So what is this Christian mama to do?

As I said: it’s Halloween and I’m confused.

This is the second-to-last post in the 31 Day writing challenge. I chose the topic of Belonging. To see what other random thoughts this topic has generated in my little brain, click here.

Photo credit: Marci Lapan on Pinterest