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.
Personally, 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.
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)