Lights, Tinsel, and Baby Jesus
There is a lot of baggage that has attached itself to Christmas over the centuries. It is more likely that Jesus was born in September than December. St. Nick is not a jolly fat man with magical flying reindeer but a third century Turkish orphan who grew up to become the Bishop of Myra and attended the council of Nicea. The Bible never mentions Mary riding a donkey, an inn-keeper turning them away, the number of wisemen, or the Magi making an unannounced visit alongside the shepherds at the manager (which was probably more of a dank, dark cave than the neat wooden structure in your nativity scene at home). Christmas began in relative obscurity in 336 a.d. as a possible alternative to the popular pagan holiday of winter solstice. Rather than forcing Roman Christians to give up their popular holiday they introduced an alternative Christian celebration known as "Christ-mass". Throughout the years "Christ-mass" has morphed into a myriad of different celebrations, traditions, and customs. Some Christians, like the Puritans, forbid the celebration of Christmas, and while other Christians, like the Eastern Orthodox, have chosen to celebrate the birth of Christ on January 7th due to an alternative calendar (Jullian vs. Gregorian). Over the past 50 years Christmas has morphed from a time of merriment and humble gift giving to a materialistic extravaganza. Much of the contemporary Christmas culture has become a hideous conglomeration of greed and materialism accented with Christmas lights while donning an awkward sweater.
How then should Christians respond to the modern day phenomenon we call Christmas? Should we throw coal at unsuspecting carolers who venture onto the front lawn, scold every "Happy Holiday" well-wisher with an indignant, "Merry Christmas!", or break the news to every toddler that Santa Claus is a fat guy wearing a fake beard and red suit and it is actually their parents giving them gifts? Should we pretend that Christmas is not happening or attempt to enlighten every Christian to the insidious Druid beginnings of their precious day? I'm not sure any of these is the 'best' answer to the dilemma we face each December. Wherever you are on the scale of Christmas cheer, let me offer a few suggestions.
First, enjoy the non-material elements of the holiday. December is a great time to get together with friends, family, and neighbors to enjoy food, traditions, and one another's presence. You don't have to spend ridiculous amounts of money to eat sugar cookies, sing Christmas songs, soak in the joy of children, and celebrate the end of another year. Enjoy the season without getting bogged down in the consumer aspects of the season.
Second, be intentional in how your family celebrates the holiday. Think through the various traditions that you do and ask yourself, "Why do we do this?" A few years back Denise and I chose to limit the children to only three gifts for Christmas after one of the children began to complain about having to open 'more' gifts from the family. We realized that an over abundance of presents was draining the significance of all the gifts. Now the children appreciate their gifts more and we are careful to give them meaningful gifts rather than a bunch of blue light special.
Third, use the time as a chance to build relationships and show love to the overlooked or the lonely. The holidays can be an excruciating time for people who have lost loved ones, have no family, or are far from home. Find someone who you wouldn't normally come in contact with and give them a small token of appreciation, a card to let them know you care, or a gift to show them they are not forgotten. A batch of Christmas cookies or inexpensive but thoughtful gift can be a great launching pad for an unexpected friendship. Finally, and most important, be deliberate to focus on the advent of Jesus Christ. Though many church Christmas plays have added many unnecessary accouterments to the story of Christ's birth, the truth remains that, "unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord" (Luke 2:11). As Christians we need to tune out the cheesy Hallmark movies, endless barrage of advertisements, and overindulgence to celebrate the good news that "God sent forth his Son, born of a women, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons" (Galatians 4:4-5).
How can you focus on advent? Make an advent wreath and each night read the scripture reading during advent, read the Christmas story on Christmas Eve or Christmas Morning, listen to Christ-centered Christmas music (Prepare Him Room by Sovereign Grace Music or The Praise Baby Collection: Joy to the World), Read an advent devotional in December (Good News of Great Joy by John Piper or Come Thou Long Expected Jesus: Experiencing the Peace and Promise of Christmas edited by Nancy Guthrie), focus on advent during family Devotions (Let Every Heart Prepare Him Room: Daily Family Devotions for Advent by Nancy Guthrie or Prepare Him Room Celebrating the Birth of Jesus Family Devotional by Marty Machowski). There are even ministries, like Advent Conspiracy, that exist to help you focus on Christ and less on materialism during Christmas. The best thing to do is to ask other Gospel-loving Christians and trade ways to focus on Christ during the Holiday season. Christmas does not have to be exclusively a Ho-Ho-Ho or Bah-humbug proposition.
As Christians, we can enjoy the gift giving, cookie eating, and general merriment while focusing primarily on the "good news of great joy that will be for all the people" (Luke 2:10). May Ocean Park love the gospel and redeem the Christmas season for the glory of God and the furtherance of His kingdom.
p.s. November 30th is the first Sunday of Advent. Start thinking NOW how your family will honor Christ and magnify the Gospel before the hustle and bustle of the season kicks into full gear.