The guy across my kitchen table appeared completely serious.
“We don't celebrate Christmas because Jesus couldn't have been born on December 25th. There was no snow on the ground in the gospel stories. Plus, God never actually told us to celebrate it.”
OK. Maybe I was only 14, and he was, I don't know, 19? And kind of cute. But I knew enough to think to myself, “And how often does it ever snow in Israel?” It's not precisely tundra, you know. (The answer, fyi, is approximately every four years. I checked.) Thus began my disillusionment with the intellectual integrity of the Jehovah's Witness faith I was exploring. Cute teacher or not, I didn't explore much longer. I truly did want to know what God was all about, and I sensed that anyone who made this statement, and several other illogical ones, didn't have the corner on the truth market.
But one thing he said that day was true. God didn't ever command his people to celebrate Christ's birth. He commanded Passover, and the Last Supper, and a few random festivals here and there. But Christmas? A brief narrative in the beginning of three gospels. Not exactly a mandate.
In fact, free history lesson, no one in the early church did. Later, the Puritans outlawed it because of its frivolity. In an ironic twist of history, Christians actually waged the first “War on Christmas,” banning both “Merry Christmas” and “Happy Holidays” alike.
Not until we all got poetically visited by St. Nick in the 1820's did Christmas become a runaway hit, and then, there is no mention of a Christ child in the Night before Christmas poem.
So why the history lesson? Because we are all hearing a lot about putting Christ back into Christmas. What history tells us is that, in America at least, he was never really there. A non-holiday pf the 1700's turned into a commercial holiday of the 1800's turned into a rampant month of stress in the 1900's. Jesus has always been a bit of an add on.
I suspect he doesn't even mind, given his joy in disrupting things from the outside and looking for people who want to be different than the world around them. Jesus was never mainstream. (Does that make him the first hipster? I can imagine the memes now . . .)
I think what we really want is to put Christ in Christmas in the first place. That looks a lot different than putting him back in it. Putting him back in tends to look militant and argumentative and easily offended. It has to, because it begins from the assumption that we are fighting an intentional slight.
Putting him in? What would that look like? What would it mean to begin from the assumption of offense--the dispensing of grace to a needy world, rather than defense?
What would it look like--
- If instead of telling the store clerk we want to hear “Merry Christmas” we tell her “You must be tired. I'm going to pray for you today.”
- If instead of spending the national average of around $800 per person on Christmas things we probably don't need, we spend half of that and give the other half to people who have no Christmas?
- If instead of worrying over making the perfect family Christmas dinner we invite someone who needs family?
- If instead of going Black Friday shopping we go help a neighbor hang lights or rake leaves? And really spend time together?
- If before we invite someone to a church program we invite them to our home to share our lives?
- If people didn't need to see plastic Jesus on the city hall lawn because they saw real Jesus in us? Every day. In Every. Little. Thing.
What I want to suggest is that when we demand Christ be put back into Christmas, our concept of that is so small. We want to hear “Merry Christmas” at the store counter. We want a plastic Jesus on the courthouse lawn. We want "O Holy Night" being given equal time on the muzak. Then, we want to go about business as usual, able to hum a “real” Christmas song while we're doing what everyone else is doing to celebrate.
We're content with and even complicit in Jesus in remaining a cultural add-on. Because the truth is, he's so often an add on in our own lives, we don't see the crucial difference. The difference between mounting an offensive of grace and a defense of, essentially, me.
We ask for so little, when we should be seeking so much.