These are the chronicles of the esoteric . . .

WEDNESDAY, DECEMBER 3, 2008

christmas versus the holidays

I feel that a lot of people share the sentiments (among other misconceptions) that 'you can't have Christmas without gifts.' In fact, I wrote this rant as a response to such a comment for I felt the need to say this is grossly inaccurate. You can't have Christmas without gifts? Would you hold by that steadfastly? Could you truly believe that Christmas would not be Christmas were there an absence of gifts?

Comments like this one I feel only perpetuate the misunderstanding and the confusion that is surrounding Christmas of our day and age - comments like this permit people to play 'Silent Night,' 'Hark! the Herold Angels Sing,' and 'O Holy Night' in stores declaring not only that there are 24 shopping days left but also that they have the best place in which to purchase all your gifts for everyone without any guilt or even second thought whatsoever. You can't have Christmas without gifts?

The Holidays (I use this word in its modern sense and not in its pre-adapted form of the compounded 'holy day') and Christmas have been unfortunately entangled, muddled and mistaken with each other. Gift-giving at Christmas under the reason of Christmas is theologically and biblically wrong, even as the 'Christmas tree' and 'Christmas decorations' are irrelevant traditions enacted by everyone, Christians included. To me, and I correct people when they say it, they are Holiday Trees (in fact, Yule trees from early Germany) and Holiday Decorations. Most, if not all, of the traditions people have come to observe at this time harken back to pagan rituals, like that of Saturnalia which celebrated the god of agriculture and of the sun. Saturnalia, in case you are unfamiliar, was observed at the winter solstice, usually falling around December 25 by the Julian calendar. What followed was seven days of 'merrymaking' in which the Romans would glorify the days past when Saturn ruled - they would feast, exchange gifts and occasionally temporarily free their slaves, all while postponing business and warfare. As the manner of the Church in those times was to absorb pagan rituals into Christianity, the Church too adopted this time of year to celebrate Christ's birth so that, in the words of Isaac Asimov, 'converts could join Christianity without giving up their Saturnalian happiness. It was only necessary for them to joyfully greet the birth of the Son rather than the sun.'

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Tangentially, Christmas was banned in 1647 by Oliver Cromwell, devout Puritan and Lord Protector of England, because of its wild, licentious nature - the raucous debauchery of the pagan celebrations were retained, despite its 'Christianisation.' By 1659, Christmas was outlawed in many of the North American colonies. 1660, however, saw the end of the Christmas ban, yet it continued to have much of the raucaous debauchery it had before.
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As a result, Christmas has become something it should not be - it has lost its meaning in the scramble of shopping, family and tables of food just as it lost its meaning when the Church attempted to merge it with pagan rituals, which still don't quite coincide. That is, these syncretistic endeavours have yet to prove that they have anything to do with Christ's birth and the celebration thereof. Indeed, I would argue that Christmas has become distorted. With this panic of gifts and the worry of food we are susceptible - and in many cases have succumb - to forgetting why it is exactly we are gathering. I feel that the customs of this particular season may in fact hinder our vision, pushing aside the true meaning of our celebrations. These 'Christmas rituals', while not always usurping the heart of the season, have the danger of devaluing and cheapening it to a side note - a bonus. Ruth C. Dyck says:

'Faithful God, we rejoice that You have sent Your promised Christ. And yet, O God, we confess that we are still not ready for Christ's coming; we are reluctant to live as if the whole earth were Your domain. We know the story - the shepherds, the angels, the magi - but we don't fully understand what it means. Awaken us to Your Spirit, let Christ's birth make a difference in our lives, and grant us Your peace, through the grace of Jesus Christ.'

Christmas, as you may know, comes from the Old English Cristes Maesse, which is to say, 'Mass of Christ' or 'Christ's Mass.' Mass in the Catholic rites is the amalgam of prayers and ceremonies constituting the service of the Eucharist. Thus, even as Christianity is a derivative of Christ, placing Jesus as the focus and center, likewise is Christmas. Christmas is a sacred time of celebrating the birth of Jesus, who is the Christ, and celebrating the amazing act God performed in this incarnation - and the undeserved gift He would give us through it. Christmas is a celebration of Messiah, of God and not us - we should be giving oblations up to Him, not each other. Indeed, 'Christ came to bring peace and we celebrate His coming by making peace impossible for six weeks each year' (A. W. Tozer). After all, if this is a time of eucharistia (thanksgiving), why do 'we heap gifts upon those who do not need them' (again, A. W. Tozer) instead of offering our thanks to God?

We have no right to take away the focus from Jesus and the holidays have done that very thing - cheapening the sacredness to nothing but a special family gathering. Christmas is about adoration, renewal of faith, submission to God and growing nearer to Him through the remembrance of this act of mercy and love - the act of incarnating Himself in flesh and living among us, dying by our hands, so that He might reconcile us to Himself. To say that gift-giving at this time is an extension of that Christ-celebration only furthers the evidence that we have been regrettably entrenched in the confusion - Christians are missing the point. If Jesus is the reason for the season, why do we gather and barely mention Him? Jesus is to be the center and focus; Christmas is not about family, friends and presents: It's about God Almighty becoming a Man, to not only live among us, but also to redeem us. There should be nothing else but Jesus the Christ - Son of God - glorified.

Don't get me wrong, I'm not saying that we shouldn't gather as families and friends and eat to celebrate - after all, we do so for one another's birthdays. And the fact that the world doesn't celebrate any other religions' holy days as they do the Christians' only goes to show we need to handle them with that much more care. I'm simply trying to say that what God has done out of such a deep love for us needs to be taken a lot more seriously - and separated far from the holiday rituals we hold as Christmas traditions. Somehow we have to re-orientate our celebrations so that they revolve around Christ - and Christ alone - not the gathering of people. You can celebrate Christmas on your own or with one or two others, but you can't celebrate Christmas without Christ. Alternatively, you can celebrate Christmas without food and without gifts, but you can't celebrate Christmas without Christ. This sacred time of Christmas, I feel, requires a lot more solemnity, seriousness, and simplification so we can more noticeably see Christ as the vital, integral celebration - it's His birthday, after all, not ours.

Simultaneously, I have a great warm feeling about my memories of the holidays as a child. There's something to be said about the atmosphere of this season. Perhaps it's the coziness of being indoors while the snow billows about outside - the warmth, happiness and nearness of gathering together with our loved ones - sharing a meal together as friends and giving each other little (or big) tokens to show that they mean something more to us. Indeed, gift-giving is great, I can't and won't deny that. The truth is, I love giving people gifts and I try not to limit myself to holidays for doing so. However, Christmas has gotten out of hand: You're expected to buy gifts for everyone. At Christmas you're getting and giving gifts left and right so that gift-giving is no longer what it's supposed to be. Now initially that may simply sound like I'm being cheap, not wanting to buy gifts for people; but the fact is a gift is no longer a gift if it's expected that you give it. A gift is something given out of the free and good will of the heart, with no expectation of anything in return because it is an act of love. I agree completely that a gift is given to show the recipient how much you care about them and how much they mean to you - and therefore one of the reasons I try to give people gifts outside of holidays, because in that way they know I'm not giving them a gift simply because I 'have to.'

And this is why I like the family tradition my future in-laws have. Celebrating St Nicholas allows me to retain the nostalgia of the holidays - the joy of gathering and sharing and giving - without usurping the meaning of Christmas, which is Christ and Christ alone. I don't have a problem with Christmas and I don't mean to devalue what any may feel at Christmas - I do recognise that for some people gift-giving and lights reminds them of the ultimate gift in Christ and the Father of Lights. We all experience the same events differently - we can't escape our individual biases. I'm just saying in general (although, at times quite specifically) there needs to be a line drawn between the Christmas celebration and the traditions we've grafted onto it that are Holiday rituals so that we can see Christ and not drown Him out with irrelevant (pagan) rituals. When it comes to Christmas there needs to be quiet simplicity to meditate solely on God and His Christ.

You see, my problem is not with Christmas, but with what it has become. I have a problem with the decreasing level of theological content - and the fact that Christians are no longer looking any different from those who observe holiday celebrations. If we're supposed to spread the Gospel and be an example to the world, why do our celebrations look like theirs? How then are we any different? How are we supposed to say that God and Christ's birth has any bearing on our traditions when they're the exact same as non-Christians?
It is at this point that I say, let them have their Holiday (gifts, feasts, decorations) and let us keep our Christmas (Christ's birth). Accordingly, it is here I feel wrong to call some of the rituals widely associated with Christmas as Christmas because I don't feel they're helping, in any way, to promote the adoration and commemoration of the birth of God as a man. We need simplicity, and solemnity. We need Christ more readily exalted, more loudly declared - we need Christ, God's Word - God Himself - more and more.

And that's why I want to separate Christmas and the Holidays because it's too often blurred together. As a result, should Rebekah and I have any kids, we're hoping that they'll grow up immersed in a theologically based Christmas. I want our children to look to Christmas as a time of adoring God, not in anticipation of what toys they may receive (they can do that at another time of year, but not ever here). Hence, the future will see this household of Eric-and-Rebekah displaying a nativity scene and nothing more - for that is what Christmas is about - and as far as it is in our power, there will be no gifts at Christmas.

Therefore, after all is said and done, I charge you to re-think your sentiments before you go around declaring that 'you can't have Christmas without gifts' or thinking that Christmas is about the dinner we eat and the gifts we buy because as we've seen, gifts are not integral to this time of year (that being said, gifts to the needy and the poor that further and enact the Gospel are much closer a celebration than what we're doing). What is integral is Jesus the Son, what is vital is God the Father - what is Christmas is Christ, nothing else.


[posted by ericjordan at 0926 hrs]  

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