When you think of Christmas, what is the first thing that comes to mind? Perhaps you think of the manger scene with shepherds and wise men, presents, a Christmas tree, decorations, shopping, relatives, Santa Claus, Christmas cards, snow, caroling, or the January credit card bill. Despite what some Christians may want to believe, Christmas, as celebrated by many Americans, is a cultural, not a religious holiday. If Jesus were to be completely removed from the equation, Americans could continue to celebrate Christmas with hardly an interruption. People would still decorate their houses and work places, give and receive presents, take the day off work, go to parties, stand in line with their children or grandchildren to see Santa Claus at the local mall, listen to wonderful songs on the radio about Rudolf the Red-Nosed Reindeer, Jack Frost, and world peace, and watch an endless stream of movies featuring Santa Claus as the main character. These are some of the ways in which we celebrate Christmas in America (and other countries have their own Christmas traditions). Christians, of course, may also attend a special Christmas pageant at their church, maybe even with some live animals. Even live animals, however, can’t compete with the main feature of Christmas for every child: presents!
Cultural Christmas Doesn’t Need Jesus
Cultural Christmas doesn’t need Jesus. There is too much money at stake for retailers to depend upon a first-century Jewish messianic baby to bring in the revenue. The financial side of Christmas has thoroughly shaped and molded its cultural expression. Our economy needs Christmas. What would happen if Americans stopped overspending and going into debt each December? As every economist would tell you, the economy would be dealt a serious blow. Even families that try to scale back find it very difficult because of all the expectations from relatives and friends. Although other countries and cultures have Christmas traditions of their own, at least in America (and much of the Western world), Christmas is synonymous with commercialism.
The Battle for Christmas
Christians, of course, have not allowed the almighty dollar or superficial sentimentality to take over Christmas without a fight. Throughout the month of December, churches proclaim the real reason for the season through special services and events. We know it’s all about Jesus (or at least it once was all about Jesus), and we want it to be all about Jesus again. We engage in this battle for Christmas, however, with one hand tied behind our backs—solidly rooted in the very culture that is obscuring or ignoring the original reason for the season. We find ourselves making up spiritual reasons for our cultural practices. For example, we give gifts to each other to remind ourselves of God’s great gift of Jesus to the world or of the gifts of the wise men to Jesus. That may sound nice, but is it true? Or do we give gifts because that’s what our parents did and that’s what everyone else we know does? What kind of parent would you be if you didn’t give your child a Christmas present? Or—God forbid—if you didn’t celebrate Christmas at all? Very little is intrinsically spiritual with these kinds of expectations; they’re almost entirely cultural. Of course, there’s nothing inherently wrong with such an observance. The difficulty comes in trying to understand and communicate accurately the real significance of Jesus’s birth as a human child when its true meaning is buried beneath so many layers of culture-related traditions and practices.
Cultural Christmas: Concocting Contrived Connections?
Examples could be multiplied. What does the decoration of an evergreen tree have to do with Jesus’s coming to earth to rescue God’s creation? We may tell ourselves it’s a symbol of everlasting life because it’s ever-green but is that really the reason we set up a Christmas tree each year? Or we may point to candles as a symbol of Jesus as the light of the world; holly as a symbol of the crown of thorns that was placed upon Jesus’s head; the color red as a symbol of Jesus’s blood shed on the cross; the Yule log as a symbol of the cross; mistletoe as a symbol of reconciliation; and bells as a symbol for ringing out the good news. Even if some of these associations and symbols are ancient, they don’t explain why we incorporate these traditions in our Christmas celebrations today. If we’re honest, we have to admit that we celebrate Christmas the way we do primarily because of our cultural traditions, even though there’s little (if any) real connection between these traditions and Jesus’s actual coming to this earth as a baby.
The Real Reason for the Season
Now we’re not advocating that all true Christians reject these traditions as mere trappings of culture. If you’re looking for an argument against the use of Christmas trees or the giving of presents, you’re reading the wrong book (though the Puritans made a pretty good run at it; if you didn’t know, these pious forebears didn’t observe Christmas on account of their religious beliefs). We’re simply trying to draw attention to the difference that exists between the traditional ways in which we celebrate Christmas based upon our culture and the reality and significance of Jesus’s coming to this earth to enact God’s grand rescue plan to restore and reclaim humanity. In this regard, it’s helpful to be aware of the many ways in which our cultural traditions, often unintentionally, distort our understanding of the actual import of Jesus’s coming to earth as the culmination of God’s long-awaited plan.
Andreas Kostenberger and Alexander Stewart, The First Days of Jesus (Crossway, 2015). You can download an excerpt here.