Adventus, part 3: The language of Christmas

It’s that time of year again, where we revisit the annual debate over the use of religious language.  Do we greet each other with “Merry Christmas” or “Happy Holidays”?  Should stores sell “Christmas trees” or “holiday trees”?  And how should Christians respond if retailers, who are trying to be politically correct and to follow the market at the same time, seem to avoid using the word “Christmas” altogether?

My wife and I recently viewed a YouTube video that was posted as something of a musical reaction against the secularizing of Christmas by the ACLU and like organizations.  It’s a catchy little ditty, vaguely reminiscent of It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas–the kind of music you might hear on pop radio during the Christmas season.  The lyrics, which scroll past against a shifting background of holiday imagery, suggest that if a retailer won’t proudly display the message “Merry Christmas” in their storefront window, or if the sales clerks don’t greet us with those words, we shouldn’t shop there.  We should boycott them instead (politely, of course).  Just walk on by, or walk on out.  After all, it’s Christmas, and Christmas is about Christ.

At one point in the song, the lyrics reflect on what would be missing if Jesus had never been born.  It’s an intriguing list.  Let’s see: there are references to Christmas carols, and Christmas trees, and Christmas ornaments, and Christmas lights, and Christmas movies like It’s a Wonderful Life.  Oh, and let’s not forget Santa Claus and all the toys for good little girls and boys.  The tone of it seems to be that we would really miss having all these things taken away–so shouldn’t we remember that Jesus is the reason for the season?

Well, yes, of course.  But there’s the question of just what, if anything, Jesus really has to do with each of the trappings we associate with Christmas.   I’m not denying that some of our traditions have deep symbolic meaning, both personal and spiritual.  I grew up with an aluminum tree bathed by the light of two color wheels (anybody remember what those are?), and still hold a small nostalgic spot in my heart for that little slice of 1960s Americana.

But let’s be honest.  Singing and meditating on a carol like O Come, O Come Emmanuel is one thing.  But does anyone really hang an ornament on the tree because it points them to the miracle of the Incarnation?  When kids line up to have their picture taken with a department store Santa, is that because they want to draw closer to the legendary generosity of St. Nicholas, and through him to Jesus?  My guess is…probably not.

It’s both telling and sad that the miracle of God in the flesh and the gospel message of the kingdom didn’t make the list of important things that we would lose if there had been no Nativity.  Meanwhile, the song plays out against images of busy shoppers in brightly lit, richly appointed shopping malls.  Does that mean that we needn’t question any of that, as long as people remember to call it Christmas instead of something else?

Don’t get me wrong.  I’m no fan of some of the ways the ACLU has interpreted religious liberty and the separation of church and state.  And Christians are perfectly free to shop wherever they please, for whatever reasons.  If you don’t want to shop at a particular store because they don’t use appropriate Christmas language, no problem.  Your choice.  What troubles me, however,  is something that the video doesn’t say explicitly, but seems strongly implied: that the kind of boycott suggested is somehow the Christian thing to do in the face of the secular tendencies of our culture.

Perhaps we could ask the question this way.  If, in perfect honesty, we were to examine our own motives, what would be the reason for such a selective boycott?  Is it to glorify God and further the gospel?  Or is it to give expression to a sense of having been personally offended, as if to say, “We’re going to show them that they can’t do that to us”?  If it’s the former, then in what ways do such actions really honor God and his Son?  If it’s the latter, do we really consider it the church’s mission to wield the weapon of the almighty consumer dollar, in the context of the rancorous politics of personal discontent?

Whether we like it or not, we live in a secular society.  Frankly, much of the time we live as if that didn’t trouble us a bit.  Until, perhaps, Christmas, when that society threatens to undermine our most cherished traditions.  Then we’re reminded of how much has changed, how much seems in danger of changing further.  So we dig in and take up the fight: “If you won’t say ‘Merry Christmas,’ we’ll take our business elsewhere.”  But ironically, in so doing, we have let secular society itself dictate the rules of the encounter.  We put pressure on people using strength of numbers; we use our coordinated buying power to carry the day.

That might make strategic political sense, at least for a time.  But I don’t want to think of such strategies as being the intrinsically Christian thing to do.  Because sometimes, it seems, we want the world to make more room for us than it did for Jesus himself.  Our primary calling is not to force the world to keep the “Christ” in “Christmas.”  It’s to be the embodied presence of Christ himself to the world.

For example, here’s Sam, a part-time sales clerk at MegaMart who’s been hired as a temp until the Christmas shopping season is done.  Word has come down from corporate that the CEO has made a public apology to the Christian contingent of the store’s customer base; henceforth, “Merry Christmas” will be on the lips of Sam and every other MegaMart employee.  Victory–we have our Christmas back!

But what does Sam or the CEO now think of Christians?  Or more to the point: what do they think of Christ?

Again, Advent can be a time to reflect on the horizon of our expectations.  What is it we long for?  In contemporary America, and in the face of rapid social change, I suspect that sometimes we’re wishing we could return to some more innocent past, in which everyone knew the meaning of Christmas and no one questioned the common language.  But the past was never really innocent.  Moreover, much of what we may take for granted as the way Christmas should be celebrated originates not from Scripture, but from secular culture itself.  Some earlier generations of the church, like the Puritans of colonial America, would have been aghast.

That’s not to say we can’t have Christmas trees.  But we should set our horizons higher than the preservation of our holiday traditions.  The world is changing, and it will keep changing.  Scripture suggests that things will get worse before Christ returns to set things right.  So we’re free to boycott the local MegaMart if we wish, but it’s even more important to get our perspective straight, looking to the future rather than the past.

What is that future?  Just this: it is God himself who will bring the day when “at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Phil 2:10-11, NIV).  We must point our lives toward that future glory, and as much as possible, live in a way that would encourage others to do the same.  Instead of wondering how to get others to do Christmas our way, we should wonder how to be Christ to others while we celebrate his birth.  Instead of wondering how to get others to say “Merry Christmas,” we should wonder where and how Sam and the CEO will get to witness living examples of the gospel of Jesus Christ.

Soli Deo Gloria–to the glory of God the Father, alone.

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