What does your Christmas mean?
So what is your Christmas about? What is it that lies at the heart of Christmas for you? Were an outsider to observe your activities and priorities over the festive period what conclusion would he or she reach as to the meaning of Christmas for you?
Many years ago, I heard a contributor on a Radio programme complaining that Christians were guilty of spoiling a perfectly good mid-winter festival by including religious stuff! It was fairly clear what his Christmas would exclude, and what would not be central in his festive celebrations. But what lies at the heart of your Christmas?
I recently spoke to someone from a Muslim background who has never celebrated Christmas. If they spent Christmas with you (or me), and saw how we decorated our homes and how we spent the holiday period in late December, what would they deduce that Christmas was about? Hold that thought.
To press this point, let me take you back a number of years, at least fifteen, perhaps more. Our boys were all still young and Christmas time was one of great excitement and anticipation in the household. There would be much talk among the boys about what they would like for Christmas and what might be waiting for them on Christmas morning. There would be advance planning as to whose gifts should be found on which chair on Christmas morning. ‘I want the chair by the window’ ‘put my gifts on the couch’… I dare say I may have indulged in a measure of teasing and ‘winding up’ to heighten their sense of expectancy. Christmas can be a fun time.
On that particular year, I fell into conversation with another Christian who spoke of how their family celebrated Christmas. I was asked, ‘So what is Santa bringing your boys?’ I was cornered by a direct question and could see no option but to give a direct answer, ‘We don’t do Santa’. Lorna and I had decided before we ever had children, and we were married some years before we became parents, that at Christmas time we would refuse entry to Santa. We wanted to simplify Christmas and make some effort to keep Christ at the heart Christmas. This was, after all, meant to be a celebration of His birth. We found that in our increasingly commercial Christmas, Christ was being squeezed out. We ditched Santa.
So how did my fellow Christian respond to my confession that we don’t do Santa? She was wild. Really wild. Wild to the point of being offended. I had clearly scandalised her sensitivities. I felt as if I had done the equivalent of dropping my trousers in public, such was the depth of her feeling. The crowning summary of her protestations was, ‘You’ve taken all the wonder and magic out of Christmas.’
If she was horrified at my disinterest in Santa, I was appalled that, for a Christian the wonder of Christmas was Santa. I could hardly believe that she was saying such a thing, and was sure that if she heard herself in the cold light of day, she would be shocked too. Or perhaps, tragically, not. Did she really think the heart and core and ‘magic’ of Christmas was Santa?
Think what it is Christians celebrate at Christmas. The Eternal Word takes our flesh. The One, through whom the worlds were made, stoops down into our world. The Second Person of the Trinity plunges down from the heights of absolute being into our world, and not only into our world, but into our humanity. He is supernaturally conceived in the womb of the Virgin Mary and, in the fullness of time, is born as a weak and helpless baby in Bethlehem.
‘Lo, within a manger lies, He who built the starry skies.’
All this was in fulfilment of a great plan of salvation, which would take the babe of Bethlehem, through living the perfect life, to dying an atoning death, defeating sin, death and evil that I might be saved. ‘But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God’. (John 112-13)
And for some people Santa is the wonder of Christmas?
All of this is not intended to generate guilt in those of you who feel you harmlessly indulged your children with Santa stories at Christmas. I want to make clear that I have no interest in revisiting that debate. I still bear the scars from years back, when rumours circulated about our Santa-free Christmas and brought upon us the disapproval of many who clearly felt we were guilty of the equivalent of shooting Bambi. I recount the above story simply to illustrate how some of our celebrations can, very quickly and easily, displace Christ and turn Christmas into no more than a ‘mid-winter festival’ of the pagan variety. How very easily we lose sight of the true wonder and miracle of Christmas. So, I invite you to consider how you spend Christmas, and what message you send to your neighbours and family and friends in the way that you celebrate Christmas.
Another story: When one of our boys was very young and required transport to Nursery, I would provide a lift in our car to another youngster. One Christmas, as we drove from Wigtown to Newton Stewart, I was listening to what my young passenger was saying in the back seat. He was singing a made-up song expressing his excitement at the approach of Christmas. ‘It’s Santa’s birthday’ were the words…. At four years old he got the message. Christmas is about Santa. Oh dear.
You are all invited to come to the Manse for the Mince pie evening on Sunday 22nd and there, you will see, that we decorate our home like most people. I regard many of the decorations, such as trees and lights, to be harmless (unlike the guy in the red gown) and it seems entirely appropriate to decorate the home and deploy creative gifts to celebrate the birth of Christ. My favourite decoration is a simple nativity scene I bought many years ago in Bethlehem. I am not a killjoy in this regard, but there is a need for caution.
Each Christmas I find it necessary to prepare myself for Christmas, to make an effort to keep myself focused on what is important. All too easily I find that I can be distracted from Christ by all that our culture has made of this time of year, mostly in pursuit of profit. So I make a point of re-reading the gospel accounts of the birth of Christ, and often re-read an ancient classic, ‘On the Incarnation’ by the 4th century Church father Athanasius of Alexandria. Keeping Christ at the heart of Christmas takes effort, and requires the fixing of priorities.
Let’s together pray for, and work for, a Christmas in our own Church fellowship where the note of joy and celebration outstrips anything in the world. Let’s pray for the Holy Spirit to so inhabit our praises as we worship this Christmas that the community can’t help but notice. By consciously adopting a Christ-centred Christmas, let’s cause people to say, ‘There might be something in this Christianity, because their Christmas is so different.’
May your Advent season be one of joyous expectation and glad hope.