So, let’s say you are a Christian. Christmas is a pretty big deal, right? The birth of the savior of the world warrants some major celebration. One problem, lots of your friends, family, and even society at large love Christmas but don’t seem to care much about Jesus. Most of the focus is on parties, presents, and Santa Claus.
What’s a Christian to do?
Ooh! I know! Let’s make angry posts on social media about the “War on Christmas.” This is an appropriation of Christian culture after all so let’s not let the secularists water down THE reason for the season (hint: it’s Jesus). So if anyone dares to offer you “Season’s Greetings” or wish you a “Happy Holidays,” simply reply with a snarky “Merry Christmas” to put them in their place. Let them know that Christmas was our Holy Day before it was their holiday. That’ll show ‘em the love of Christ.
Or is there a better way?
I humbly submit the following as some suggestions for a Christmassing like a Christian should.
1. Avoid the culture wars
Though well-intentioned, the efforts of some Christians to militantly uphold Christmas as a holiday which is the sole property of faithful, practicing, believing Christians (however you define that) often alienates people from the Church. Why not use secular culture’s fascination with Christmas, however superficial, as a doorway to a larger conversation? Christians have always used elements from the surrounding culture to point people to God. It’s why we have adopted formerly pagan symbols like evergreen trees and wreaths, roman vestments, and genuflecting into our worship and traditions.
2. Cultivate Wonder & Awe
We don’t need to fabricate a magical atmosphere around the holiday with stories of Santa Claus, reindeer, and elves when we already believe in something far more fantastic in Jesus (and it has the benefit of actually being true – Sorry Santa!). I’m not saying you need to avoid Santa altogether, but we should be careful to direct our wonder and awe to the appropriate place: God. We often spend way more effort trying to convince children to believe and have faith in Santa (a fun cultural tradition) than we do in our Creator and Savior. CS Lewis famously said that Christianity is the myth come true. Behind all the magic and wonder we associate with the most wonderful time of the year is a deeper wonder which is the inspiration for all myth and fantasy in our world. And there are many ways to tap into that.
3. Be liturgical
Americans tend to celebrate the days from Black Friday to New Years’ as the Christmas season but the liturgical calendar tells a different story. The four weeks before Christmas are Advent, a time of anticipation and spiritual preparation for the coming of Christ. The first two weeks focus on Christ’s second coming in Glory. The last two weeks, starting with Gaudate Sunday (the pink candle), focus on preparing for his first coming at Christmas. The Christmas season itself begins on Christmas Eve and goes for 12 days until the feast of the epiphany when we celebrate the wise men arriving in Bethlehem. Advent calendars and wreaths and Jesse trees are great ways to mark out these times. Special prayers, parties, decorations, and meals can make for great personal and/or family traditions. Also, the readings from daily mass during advent are AWESOME so if you can make some weekday masses or at least read the daily readings, I highly recommend it. I also like to wear purple and pink as much as possible during advent. As a man, I always get a LOT of comments and it’s an opportunity to witness to Christ and the Christian faith in an unobtrusive way.
The word evangelism often brings up images of a missionaries knocking at your door uninvited and asking you if you can spare a moment to talk about your personal Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. While that sort of door to door ministry may have it’s time and place, that’s not what I have in mind. Once you have established for yourself ways to really celebrate Christ through the traditions and celebrations of Advent and Christmas, why not invite other people into them? Invite friends over for a party or dinner on Gaudate Sunday or Epiphany. Post on social media what Christmas service you will be attending and that anyone who needs a church home for Christmas can come with you. Invite friends and family to join you for any charitable activities you do. People often summarize the message of St. Francis with the phrase “Preach the Gospel at all times, when necessary, use words.” This reminds us that while we will at times need to speak about Christ, actions speak far louder than words. People are more easily convinced by your example than by your words, and even your most loving, anointed words will have the opposite of the intended effect if they are not backed up by a loving, anointed example.
5. Follow the charitable legacy of St. Nick
The root of the Santa Claus myth is a real Saint Nicholas who was abundantly generous to the poor, specifically poor children and would put alms in their shoes while the child was sleeping (hence our tradition of stockings). Should not our gift giving at Christmas include some element giving to those less fortunate? In one family I know, after opening all their presents, each family member chooses one gift to give away to the poor. The parents make sure to emphasize that this is not getting rid of the gift they like the least, but choosing a gift that a poor person would really appreciate. Many families have a tradition of doing some act of service together: working at a soup kitchen, dropping off a clothing or food donation, or visiting those nursing homes who have no family.
6. Emphasize giving, not receiving.
The scriptures and the Christian tradition abound with examples and exhortations to cheerful giving. It can be hard in our often materialistic society, but we should try to cultivate within ourselves and our families a spirit of cheerful, enthusiastic generosity. When opening presents, rather than taking turns opening presents, take turns giving presents to one another. People will still receive gifts and be happy about it, but this is a simple way to reframe a gift exchange in the language of giving. Instead of “Who wants to open presents?” say “Who’s ready to give presents?” Instead of “what did you get for Christmas?” ask, “what gifts did you give for Christmas?” Make sure you put more effort into drafting the list of gifts you will give rather than the list of gifts that you want. Try your best to really take joy and pride in the gifts you give to people. Try to see the whole process of gift buying and giving as a privilege and opportunity to love rather than a chore or obligation.
What about you? What are your ideas and traditions for celebrating Christ this time of year?
Mike Tenney has spent the past 15 years speaking, teaching, and leading worship and retreats for youth and young adults of various backgrounds and faiths. Mike has been a featured musician and speaker for national, regional, archdiocesan, and parish events including the Couples for Christ National Youth Conference, Catholic Underground, Life Teen XLT's, Theology on Taps, and Christ in the City. He has shared the stage and worked alongside Matt Maher, Jason Evert, Steve Angrisano, Jesse Manibusan, and Chris Padgett. You can find more about Mike and his ministry including online talks at www.MikeTenneyMusic.com and follow him @pkMikeyT.