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Re-Evangelizing the Holidays

Re-Evangelizing the Holidays Phil King

Phil King

Cari Donaldson - published on 02/18/14

We've redeemed pagan holidays before, we can do it again.

Years ago, when I was in college and deep into New Age spirituality, my favorite topic to write research papers on was the intersection of Catholicism and paganism. Gleefully, I would write about how Catholicism hijacked ancient pagan celebrations and co-opted them to spread its patriarchal, violent message. In my mind, this simultaneously invalidated Catholicism while elevating paganism to glorious martyr status.

As time passed, and the Holy Spirit doggedly worked on my heart, I changed my understanding of the meeting space between the Gospel and the pagan. I saw the wisdom of the early missionaries, who observed the existing cultures of the people they’d come to serve, and took the gold from that understanding of God, and refined it in the fire of Christ’s love. I saw the similarities between ancient myths and Christianity as a sort of beautiful echo, where the impact of the Incarnation spread out not only forward in time, but also dimly backwards.

So we find ourselves now, 21st century Christians, sent out to evangelize something vaguely resembling a pagan land. The gods may have changed, the ritual different, but the need for Christ’s light is the same. Nowhere is that more apparent than during religious holidays.

Christmas, obviously, is the big player in this one. You have the usual reactions, irritation when the reindeer and santas are hauled out onto K-Mart shelves in September, the debate over whether it’s liturgical appropriate to tune into the local all-Christmas song radio station during Advent, that sort of thing. There’s the “Keep Christ in Christmas” car magnets and the “It’s ok to wish me a Merry Christmas” buttons and the handy etiquette graphics.

It’s easy to get swept up in these little skirmishes and think that you’re doing something for the Kingdom.  But it’s a much harder line to walk that we realize, to navigate between the truly innocuous (getting upset when someone wishes you a “Happy holiday” instead of a “Merry Christmas”, for example) and the genuinely troubling:

Over a period of many years Christmas has become less of a Christian-centric holiday and more of a generic cultural holiday. It is celebrated by many non-Christians in various ways and the religious connotations are lost even on some Christians themselves. Christmas isn't very "Christian" anymore….There are traditional meanings and religious meanings [to Christmas], but no "real meaning." The "meaning" of Christmas is whatever people celebrating decide to assign to it.”

(from a rambling, hit-or-miss essay by Austin Cline on About.com’s atheism page)

It’s tempting, in the face of such exasperating statements, to adopt a scorched earth policy on all Christian holidays, in an attempt to purge all non-Orthodox, non-religious, and possibly pagan influences from the Faith.  This inevitably ends poorly, resulting either in Jack Chick-esque claims that liturgical holidays are nothing at all but pagan celebrations, or a well-meaning, but ultimately fruitless attempt to steer the holiday back to its original meaning.

It happens at Halloween, when well-meaning people try to evangelize the culture about All Saint’s Day and the etymology of the word “Halloween”.  It happens at Valentine’s Day, when well-meaning people try to evangelize with clever old school Valentine memes.

Nowhere is the need for a properly formed conscious more needed than in knowing how to effectively witness to our post-modern culture. On the one hand, there is the obvious problem with Mr. Cline’s statement that there is no “real meaning” to Christmas beyond what each individual feels like applying to it. One would be hard pressed to imagine this argument being used to justify a commercialized Yom Kippur (do producers of appetite suppressants make special ad campaigns for the Jewish demographic during that time while McDonald’s has a sale on happy meals for those of us who want to apply our own meaning onto the holiday?) or a corporate blitzkrieg during Ramadan. So yes, there is much need for catechesis on the meaning of some holidays (as Mr. Cline himself pointed out when he talks about the tendency of some self-identified Christians to get themselves into debt buying gifts).

On the other hand, sometimes a holiday just isn’t worth the catechesis. Halloween, other than its location next to All Saints Day, has no religious overtones and St. Valentine was removed from the General Calendar back in 1969. In cases like this, getting upset at the secularization of a holiday is not only futile, but it also makes it harder for people to take you seriously when you start talking about any other religious topic – the Chicken Little effect.

What that happens, I think it’s best to look to the example of those early missionaries to Europe. Look at the theological understanding of the culture around you, and work from there. Halloween can become a conversation on the existence of evil, a concept sorely needed in a relativistic, everyone applies their own meaning to an event, world. From there, you can talk about the existence of good, and how Goodness has a source, and that source wants a relationship with all of us.

Valentine’s day has morphed into a celebration of romantic love and sex with a large love it/hate it following and a whole industry devoted to relieving you of your money in return for flowers, chocolates, lingerie, etc. etc. This is a crowd as far removed from caring about martyrdom for the sake of Christ as possible.  Attempting to teach about the historical saint’s beheading is not only going to fall on deaf ears, it will also get you filed under “Irrelvant”.

Instead, take the Pope’s lead, and use the day to model godly uses of the gift of love and sex:

We need to sharpen our cultural literacy, our ability to read and operate within the world. Look at St. Patrick, who, according to legend, took a humble native plant, one completely familiar to the people he was hoping to teach, and used it to explain the concept of the Holy Trinity.  Use was is familiar and at hand in your evangelization efforts, and take a deep breath before railing against what they did to good St. Patrick’s feast day.

Cari Donaldson is the author of Pope Awesome and Other Stories: How I Found God, Had Kids, and Lived to Tell the Tale. She married her high school sweetheart, had six children with him, and now spends her days homeschooling, writing, and figuring out how to stay one step ahead of her child army. She blogs about faith and family life at clan-donaldson.com.

Tags:
ChristmasHalloweenValentines Day
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