Christmas is here. It’s time to celebrate Jesus, exchange gifts, and spend time with family.
We tend to emphasize how much the culture gets wrong about Christmas, but it’s just as important to recognize how the popular celebration of Christmas gets much right.
First: Our delight in receiving gifts is a beautiful proxy for our delight in receiving God.
Gifts are the star of the show in Secular Christmas, and while consumerism is loathsome, gift exchanges are a very good thing.
It’s like the Easter candy C.S. Lewis wrote about in Reflections on the Psalms: “I have been told of a very small and very devout boy who was heard murmuring to himself on Easter morning a poem of his own composition, which began ‘Chocolate eggs and Jesus risen’. This seems to me, for his age, both admirable poetry and admirable piety.”
The way ritual and celebration works, all the sincerity and fun gets swept into one in our minds and hearts. A wedding with no reception would feel like it was missing something, and getting together to offer Thanksgiving to God would not be nearly as meaningful without spending hours preparing a feast.
In the same way, the excitement about gifts and Jesus belong together. After all, getting gifts for no reason but Christmas teaches that we receive everything for no reason but God’s love.
Second: Our delight in giving teaches us our true human vocation.
Christmas has done a wonderful thing, in the way it has transformed people’s understanding of their lives’ purposes.
It’s the lesson of all the favorite Christmas stories: Rudolph and other children’s heroes save Christmas by saving the toy-giving; Hallmark heroines transform their ambition from selfish to selfless; and generosity teaches George Bailey that It’s a Wonderful Life. Christmas stories also tell us the giving has to continue year-round. “I will honor Christmas in my heart, and try to keep it all the year,” says Ebenezer Scrooge and Kris Kringle in The Miracle on 34th Street says, “Christmas isn’t just a day; it’s a frame of mind.”
This transforms people’s purposes in exactly the way Jesus intended: Like his, our vocation is to give to all and not to count the cost.
Third: Christmas teaches us the power of being home, with family.
As Garrison Keillor put it, “A lovely thing about Christmas is that it’s compulsory, like a thunderstorm, and we all go through it together.” Dr. Seuss said the same thing differently: “Christmas Day will always be, just as long as we have we.”
In fact, the family as we know it was created by Christmas. The Jewish conception of the family was already stronger than its neighbors’ — Jewish women worshiped in the same Temple as Jewish men, and Jewish infants were God’s and could never be left to die as Pagan infants often were. Christianity took this miles further when God himself came to us through a family rather than as a solitary prophetic man.
Which brings us to the best feature of Secular Christmas, where it still remains.
From A Charlie Brown Christmas (1965) to Journey to Bethlehem (2023), even in Secular Christmas, Baby Jesus is still the Reason for the Season.
That’s huge. This year my family joined Father Hughes Sundeme as he blessed an outdoor Nativity set in the farming town of Effingham, Kansas. He said that, growing up in Ghana, “We didn’t have Bibles. The Nativity scene was our Bible.”
That’s true for many people today: Nativity scenes are practically the only Gospel — and they reveal practically the whole Gospel.
The angel and star indicate that he is from heaven. The worshipping shepherds and magi (or Santa) demonstrate that Jesus is divine. And his presence in a manger — a place that is half outside and half in — shows that he is open to all of us, if we are willing to seek him out.
Pray that this year’s Secular Christmas inspires more to take the journey to Jesus.