(RNS) Every December, a lot of Christians become concerned that Christmas is more about presents, shopping, parties and decorations than the Nativity.
Debates pop up each year, usually in concert with culture-war concerns: Should store clerks say “Merry Christmas” or “Happy Holidays”?
This year, a new controversy emerged over an LGBT-themed Christmas tree ornament that depicts the Holy Family with two Josephs or two Marys.
But here’s the thing: You can’t take the Christ out of Christmas.
Christmas is, by definition, a religious holy day on which Christians celebrate the birth of Jesus. Scholars believe Jesus was probably born in the summertime. They say the church later appropriated a pagan holiday around the winter solstice. From the earliest centuries, Christians’ commemoration of the Nativity has contended with cultural influences.
That’s no less true today. In the U.S. and much of the world, friends and co-workers have holiday parties, families gather, gifts are purchased and given, end-of-year statistics and accounting are completed.
These activities are neither intrinsically good nor evil. Their association with Christmas may or may not be helpful, but they do not necessarily detract from Jesus as “the reason for the season.”
Yet the hand-wringing about taking Christ out of Christmas seems to intensify every year, especially as American culture becomes more secular and pluralistic. Is Christmas now reduced to a quasi-religious economic bonanza?
It doesn’t have to be.
What we need is a clear and honest assessment of what Christmas is, who is engaged in religious devotion on Dec. 25, and what they are celebrating.
It is entirely possible to attend parties, give and receive gifts, decorate your home, and gather with family without ever celebrating Christmas. Many of us do our part to stimulate the economy without ever drawing near to the babe in Bethlehem. It’s one thing to take no note of Jesus’ coming, but it seems to me an egregious dishonor to pretend that we have.
Churches mark Advent for four Sundays, a time of preparation and longing for Jesus. The Christmas season itself continues for 12 days, concluding with the Feast of the Epiphany on Jan. 6, which commemorates the appearance of Jesus to the world.
It’s no accident that low-church Protestants complain most loudly about the true meaning of Christmas being lost. Liturgical Protestants, Catholics, and Orthodox Christians have a perfect guide for celebrating Christmas built into their faith traditions. Evangelicals may find no biblical warrant for Advent, Christmastide, or Epiphany, but they should celebrate Christmas more like other Christians, and less like shopping malls.
If you are guided by the cultural Christmas calendar, you will be too tired by Dec. 25 to celebrate that, “When the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his son” (Galatians 4:4). But if you are exhausted, then you have been celebrating something other than Christmas.
I feel bad for saying so, especially since I see how much effort my wife and mother put into making Christmas magical for children. But the magic of Christmas is the Incarnation, not Santa Claus. It’s no wonder children grow up so confused about this.
And yet I would not condemn all the cultural trappings of Christmas. A lot of them are fun, good and joyful. But it’s much easier and more important to give to those in need than to find the perfect gift for someone who has everything.
Focus on presence, not presents.
And if you intend to celebrate Christmas as a religious holy day, go to church.
Each of us decides what we celebrate this time of year. One thing is clear: We cannot take Christ out of Christmas. But we can ignore him. Many of us will, leaving it to others to adore the baby in the manger.
(Jacob Lupfer is a contributing editor at RNS and a doctoral candidate in political science at Georgetown University)