Every year, Jesus disappears. Not the real Jesus, of course. Each December, lots of little baby Jesus statues vanish from nativity displays across the country. A few years ago, a British paper spotted the pattern and ran the following headline: “Thefts of Baby Jesus Figurines Sweep the U.S.”
Some people connect these nativity thefts to a bigger trend. Specifically, they’re convinced that there’s a movement afoot to declare “war” on Christmas. That’s certainly possible. In recent years, cities across the country have expunged “Christmas trees” from public squares, replacing them with innocuous “holiday trees.” And major retailers have opted to avoid saying “Merry Christmas,” substituting the generic and allegedly less offensive “Happy Holidays.” Under consumer pressure, some stores have reverted to “Christmas” language; but then there was the Gap’s convoluted let’s-please-everyone holiday cheer: “Go Christmas, Go Kwanzaa, Go Solstice . . . Go Christmas, Go Hanukkah, Go whatever holiday you Wannakuh.”
But is there really a war on Christmas? Major media outlets have called it a “phony” conflict based on “manufactured outrage.” Yet a 2012 survey conducted by Public Policy Polling found that 47 percent of Americans feel that the struggle is real. At the very least, there are influential people in our culture who wouldn’t mind diluting and muting the biblical version of Christmas.
What did you expect?
So how should Christians engage in this alleged fracas? Like the apostle Paul on Mars Hill (Acts 17:16), we may initially feel “greatly distressed” by our neighbors’ ignorance about the gospel. But at some point, we’ll also need to start asking ourselves a few hard questions about our response to this cultural clash. For starters, we might ask, So there’s a “war” on Christmas—what did we expect? The first chapter of John’s gospel clearly tells us that Jesus, the world’s Creator and true Light, came to visit our planet, and yet “His own did not receive Him” (John 1:11). Throughout His earthly life, Jesus repeatedly told us that He would be dismissed and rejected, and He promised we’d get the same treatment. So based on Jesus’ own teaching, I’m not sure where we got the idea that the world would unanimously and zestfully join us in a yearly birthday bash for our Savior.
Christians have the freedom to obey Jesus and shine His light into the world no matter how our neighbors respond to Him.
At times, we sound like a football quarterback complaining about the other team. “Those uncooperative defensive linemen keep rushing at me,” he tells his coach. “I could complete every pass, but they’re always in my face, yelling, throwing their arms in the air, threatening me. Sometimes they even knock me and my teammates to the ground!” He sounds shocked. I can imagine the coach grabbing the guy by the facemask and saying something like, “Are you kidding me? Dude, that’s what the defense does. Don’t worry about them, and just start completing passes.”
Jesus never said that we’re entitled to act unlike Him because people resist His grace and truth. If others are unkind, rude, and bent on belittling one of our holy days, it means that we have an incredible opportunity to “repay evil with blessing” (1 Peter 3:9 NIV). As followers of Christ and as members of a democratic society, we should speak truth into the public square.
But Christians have an even greater freedom: the freedom to obey Jesus and shine His light into the world no matter how our neighbors respond to Him. In other words, just because some people are acting like sinners shouldn’t stop us from acting like saints. To use the quarterback analogy again, “completing passes” implies responses like, Be creative in your witness, be gracious in your hospitality, and be a winsome blessing—even when it feels as if people want to knock you down.
So the next time someone says “Happy Holidays,” don’t just get offended. Start a conversation. Say something like, “Thank you for your kindness. Our family is excited to celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ. What are you excited about during this season?” And then listen. Ask questions. Show respect and engage a real human being. It might be risky. It’ll take time. But it sure beats perpetuating a war.
Which side are you on?
Here’s another honest question to consider: In the war against Christmas, which side are you really on? In other words, we may have more in common with the “Happy Holidays” crowd than we’d like to admit. Look at it this way: The essence of the “war” on Christmas is to make the season less about Jesus and the radical, surprising, mysterious, life-changing call to follow Him as Lord and Savior, and more about promoting a bland, generic, innocuous season of vague appeals to spirituality and morality. An article on the BBC’s website seems to agree with this stripped-down, Jesus-lite version of Christmas. The article concludes, “Christmas remains a time to forget about the long dark days and celebrate with friends and family.” For many people, the reason for the season gets reduced to tidy and trite maxims: Be nicer, try harder, hang out with your friends, be less materialistic.
For many people, the season gets reduced to tidy and trite maxims: Be nicer, try harder, hang out with your friends, be less materialistic.
And every year the drive to get more shopping done at an earlier date piles more pressure on our bursting-at-the-seams holiday plans. Last year, Americans spent a record-smashing $59.1 billion over the four-day Thanksgiving weekend. But retailers are strategizing ways to urge us to start even before Thanksgiving, a reality dubbed “Christmas creep.” No wonder the comedian Stephen Colbert joked: “Halloween is right around the corner. You can tell because all the stores are decked out for Christmas.”
Unfortunately, it’s easy for Christians to slide into our culture’s moralistic, consumer-driven approach to celebrating the “holidays.” This attitude even seeps into our relationship with the Lord. As a result, followers of Christ also enter the season trying harder to be nice and to make our Christian lives a little more presentable to God. After all, there are a lot of “Christmas rules” to follow: Don’t be too materialistic (but make sure you get the right presents for everybody); don’t get too busy (but make sure you get to all the church-school-work Christmas events); don’t be unhappy or depressed (but be serious about the season)—and hopefully, you too can get on God’s Nice List. It’s enough to get us all tied up in knots.
What Christmas is all about
Now, granted, niceness is a good thing, but first and foremost, Christmas isn’t about us. It’s not about our schemes for moral improvement or our plans to qualify for something more than coal, spiritually speaking. The biblical story of Christmas focuses on what God has done for us in Christ. And this isn’t a generic holiday story. It’s the story about a specific God who came to earth at a specific time and place, who allowed Himself to be born through a specific woman in order to accomplish a specific mission of redemption for the world.
The Bible captures the reason for the season in one word: Immanuel, or “God with us.” It’s not just a nice word; it’s a downright scandalous word. It means that God, the Creator of all things—the One whose holy name was not even pronounced—gently “pitches His tent” with us (the literal translation of John 1:14), first as a zygote, then a potentially unwanted pregnancy, and eventually as a slimy and wrinkled baby. Later, He was a 12-year-old boy lost in the city (Luke 2:41-48); after that, a preacher and healer, and finally a condemned criminal, stripped naked, asking for water as He prayed with parched lips, “My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?” And even more glorious, as the ancient creed says, He did all of this “for us . . . and for our salvation.”
So in order to break from our culture’s war on Christmas, here’s one small suggestion for this Christmas season: Be shocked by the gospel. Take the time to know it in its fullness. For hundreds of years, followers of Christ had Advent—a four-week-long season dedicated to letting the wonderful, beautiful, stunning message of Christ’s birth penetrate into their lives. Advent allowed Christians to pay attention, remember, pray, and express their ache for the coming of Christ. It was a time to be like Mary, that humble, receptive peasant girl who “treasured all these things, pondering them in her heart” (Luke 2:20). Or we could approach December as a time to, as John the apostle urged us, “Behold, what manner of love the Father has given us” (1 John 3:1 NKJV). Advent is saying, “Stop and be re-amazed by the message of Jesus.”
So this Christmas, before you try harder to get life right, let Jesus captivate you all over again. You’ll be a lot more impressed with the Savior and less worried about the battles in our culture.