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Christmas as a Cultural Holiday

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Christmas means different things to different people in different cultures. In some parts of Central Europe, fasting is observed on Christmas Eve. In Sweden, a small bowl of porridge is left out for an invisible gnome to consume. Even Santa Claus is subject to the specific culture in which Christmas is celebrated. Whether he is Father Christmas in the United Kingdom or Saint Nicholas in Croatia, the jolly old elf takes on a different meaning to different observers of Christmas.

In most countries, the religious undertones are present. In Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic and Slovakia, the baby Jesus Himself is the bearer of gifts. Here in the United States, nativity scenes are strewn across churches and the front lawns of homes and even businesses. And for what? To show that we are observing the birth of Jesus Christ, which is supposedly on December 25th.

I’m hesitant to say that it’s a lie that Jesus was born on December 25th because I wasn’t around back then. Besides, there’s always that 1 in 365 chance that Christ was born on that day (even though there’s no real credible proof to indicate that). And I’m sure many Christians are well aware of the fact that no one truly knows when Christ was born. The common answer I typically hear to that is “well, that’s just when we choose to celebrate it.” Fair enough. After all, if we can tell our children that an obese old man parades across the world in a sleigh pulled by flying reindeer, we can also say that Jesus was born on December 25th with an ambiguous sense of certainty.

But even though I’m a Christian, I must confess that I do not observe Christmas as a religious holiday. Indeed, I have celebrated Christmas all my life and have even attended a Christmas midnight mass (even though I’m not a Catholic). But is Christmas a part of my religion? Not really.

To some Christians, I probably sound like an apostate, reprobate, or even an atheist for keeping the “Christ” out of Christmas. After all, Jesus is the reason for the season, isn’t He? Frankly, I find that to be a bit of a stretch. Christ never commanded that anyone observe His birthday. The entire Bible is void of any reference to the observation of Christmas. Certainly, the birth of Christ is chronicled in the gospels, but the Bible never speaks of Paul exchanging gifts with Peter or Timothy preparing a nativity scene with the church at Ephesus. Christmas is primarily cultural, traditional, and societal. And that’s how I observe it.

If God had commanded me to commemorate Christ’s birth on December 25th, I guarantee you I would do it. But He didn’t. Personally, I celebrate Christmas like I celebrate most other holidays. Whether it’s a birthday, the Fourth of July, Halloween, or even Thanksgiving, I enjoy the customs and traditions of each occasion in their proper context.

Now lest you, dear reader, think of me as a grinch, Scrooge, or some other villain-turned-hero of Christmas lore, I assure you that I am a believer in the Christmas season and the positive effect it has on the world. Soup kitchens serving Christmas meals, charities spreading goodness and kindness to those who are less fortunate, families getting together, gift-giving, cheerful hearts, positive attitudes, generosity – all of these things are wonderful and even honorable.

But allow me to draw your attention to something that is in the Bible. In Acts 2:44-47, it says “And all who believed were together and had all things in common. And they were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need. And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they received their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved.”

Parts of that passage sound a bit familiar don’t they? Generosity, joyful hearts, eating meals together. But in this context, the people weren’t celebrating a specific holiday. This is a look at how members of the early Christian church spent time together year-round. In a sense, it was a lot like Christmas.

So when my fervently religious friends get bent out of shape about the next department store forsaking the traditional “Merry Christmas” in favor of the more politically-correct “Happy Holidays,” I have trouble sharing in their misery. To me, Christmas isn’t a seasonal obligation to remember Christ. It’s a time to enjoy being around family, embracing the the customs and traditions of the holiday season, and of course, eating that delicious, calorie-ridden food that only comes once a year. Besides, as a Christian, I should remember the importance of Christ and His sacrifice all year long anyway.

But let me be clear, I am not in any way attempting to dissuade those who practice Christmas religiously from doing so. As Romans 12 says, “One person esteems one day as better than another, while another esteems all days alike. Each one should be fully convinced in his own mind. The one who observes the day, observes it in honor of the Lord…” and further on in the chapter, “The faith that you have, keep between yourself and God. Blessed is the one who has no reason to pass judgment on himself for what he approves.”

So if you feel the need to celebrate Christmas as a religious holiday and honor the birthday of Christ, that’s between you and God. But if not, you can do as I do and embrace Christmas as a cultural holiday. Or I suppose you could choose Hannukah or some other holiday if you like. You could even choose the pagan holiday of Yule, which is believed to be the original holiday that Christmas was based on. No matter how you celebrate the holiday season, I wish you a Merry Christmas, or [insert your holiday greeting here].

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About Braden

  • James

    Nice job, Braden! Good explanations, sir!

  • Julie

    and a happy new year! :)

  • Ruvy

    Nice to see no holiday bashing this year.