A good question: What is Christmas for?
Each month we ask one question, and get four answers.
This month: What’s the point of Christmas?
‘The holiday shopping spree has gotten out of hand’
Christmas has two functions. First, for Christians, it’s a time to remember their founding story, the incarnation of the Sacred. We recall that the Christ child arrives not among power elites, but to those on the economic and social fringes of society. This is an ancient message of consolation and hope for those on the margins – for everyone who yearns for a better world.
Secondly, for people both inside and outside the church, Christmas functions as a time when we strengthen our communities by giving gifts to each other. Gift-giving is like social glue – we not only show appreciation, we also acknowledge our inter-dependence. Unfortunately, this gift-giving ritual has long been co-opted by the consumer economy.
It’s not enough to simply complain about the invasive ads and social pressure to over consume. We well know the holiday spree has gotten out of hand. We need to remind ourselves that the spirit of Christmas is about both gift-giving and showing regard for neighbours in need.
I see us entering a new period of restraint. To be sure, this is driven in part by economic insecurity, our awareness of finite resources, and disillusionment with the bells and whistles of the new and improved. But we are seeing through the hype.
For more than 10 years I’ve been an active participant in a little campaign called “Buy Nothing Christmas”. When we started, people first thought the campaign was silly. In a radio interview, a BBC interviewer asked me if I was the Grinch who stole Christmas (I guess, to him, I was). Now, people are less alarmed at the idea. People are hankering for change in how we celebrate.
Part of the desire for change is out of self-interest – many of us don’t have surplus income to splurge at Christmas. In addition, however, we are waking up to our responsibility to connect with others, and to the facts of the planet’s limited resources. We increasingly care about the working conditions of people in formerly far-away lands. We care about depleting nature. We care about shifting our gift-giving towards more sustainable ways.
Now, you’ll see families celebrating in much more creative, post-consumer ways: Some have special celebrations (like retreating to a cabin together, or having a sled-making contest, like our family did last year); others make gifts (photo albums, knitted scarves, baked goods, summer canning) or “re-gift” (give something they no longer need); others give vouchers to be redeemed later (promises of child care, pet-minding or home-cooked meals for example) or participate in making hampers for those in need. Either way, Christmas is for remembering that generosity is bestowed upon those in need.
‘Christmas is about the message of Jesus’
“Mum, this is not Father Christmas!” said my son, aged five, when he saw a bulky, oversized, white-bearded person give a terrible: “Ho ho ho!” – “It’s Rano!”
Rano (a pet name for my younger sister) had dressed up as Father Christmas, complete with a sack full of presents for all the children who had gathered in my house full of friends from all backgrounds. For our Muslim family, Christmas was a time when friends got together – some who celebrated Christmas from a religious perspective and some who just wanted to be with those who we had not seen for some time. It was an opportunity to get together and, of course, an opportunity to explain to our children why Christians celebrate Christmas (although we did have difficulty explaining the presence of Father Christmas, who would only arrive through the chimney!)
For many years, Christmas for me was a time to explain to my son about the birth of Jesus, as told by Christians: The three wise men, the custom of singing carols, the hanging of ivy, the Christmas tree and about Jesus’ mother Mary, who has a whole chapter dedicated to her in the Qur’an.
Now that my son is a young man, Christmas is very much a time to be together, to relax and to be at home. Christmas does not play a major part in our lives; however, personally I do think about Jesus – a prophet of virgin birth. What would Jesus say if he walked into our cathedral today? Would Jesus approve of the way we work, the way we treat each other, and the way we celebrate his birthday? Would he approve of the way we have commercialised Christmas? Would Jesus cancel Christmas, just as he overturned the money-lenders’ tables in the temple?
Christmas, for me, has to be about the message of Jesus, which seems to have become blurred – Jesus’ message of peace towards mankind, humanity towards those who are different, forgiveness and being just. I also find the stories of Jesus’ life as a “minimalist” extremely powerful.
There is an Islamic story which tells of Jesus carrying a comb and a jug, but when he sees someone combing his beard with his fingers, he throws away the comb, and when he sees someone drink water with the palms of his hand, he gives away his jug too. So, for me, Christmas is a time when there is a window of opportunity to reflect on how far we have moved away from the real message of the Messiah.
Anjum Anwar MBE is the dialogue development officer for Blackburn Cathedral; she is thought to be the first Muslim in the world to be employed by a church organisation
‘Christmas is being lost to secularism’
My Christmas starts with Advent Sunday. I put my tree up during the first week of December, and when my church fills with the hymn “O Come O Come Emmanuel”, I take it as my personal call to prepare. As each Sunday passes, and the world goes into a spending overdrive, there is something reassuring about the space Sunday worship gives me during Advent.
Most of all, I like to be at the midnight service on Christmas Eve. For me, the early morning celebration gives a real sense of expectation and arrival before the family get together for wider celebrations.
So Christmas is, above all, a Christian celebration of Christ; but recent survey findings reveal that just 12% of adults know the Nativity story and 36% of children do not know whose birthday is being celebrated at Christmas. With 51% of people now saying that the birth of Jesus is irrelevant to their Christmas, a tipping point has been reached. Christmas is being lost to secularism, and it would appear that more and more people don’t know or care what Christmas is for. That’s why I am helping to lead a campaign called “Christmas Starts with Christ”. It’s a church-backed campaign involving all major denominations, designed to reverse the trend and focus on “saving Christmas”.
To help Christians make the most of Advent – 25 days to share the Christmas story and remind people that Christmas starts with Christ – a selection of online resources are available at www.christmasstartswithchrist.com/resources including a free-to-use logo, especially-produced Christmas cards, posters and The Real Advent Calendar (an Advent calendar with a copy of the Christmas story in the box), produced by The Meaningful Chocolate Company, which I own.
The Real Advent Calendar was my response to the challenge of sharing the Christmas story over the 25 days of Advent. It was an interesting experience – breaking the story down into 25 short sentences that had to fit on the back of each calendar window! Designing the booklet that’s revealed in the final window was a great responsibility. It is great to think that on Christmas Eve more than half a million people will read that story as they open the final Advent window.
Christmas is such an important part of the church calendar; it is a time when Christians shine light in their communities. But the good news is being lost. We can’t sit back and let that happen. We cannot let the nation lose the real meaning of Christmas and we are passionate about uniting the church for this cause.
So, what will you do to make the most of your Advent?
David Marshall founded The Meaningful Chocolate Company and is director of the Christmas Starts with Christ campaign
‘Christmas’ challenge is to maintain both gospel standpoints’
The New Testament provides us with not one, but two different accounts of Jesus’ birth. One appears in Matthew’s gospel, the other is found in Luke’s. Both evangelists use their nativity stories to introduce who Jesus is and why he has come. Unfortunately, our holiday decorations, greeting cards, carols, and crèche sets tend to arbitrarily blend the particular details of each story. As a result, their respective lessons about Christmas get blurred almost beyond recognition. Reading these stories independently of one another brings their unique perspectives back into sharper focus.
Consider Matthew’s version. When Jesus is born, a star emblazons the sky, signalling dignitaries from exotic lands. They embark on their long journey, taking up to two years to reach Jerusalem. Once there, their arrival wreaks havoc — not only is King Herod troubled, but all Jerusalem with him. Plots are hatched. Calculations are made. Deals are struck. The magi continue onward, guided by the star. They find Jesus — at his house — and pay him homage with fantastic gifts. When they evade Herod, he launches a desperate assassination attempt. Warned by a dream, the holy family flees under cover of darkness to seek asylum in Egypt. Overall, Matthew’s portrayal is portentous, dramatic, and politically-charged. His Christmas serves to introduce Jesus as the King of the Jews, the long-awaited Messiah whose sensational arrival befits his royal status.
Contrast this to Luke’s account. Mary and Joseph are required to travel from Nazareth to Bethlehem for a state census. Lost in a sea of humanity, they are denied even a spare room there. In the back alley of some hostel, Mary gives birth, and must lay her child in a paltry feedbox. The entire event goes practically unnoticed, except when a few scruffy shepherds shuffle in from a neighbouring field. Eight days later, the holy family returns to Nazareth, stopping briefly to offer their temple sacrifice. Their gift — a pair of turtledoves — betrays their poverty. (The Jewish law required a yearling lamb to be offered, but exceptions were made for the poor.) Luke’s scene is humble, pedestrian, and unassuming — nearly opposite that of Matthew’s. Why? Because for Luke, Christmas serves to introduce Jesus as an equal-opportunity Saviour, one whose meagre circumstances reflect his solidarity with even the most insignificant and disenfranchised members of society.
Given such differences, the practical challenge is maintaining — without conflating — these standpoints. How? Take cues from the narratives’ visitors. Matthew’s magi made the Lord their top priority. They went to great lengths and endured significant obstacles just to find him. They placed themselves at his service, laying before him their most precious gifts. On the other hand, Luke’s shepherds discovered God in the humblest and most pedestrian of places. They encountered him among the poorest and most neglected members of society. These characters beg the question: Are we willing to do the same? If not, then what is Christmas for?
Steven Bridge is professor of biblical studies at Saint Joseph’s College in Maine, USA
This article featured in the December 2013/January 2014 edition of Reform.