Because life is a series of edits

Christmas Getting in the Way of Christmas

In Holidays on December 23, 2009 at 9:59 am

December 11

I tend to get overly melancholic around Christmas-time (it doesn’t take much), but no more so than when I consider the tendency of the Church (and I’m including myself here) to do all we can to make sure Christmas gets in the way of Christmas. Allow me a few questions to those of us in the Body of Christ who should know better.

First off, have all the Christmas parties, White Elephant gift exchanges, brunches, lunches, dinners, desserts, children’s programs, cookie exchanges, decorating days, and trips to the mall provided the same degree of meaning proportional to the labor involved? I’m going to go out on a limb here and say “probably not,” but I’ll let you come up with your own set of rationalizations as to why it makes sense to do them year after year anyway.

Secondly, has the amount of time, money, and energy spent shopping for over-priced, poorly made, dumbly advertised, and rarely satisfying toys for kids and adults alike accurately communicated our intention to imitate God’s giving of his Son? Again, I’d be willing to venture that the desire to “find the perfect gift” was possibly more informed by an “I’ve got to get something for” obligation rather than “For God so loved the world,” but you’ll have to decide the extent to which that’s true.

In the meantime, consider this from the bi-weekly email I received today from Terry Mattingly at Scripps Howard News Service:

As the Christmas pageant dress rehearsal rolled to its bold finale, reporter Hank Stuever found his mind drifting away to an unlikely artistic destination — a masterpiece from the Cubist movement.

The cast of “It’s a Wonderful Life 2” reassembled on stage at Celebration Covenant Church, a suburban megachurch north of Dallas. There were characters from a Victorian tableau, along with Frosty the Snowman, young ballerinas and children dressed as penguins. Mary, Joseph and the baby Jesus were there, too.

Then, entering from stage right, came “an adult Christ stripped down to his loincloth and smeared with Dracula blood, dragging a cross to center stage while being whipped by two centurion guards,” writes Stuever, in Tinsel, his open-a-vein study of Christmas in the American marketplace. “Here is where the Nativity, Dickens and Burl Ives collide head-on with Good Friday, as Jesus is crucified while everyone sings ‘Hark the Herald Angels Sing,’ ending on a long, noisy note: ‘newborn kiiiiiiiiiiiiiiing.’

“Then they freeze.

“Hold it for applause.”

The scene was achingly sincere and painfully bizarre, with holy images jammed into a pop framework next to crass materialism. For millions of Americans, this is the real Christmas.

“I wrote it in my notes, right there in that church,” said Stuever. “I wrote, ‘It’s Picasso…I just couldn’t believe it.”

The bottom line? Most Americans say they want Bethlehem and the North Pole, but the truth is that they invest more time, energy and money at the North Pole…Thus, Tinsel seeks the meaning of Christmas in the material world itself, in the blitz of shopping, in houses draped in high-voltage lights, in the complex joys and tensions of family life. Stuever argues that the binges of shopping and feasting are as ancient — and more significant today — than the rites of praying and believing.

For Stuever, Christmas is fake, but that’s fine because fake is all there is. He argues that millions of Americans struggle to find the “total moments” of nostalgia and joy that they seek at Christmas because they are not being honest about why they do what they do during the all-consuming dash to Dec. 25.

“It’s so easy to see all of the craziness on TV and say, ‘Oh, those poor, stupid people,’ ” he said. “But when you get down there in the middle of it with them and listen to what people are saying and try to feel what they are feeling, you realize that all of that wildness is not just about buying the new Wii at Best Buy. It’s a religious experience for them, even though it couldn’t be more secular. They’re out there searching for transcendence, trying to find what they think is the magic of Christmas.”

Hey, Church, have we found it yet? Has the warm and fuzzy glow of the tree lights – combined with our ever-expanding waistlines from the egg nog, Christmas cookies, and Chex Mix – finally brought us to such an enlightened experience of Jesus’ birth that we all pretend to long for every year? Have we got our holiday Picasso on? Is it the North Pole or Bethlehem for us? Oh, but why choose when we can have it all!?

Are we doing our best to make sure Christmas gets in the way of Christmas, or do we still have enough of a conscience left to at least pause before we slide down Santa’s slippery slope of crass commercialism? (Of course, if we were to resist just one year, it would completely crash our economy, which has become absolutely dependent on our holiday attempts at buying meaning, so never mind because, well, it’s the economy, stupid.)

Is it too late for us, Church? Can we really be counter-culturally different? Could we at least see our need to try, believing – yea, perhaps even living like – trying really matters? After all, the incarnation of word and flesh is the true miracle of Christmas…now imagine if it were actually true in us.

For what it’s worth (and as genuinely as I can muster saying it), Merry Christmas. Now let the Scrooge comments begin (Dickens is, after all, a favorite holiday tradition)…

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  1. Hey, bro. You know I love you, and respect you. But I don’t get what all the fuss is about–I mean your fuss.
    Of course “the culture” is not going to understand the “reason for the season” (ugh, I hate that phrase). Why should they? And why should Christians be surprised or upset when they don’t? It’s totally expected.
    On the flip-side–why shouldn’t Christian’s join in a time of cultural celebration? We of all people have the most to be joyous about! We should be leading the celebration. We know the Reason for the season (ugh!). When the Pharisees asked Jesus why His disciples didn’t fast, He said, “Can the wedding guests fast while the bridegroom is with them? As long as they have the bridegroom with them, they cannot fast.” (Mark 2:19) We still have the bridegroom with us, by His Spirit. So the celebration continues!
    Of course, commercialization and materialism are rampant problems in our world–within and without the church–but I’d like to pick a different occasion to fight that battle. I think it’s fun to give and get gifts. I think it’s fun to decorate the tree and watch Christmas movies. I think it’s fun to eat Christmas cookies and sing Christmas carols (they are the best hymns we sing all year). And I don’t see anything in the “true meaning” of Christmas that says we should be hesitant about having fun. And no amount of my own personal reflection, or introspection, or meditation on the Incarnation is going to make God’s gift of Christ any more real or applicable to me. It’s a done deal–the blessing is ours.
    So, I hope you get to enjoy some time off and some time with your family.
    Blessed Christmas to the Dunhams!

  2. Okay Craig – just read your last two posts and you have prompted my first blog response. Ever. Saturday’s post makes me sad but more on that another time… Melancholy? Jimmy Steward and Charlie Brown were melancholy. Let’s just call you the Grinch. I can’t argue with your observations of the commercialistic nature of Christmas among believers or unbelievers alike. But, here’s my counter… I love that I had the freedom last night to sing Joy to the World and Silent Night on an unbelieving neighbor’s doorstep and they smiled in response and gladly accepted the gift with the second chapter of Luke printed on it. We wouldn’t or couldn’t do that in July. I love hearing my daughter explain to a friend that the wise men don’t belong in the nativity scene because they didn’t show up until 2 years later: “You can read about it in Matthew!” she exclaimed. I love piling in the car to gawk at the lights, both the elegant and ridiculous, while reminding the kids, “Do you realize how much money someone spent on this display just so we can enjoy them? I love the anticipation of seeing our kids’ faces when they open THE gift we’ve chosen for them. I love building our traditional marshmallow castle and making hand-dipped pretzels for the pastors and teachers. My stress comes from feeling obliged in the quid-pro-quo gift card exchange with the nephews and nieces or my last minute fears that I’ve forgotten someone. But that’s mostly my lack of planning or my unwillingness to have the honest conversation to change the rules. I agree that there is a lot crammed into the few weeks leading up to Christmas, so I’ve decided to invite you to my white elephant exchange in May and my kids’ recitals in September, just so you can spread out your cheer. Now, go watch Charlie Brown’s Christmas. Merry Christmas Craig.

  3. Just got back from the grocery store prompting two more thoughts…I also love that at this time of year I receive smiles from strangers without thinking they’ve mistaken me for someone else. And I love that my kids want to give every time to the bell-ringer at the kettle, as well as give to the toy drive at church or buy a goat for our World Vision boy. I think this is evidence of the incarnation, Immanuel. For us, He is among us and in us. The world simply longs for him and attempts to imitate what they see in us.

  4. I think the quote could have stopped at “It’s a Wonderful Life 2” and I would have understood completely.

  5. Thanks for your comments, Nick and Katie. I’m glad (really, truly) that you enjoy the American version of Christmas as much as you do. I just don’t – I’m simply unable to look at/through the other stuff and still enjoy what comes out in the mix without my conscience going off like Rudolph’s nose.
    Interestingly, you don’t seem to disagree with my points at all, just my response in dealing with them. I’m sorry, but I guess we’ll just have to make sure we’re at different parties this time of year (that is, you at one, me probably not – nothing personal, of course).
    Crawling back to the top of Grinch Mountain now…Merry Christmas.

  6. You share a lot of excellent points about your struggles with the “American Christmas” but here is what I am wondering: What steps are you taking to rectify the situation? I completely understand the frustrations that you feel, but I don’t think waving a white flag is the right response. Perhaps instead of bumming out around Christmas time, focus on how you think Christmas time should be treated – and then take steps to make it like that for you and your family – variables you can control. I have a general rule about people who complain about culture/life in America: No complaining unless you are ready to offer up a resolution. If you do have a resolution, please let me know as I do not want to make an accusation without weight.
    Also, in your comment back to Nick and Katie you also made an observation that at no point did they disagree with your points, just your response, and I definitely do not agree with your response as well – just to be clear.
    However, I sincerely wish you a Merry Christmas and I really do hope that you can start to be content with how you can celebrate Christmas.
    Noah

  7. Noah, my family members are not variables I can or get to “control,” regardless of how much I could or may want to. As to suggestions, my solution is the piece: I’m not raising a white flag to give up, but rather one to rally folks to walk away from the commercialism and self-inflicted stress of Christmas once and for all. The general reaction tends to be similar to yours: excellent points that no one wants to act on. Thanks for the Christmas wishes. I appreciate them.

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