Tim Stanley, writing in the Daily Telegraph this week, wants us to follow his example and boycott the Christmas cultural experience. He walks out of shops playing Christmas music in November. He is unimpressed with the hullabaloo in the weeks leading up to Christmas Day, preferring instead to concentrate on the so-called “Twelve Days of Christmas” which, in the Roman Catholic tradition, are far more important than Advent and only begin on Christmas Day itself.
In that tradition you celebrate from the birth of Christ to the (possible) arrival of the Wise Men on the twelfth day, Epiphany, the evening before being designated “Twelfth Night”. There is even, supposedly, reference to key biblical teaching hidden in the lyrics of the popular carol “The Twelve Days of Christmas” (although this is disputed by some authorities).
In his article, Stanley suggests that it is psychologically unhealthy to be anticipating for a couple months a celebration that will focus on a couple of days of present-giving and over-eating.
So, should we boycott Christmas?
It is certainly the case that Tim Stanley gives expression to what many Christians feel – that a tension clearly exists between what is supposed to be a celebration of the birth of the Son of God and the sugar-coated, consumerist, “magical” idea of Christmas that it has now become. Each passing year, it seems, the Christmas “event” becomes less and less about Jesus: Advertisements, Christmas cards and songs on the radio all focus on food, the family, presents, an unspecified feeling of peace and goodwill – and the remote possibility of snow.
But here is the dilemma: we do want to celebrate the birth of Jesus, and we do want to take the opportunities presented to us at this time of year the encourage people to consider the Christian gospel. We want them to come to events specifically put on by our churches at this time to capitalise on it being the season for Christmas carols and because there is still some residual sense in the culture that going to church in December might not be the most ridiculous thing imaginable. Whether we like it or not, the reality is that this is the one time of the year when it is relatively easy to invite your friends to church. But we sense there’s something pagan about the celebration at the same time.
So, should we fully embrace the coming weeks’ hype as something that is inevitably part of our culture and something which, positively, we can use for some gospel benefit? Or should we avoid it completely as something bordering on the blasphemous? Perhaps most of us stand somewhere in between those two views – uncomfortable about some aspects of the way we do Christmas, but still seeking to use it as a special time to give thanks together as families for the birth of Jesus Christ.
And when it is done right the buying, giving and receiving of presents and the feasting for a few days are good things we can enjoy with thankfulness to God. Some of us even enjoy the Christmas music and Christmas jumpers!
However you celebrate, or not, I encourage you to be godly about it. Don’t make Christmas a time when you abandon normal Christian behaviour as though God is giving you a day off; drunkenness, selfishness and greed – the idolatry of good food, possessions or experience – can spoil your witness and your relationships.
Also, be clear in your own mind and explain to your friends and family what it is about the “story” that is true and what is just mythology: Stick with the historical accounts in the Gospels; if you are going to do the Father Christmas thing, do it in a way that your kids know deep down that this is a just a game. Don’t try and pretend it is all about the birth of Jesus, but we can and should talk about his birth. And just as historically the celebration of Christmas was used to “redeem” pagan end-of-winter festivals, so too we can redeem each Christmas as we celebrate it correctly.
Above all, whether you think “Christmas” is Christian, and whether you celebrate the season or not, take every opportunity to point people to the astounding reality that God was “incomprehensibly made man”, not to give us some public holidays but for the purpose of saving his people from their sins.
That is definitely a good reason for a party.
Listen out for a lively discussion about Christmas coming soon on the Ordinary Podcast.