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Is Christmas Contaminated?

I had a colleague (this was years ago) who was assigned to a small town church whose members opposed any celebration of Christmas. When December came, the church members would drive past and peer in the parsonage windows, to check whether the new pastor’s family had Christmas decorations. So when my friend’s wife insisted they have a Christmas tree for their little boy, they had to set it up in the bathtub, that being the only room the church members couldn’t readily see into!

That Christmas is contaminated by paganism and popery is an article of faith to Jehovah’s Witnesses, and pops up occasionally among the rest of us. Here, at least, one needn’t rely on florid imaginings to fuel his or her paranoia, for unquestionably some of the trappings of Christmas—trees, candles, holly and mistletoe—can be sourced back to pre-Christian winter solstice celebrations. When this became known among the 17th century Cromwellians, they banned Christmas altogether.[1]

As long as I’m not its target, I find mildly entertaining the idea that a certain thing shouldn’t be done or enjoyed or expressed or looked at for no other reason than that if you trace back far enough you’d find it was done or enjoyed or expressed or looked at by someone whose beliefs differed from ours. So if ancient pagans found evergreen boughs cheering in the dead of winter, we shouldn’t decorate with them or we may, without knowing it, become a little pagan ourselves.

I suppose these things could be explained in Jungian terms as archetypal symbols that attack Christianity in our subconscious, silent carriers of a spiritual ebola, like Satanic messages backmasked in “Stairway to Heaven.” I’ve never heard an explanation that coherent, though. Usually it smells of superstition, like bad luck emanating from the number 13. Someone said to me once of the symbol of the cross, “When you use that symbol you are actually worshipping Tammuz, whether you know it or not!” Another time a woman accused me that the medieval paintings of the Holy Family I’d used in the slides for my Christmas sermon had introduced demonic presences into the church, because the subjects had halos, which she believed, in her extensive study of all things spiritually befouling, had some such sinister significance. (I wasn’t sure, and am not to this day, what damage was supposed to have occurred in the congregation, because everyone else assumed the halos showed the radiance of God’s glory until she told them otherwise—which raises the question of who introduced the alleged demons. Fortunately, even after seeing the pictures, the rest of the church members didn’t seem any more demonic than usual.)

I suspect this way of thinking is better explained by another Jungian concept: the dark shadow side of the personality that tries to process, in the tenebrous antechambers of the subconscious and under other (sometimes unrelated) figures, unadmitted fears and shameful aggressions. For almost always these symbol interpretations are illogical, rooted in fear, and employed for spiritual one-upmanship.

As for Christmas, I’m inclined to agree with Charles Dickens, one of two people most responsible for the revival of the holiday: “I have always thought of Christmas time, when it has come round, as a good time: a kind, forgiving, charitable, pleasant time: the only time I know of, in the long calendar of the year, when men and women seem by one consent to open their shut-up hearts freely, and to think of people below them as if they really were fellow passengers to the grave, and not another race of creatures bound on other journeys. And therefore. though it has never put a scrap of gold or silver in my pocket, I believe that it has done me good, and will do me good; and I say, God bless it.” (The other Christmas revivalist was Queen Victoria, who from childhood had loved traditional Christmas customs. She married her cousin, the German Prince Albert, who brought with him from Saxe-Coburg a robust Christmas tradition. After the royal family was pictured in a popular magazine engraving standing by a decorated tree, everyone wanted one.)

Interestingly, our own Victorian founder didn’t think Christmas particularly sinister. Ellen White did with the Christmas tree what we have occasionally accused Roman Catholicism of doing with other pagan practices: she co-opted it for a good purpose, recommending that “churches present to God Christmas trees in every church, and then let them hang thereon the fruits of beneficence and gratitude—offerings coming from willing hearts and hands, fruits that God will accept as an expression of our faith and our great love to Him for the gift of His Son, Jesus Christ.”[2] Some believers questioned this: “Some have said to me, ‘Sister White, what do you think of this? Is it in accordance with our faith?’ I answer them, ‘It is with my faith.’”[3]

We needn’t rely on the doubtful significance of pagan traditions to identify the spiritual problem with Christmas. It’s hiding in plain sight. When a Friday named after the change in ink color on retailers’ balance sheets becomes a sort of ersatz holiday, then we know that some deep cultural currents have intersected and crossed. I know it’s a familiar and tiresome rant, but it’s no less true for having been said before: what irony that an infant born in poverty, choosing as an adult to live in poverty, is celebrated by gluttish consumption! Yet in our gimme culture this may be the the closest we can come to understanding Christmas, for our giving good gifts to our children is at least a sort of louche adaptation of a comparison Jesus made to our heavenly father’s willingness to give good gifts to us.[4]

Thank God, all the allure of free market capitalism is no match for that barn-born babe! A favorite passage from Frederick Buechner: “The claim that Christianity makes for Christmas is that at a particular time and place God came to be with us Himself. When Quirinius was governor of Syria, in a town called Bethlehem, a child was born who, beyond the power of anyone to account for, was the high and lofty One made low and helpless. The One who inhabits eternity comes to dwell in time. The One whom none can look upon and live is delivered in a stable under the soft, indifferent gaze of cattle. The Father of all mercies puts Himself at our mercy.”[5]

Whatever else happens at Christmas, it reminds us that God loved us so much that He became, through Jesus, vulnerable to us. The Father of all mercies placed himself at our mercy. And He remains vulnerable. God still rejoices with us, still weeps with us. He loves to see us succeed, and His heart still breaks for us when we fail. He would die for us again were it necessary. Whatever fearful meanings should be found skulking in the Yuletide frippery, let us remember that Jesus’ birth disclosed the world-changing power of the incarnation with perfect clarity, without camouflage or encryption. It is all there on the surface of the story: that He loves us more than His own life, that He is far stronger than the enemy, that we need not live in fear. This is the reason for joy in the world. And when all the crumpled wrapping paper has been stuffed in the bin, the dead tree left at the curb, the decorations replaced in the attic, and the toys pushed to the back of the closet, what is left is this: God came to be with us Himself, and that changed everything.

[1] They believed the Bible specifically condemned Christmas trees in Jeremiah 10:13-14: “For the customs of the peoples are false: a tree from the forest is cut down, and worked with an ax by the hands of an artisan. People deck it with silver and gold; they fasten it with hammer and nails so that it cannot move.”

[2] Review and Herald, December 11, 1879

[3]Review and Herald, January 29, 1884

[4] Mt. 7:12

[5] Secrets in the Dark: A Life in Sermons by Frederick Buechner & Brian D. McLaren, p.93

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