5 Myths about Christmas

If you're worried about America kicking Christ out of Christmas, you might need to brush up on your history.

There are lots of common myths about the birth of Christ our culture gets wrong from the date to the three wise men to the "No Vacancy" sign hanging in front of the inn (you can read about those here). But I'm not talking about Christ's birth; I'm talking about Christmas--particularly how it's celebrated in the U.S. So if you're concerned that Christmas is becoming increasingly secular in our country, fear not. It always has been.

Christmas is in the Bible

Leviticus 23 records the seven, main religious celebrations in the Bible from Pesach to Sukkot. But some national ones are also mentioned like Purim in Esther and Hanukkah (or the Feast of Dedication) which Jesus celebrated in John 10. What's not mentioned is Christmas. Yes, the birth of Christ is found in Matthew and Luke, but the celebration of Christmas as either a religious or national holiday isn't found anywhere in Scripture. Neither is Easter for that matter.

The only event in Christ's life that Christians are called to (better, commanded to) commemorate is his crucifixion through the Eucharist. That's not to say that Jesus' incarnation isn't important. To the contrary, John reminds us that our confession must include Christ coming in the flesh. Rather, just like he fulfilled the law, Jesus fulfilled the feasts. Those appointed times were meant to draw God's people closer to understanding his plan for redemption, and that plan culminated in one person. Thus, there is no longer a need to celebrate anything other than the means through which we are saved--the blood of Christ.

Christmas is the same as Advent

If you're a evangelical, you probably have no idea what Advent is about because, like me, you never observed it. I grew up thinking it was the Christian version of the twelve days of Christmas or some clever ruse to get people in church more often during December. In short, a month-long Christmas celebration. But according to the church calender, Christmas is meant to be a day for observing Christ's birth while Advent is a season of preparation for that observance. And a key part of this preparation (especially during the first two weeks) is the theme of longing. You might say that while Christmas is about "Joy to the World", Advent is about "O Come, O Come Emmanuel."

This differs greatly from how most people observe Christmas, even in the evangelical church. Christmas is a celebration. Especially in America, it's a season for holiday parties because God has shown us such great favor by sending his ambassador of peace of earth. Probably because we're so awesome and deserved it. But we forget that the era before Christ's birth was a dark time. The law had failed; it didn't bring redemption. And God had removed his glory from the temple which meant that he hadn't spoken through a prophet for hundreds of years. His people felt forgotten and were in need of the promised savior. Without Advent, Christmas is almost an arbitrary affair--another excuse for excess and excitement that doesn't recognize the need we all have for redemption. Another holiday where we can celebrate "god" without really knowing him.

Christmas is about Jesus

Christmas didn't come to America through the piety of the religiously fervent Puritans. They hated it. According to them (and their asceticism), Christmas was a day of wasteful indulgence and immoral mischief. In other words, prior to recent history, Christmas looked more like Mardi Gras than Norman Rockwell. In fact, by the mid-seventeenth century, Christmas celebrations had largely been banned in New England.

It wasn't until the mid-nineteenth century that Christmas in America saw a revival. Just not for Jesus' sake. The country at that time was undergoing a lot of change from industry to urbanization to civil war. The latter in particular emphasized how fragmented the loose confederation really was. But as technology brought the nation closer together, a need arose to unify the disparate segments of society under a national banner. Enter Christmas: a holiday about warmth, family, and togetherness. By the time it was made a federal holiday in 1885, Christmas was more about keeping America's melting pot from cooling than celebrating the birth of Christ. Which explains why 81% of Americans today emphasize family over religion in their observance.

Christmas is a Christian holiday

Almost everyone agrees that America is no longer a Christian nation. But to say that it ever was would be to ignore the establishment of this country a world away from the Enlightenment sweeping Europe.

Up until the mid-seventeenth century, theology was known as the "queen of the sciences." Likewise, being a Christian was just a part of accepted culture for hundreds of years. So while the Enlightenment produced a very "secular" Europe, a few thousand miles of ocean kept America relatively insulated from its effects (apart from Locke). The result was a continued acceptance of religion as just another extension of moral behavior and civic duty. And saying that the United States was a Christian nation because it was founded on Judeo-Christian values is like saying that France is loyal to the Roman Empire because its language is based on the most prevalent language of the time.

In the same way, Christmas grew up during a heavily religious climate that was so diluted by the time it came to America, it was virtually unrecognizable as a Christian celebration. Which means that Christmas in America has always been secular. The lights, the trees, the gifts, even Santa and his reindeer were nothing more than cultural tropes of a nation in need of some nostalgia.

Christmas is the reason for the season

Most Christians not only believe that Christmas is about Jesus, they want everyone else to believe that as well. As far as they're concerned, the month of December is dedicated to this single celebration. But apart from proclaiming that Christmas is about Jesus and reading Luke 2 in record time, their celebrations don't look much different from anyone else's. The same presents are wrapped with the same paper under the same tree with the same tinsel and lights. Early in the morning, bright-eyed children will tug at the limbs of groggy parents, and by the end of the day, everyone will be cozied up on the couch--the crisp, winter air augmented by the sound of a crackling fire and the aroma of eggnog and cinnamon. It's the perfect picture of an older time (like the 1850's) when families put aside their differences. And there's nothing overtly religious about it.

Keeping Christ in Christmas isn't about the Bible, liturgy, Jesus, or the church; it's about holding a nation hostage to an ordained conformity. To deny what Christmas is "really about" is to deny the God that made this country great. Or translated: it's a denial of the divine scarecrow carefully designed to conscript allegiance. This is why Christmas dwarfs all of the many other holidays this season. Diversity threatens conformity and nonconformity threatens compliance. Imagine a nation where each household celebrated according to their ethnic heritage, not their nationally-imposed identity. You can almost hear the stars and strips unraveling. Because the more we celebrate Hanukkah and Kwanzaa, the less we see ourselves as American and the more we see ourselves as Jewish and Liberian.

America needs Christmas because it keeps us all in line. And the only way to keep Christmas is to keep us believing that Christ is in it.

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photo credit: seandalai via photopin cc

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