Posted by: jefriesen | December 24, 2010

The Christmas Spirit

As the calendar flies towards December 25th, we can be assured of two things: preachers (plus a few others) will remind us that “Jesus is the reason for the season” and most of us will ignore them. The reason for this is simple: while we may publicly rant about the ‘crass commercialization of Christmas,’ privately we enjoy it. We like the fact that we can get ‘great deals’ on flat screen televisions and living room furniture (seriously, who buys these items as gifts for others?). We like having an excuse to spend lots of money on ourselves and others. We Americans like it so much, that we spent an estimated 45 billion dollars on Black Friday (the day after Thanksgiving) alone, an amount greater than the annual GDP (Gross Domestic Product) of 115 nations. This one fact may help explain why many in our country have lost or are looking for the so-called ‘Christmas spirit.’

But just what is the ‘Christmas spirit’ and why, if so many people have spent so much time looking for it, is it still lost? The answer to this question is harder to pin down than it seems at first, in part because we have made Christmas more than just a simple celebration of the birth of Jesus. We have not one holiday, but several, consolidated on one day. In fact, it was the celebration of the birth of Christ which was itself the add-on to pagan celebrations of the winter solstice. It wasn’t until the year 336 AD that we have the first record of a church celebration of the birth of Christ, called Christ’s mass; and some scholars suggest that December 25th was chosen specifically to bring a Christian influence to the drunken revelry of the Roman solstice party, called Saturnalia. Throughout the centuries, various traditions have been added to the celebration of Christmas; some religious, some cultural, some literary, with a dash of myth and a healthy dose of Madison Avenue and Hollywood until what we have today bears little resemblance to the biblical account of Christ’s birth.

In contrast to Hollywood, the biblical record is relatively scant. In all of the New Testament, a scant 131 verses are devoted to the circumstances around the birth of Christ (in contrast to over 1,200 verses chronicling the last week of Jesus’ life). Figuring strictly from the biblical record, we have no idea of the exact date of the birth of Jesus. Nor do we have any record that the early church celebrated the birth of Jesus at all. The only significant day that the early Christians are recorded as celebrating is the resurrection, and they celebrated that every week. Consequently, the biblical account says nothing about the so-called Christmas spirit.

Culturally speaking, the phrase ‘Christmas spirit’ is used on one level to describe simply a festive mood. On another level however, the words seem to evoke something deeper; a longing for something substantive in an increasingly intransitive world; peace in the midst of chaos. It is experienced in that fleeting moment of satisfaction when we give to others, when we are kind instead of rude and when we go out of our way to help others, even at personal inconvenience or expense. At its best, the Christmas spirit represents what we could be in an ideal world, which may help explain the appeal of Christmas, even to those who aren’t Christians. I would submit that we have this longing for a reason; that the desire we have corresponds to a fulfillment of this longing.

In the Old Testament, this idea roughly corresponds to the theological concept of rest. Rest was both a state of divine protection for the nation of Israel and a sense of security and satisfaction in God’s provision. Ultimately, the concept of ‘rest’ spoke of God’s undoing of the curse which resulted from man’s decision to rebel. To this, we could add the New Testament’s picture of peace, both peace with God and peace in the midst of an uncertain world. But from the bible’s perspective, rest and peace are not found in a celebration of a holiday spirit, but in a real relationship with God in Christ. He is our peace, the bible teaches, and in Christ we have the rest that God has promised. The virtues of generosity, patience and kindness which are heavily promoted during the yuletide season are everyday commands for Christians, and peace in the midst of uncertainty is an everyday reality for those who know Jesus. This is the peace of which the angels sang to shepherds on the hillside so many years ago.

So keep searching for that ‘Christmas spirit;’ If we follow all the way to where it leads we might find ourselves, like the shepherds in the bible’s account, kneeling at the side of a manger.

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