As a Christian and a pastor, this is one of the best times of the year – for church stuff. But the rest of it? Maybe it is the steady drip-drip-drip of useless “celebration”, but secular Christmas – an oxymoronic pair of words if there ever was one – has become more stale and tired as the years have passed by. I have been ringing this bell for over 30 years, and for a long time I was accused of being a Scrooge. Those who made those accusations have obviously not watched any of the excellent movie renditions of Dicken’s “A Christmas Carol” very closely. I spend the month before Christmas preparing spiritually, using donations to help people buy gifts and food, and trying to explain that it is Jesus we should put at the center, not Santa. This is the opposite of Scrooge who, because of his life situation, had grown to hate goodness and charity. When asked for a gift to help the poor, he famously replied, “Let them die and decrease the surplus population!”
Since 2004, when the book “The Elf on the Shelf” was published, we have deepened the deconstruction of Christmas. The elf, simply, is a small doll that is moved around the house to spy on the children for Santa. This horrible act is, I think, a desperate attempt to balance bad parenting. It’s bad enough that children have to be afraid of Santa “You’d Better Watch Out” Claus (he knows when you’ve been sleeping…), but now they have to be paranoid about the elf! None of this is necessary if we take time to talk about the birth of Jesus, but few parents I meet focus on that story at all. Christmas is a greed-fest, and it teaches our children that it truly doesn’t matter how you act – you won’t get coal, and Krampus won’t drag you into the netherworld if you misbehave.
So let’s just stop already! If you want your children to celebrate Christmas, by all means teach them about generous giving and joyful receiving. Even better, help them learn about people who don’t have enough to eat. Teach them the actual stories about Jesus – stop making it all joyful and rosy, but let them know how hard this poor family had it and what they went through to bring Jesus into the world. Take them to church and talk about the sermon afterwards. “Secular” Christmas is like candy – Christian Christmas is like healthy food. Left to their own devices, most children will choose the candy over the healthy food, but as adults we need to protect them from themselves – and most of our adults need a better understanding of the faith we proclaim as well.
There is nothing Scrooge-like about expecting followers of Jesus to actually follow the star instead of the sleigh. Maybe, if Christians did a better job at being Jesus-people, those who have become disillusioned and distant from the Church might see more value in what we say – or, for many people, pretend to say – that we believe. This is one of the best times of the year, and we don’t need to fill it with fluff and nonsense. Maybe we would be seen as having more integrity if we focused on the real story instead of the fake news. A Hopeful Advent and Merry Christmas to all of you. Peace!
Steve Ohnsman has been the pastor of Calvary United Church of Christ since 1999. He has a BA in Religion & Philosophy from Wilmington College (OH), an MDiv from Drew Theological Seminary (NJ), a DMin in Christian Ethics from United Theological Seminary (OH), and a PhD in Community Leadership from Alvernia University (PA).