The Pew Research Center just released a report saying that while a small majority of Americans still celebrate a “religious” Christmas, that number is slowing dropping, and has been for some time. Really? Anyone who has been paying attention can attest to this. Churches are closing daily, and many of those still alive seem to be on life-support. There are a lot of reasons for this – but I won’t be dealing with them. I want to tell a story of How the Church Lost Christmas.
The introduction of Santa Claus to American culture dates back to the 1800’s when it was imported from Germany and immortalized by Clement Clarke Moore’s poem “A Visit from Saint Nicholas”. The story of Bishop Nicolas of Myra was merged with the pagan Father Winter, and the outcome was an eternal being – possibly an elf, but not quite sure – who lived in the North pole and delivered toys to the good kids. Later, he became a symbol of universalism, so no matter how good or bad you are, you still get your stuff.
The history is too long to complete here, so I will make my point. To stay relevant – and popular – Christians adopted this non-Christian being as a supplement to the Jesus story – maybe because we don’t want to be honest about Him, or think He is too boring? We have Christmas trees (another pagan practice), we sing Christmas carols during Advent, and we even have Santa showing up at services and church programs. Over the years, the story of St. Nicholas of Myra has been lost, and the greed-fest of secular, capitalist Santa has taken over. Christmas movies no longer have anything to do with Jesus, and even older movies like “It’s a Wonderful Life” (which I love) and “Miracle on 34th St” (also love this one) have no mention of Jesus, or even God. It is implied – sort of. And that is where we lost Christ in the mess of the season. This is how the Holy Days became holidays.
Churches still blend the secular with the spiritual, and have always done so. The Apostle Paul used a missing statue in Athens to teach those present about Jesus, so we know that Christians have been using secular and other symbols to share the Gospel. It still seems to me, though, that when the church can’t be distinguished from a shopping mall or Amazon, it has lost its way. When we allow non-Christian symbols – like the Easter bunny and secular Santa – to be part of our message, we have actually lost the message. When I talk to children during Advent, I don’t talk about Santa – I talk about Jesus. They can get Santa everywhere, but they can only get Jesus in church. Maybe we can find the Jesus we lost. It can’t hurt to try. Peace.
Steve Ohnsman has been the pastor of Calvary United Church of Christ (Reading, PA) 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 Leadership from Alvernia University (PA).