Christmas: The secular vs. the sacred
Can we celebrate Jesus and Santa on the same day?
Is it possible to celebrate Christmas and the birth of Jesus on the same day? There is certainly a warm, nostalgic feeling about the Christmas season. Social media fills up with pictures of Starbucks holiday cups and we get the play-by-play of Christmas trees being purchased and filled with homemade ornaments. Holiday parties become about as frequent as breathing and there is a general sense of camaraderie among people who wouldn’t otherwise interact.
As a local practitioner and neighbor, I’d even go as far as saying this season brings about the most opportunity for new relationships and shared life in the realities of every day.
Last year, I was talking to my then-3-year-old daughter about Christmas. She knew we were going to see grandparents and cousins and even knew a thing or two about gifts being exchanged.
And then I asked her, “Whose birthday do we celebrate on Christmas?” With a big smile, said, “Santa!”
Now, I get it. She was 3 years old, it’s kinda cute and harmless and whatever.
But there is something to this.
Our family never talks about Santa Claus, but we regularly talk about Jesus and even go as far as trying to live like him as best we can. When we do talk about Christmas and presents, we try to talk about how we will be giving them away to friends, family and people who need them.
But, despite our best efforts, Christmas is associated with Santa Claus. Now, if it was the historical “Santa Claus” who gave away his best to save the lives of some children, that’d be awesome. But, no, this is the Santa Claus of consumption who promotes values of selfish acquisition rather than sacrificial giving.
With all this being said—and as followers of Jesus—we have to ask the question, “Is it possible to celebrate Christmas and the birth of Jesus on the same day?”
To begin to answer the question, we have to first understand that Christmas and Jesus’ birthday are not synonymous. In fact, historically, they really have nothing in common.
Christmas as a holiday didn’t even come around for hundreds of years after the birth, life, death and resurrection of Jesus. As with many “Christian” traditions and holidays, it didn’t come around until after Constantine announced Christianity the religion of the Roman Empire in the 4th century. Its roots are largely pagan (like Easter) and it almost certainly isn’t celebrated anywhere near the time of year that Jesus would have been born in first century Palestine.
So how in the world did 300 years of Jesus followers celebrate the birth of their King until this holiday was constructed? Well, it seems they were quite content celebrating his birth by doing their best to live like him every day of the year.
What could that have looked like?
It looked like a people who were radically committed to living out the values of a new kind of Kingdom that Jesus came to inaugurate, not through power and acquisition, but through suffering and self-sacrifice. A Kingdom whose manifesto was articulated on a mountain in Northern Galilee among a diverse group of folks who otherwise should have never been hanging out together. A Kingdom that warned against the idols of money, power and reputation, and instead invited people to be marked by selflessness, sacrifice and servanthood.
So, as we enter into a holiday season where we hear stories of people being killed under the feet of shoppers scrambling for the best discount in a mega mart, and feel the internal disconnect between the myth of Santa Claus and the reality of a living Jesus, we are confronted with the very anti-Kingdom constructs we have built around a holiday that somehow celebrates the birth of a homeless refugee who calls us to a whole new way of living. A way that is marked much more by a cross than a noble fir with an angel on top.
In short, the themes of consumption and selfishness run in direct contrast to the Kingdom inaugurated in Jesus. For us to celebrate the birth of Jesus, the holiday would have to look a lot different than it does in its modern, Western, industrialized iteration.
Now that I have totally kicked your peppermint mocha off the balcony, lit a small fire under your Douglas fir and crushed my daughter’s hopes and dreams, let me ask again the question I posed at the beginning, “Is it possible to celebrate Christmas and the birth of Jesus on the same day?”
Without hesitation I give a resounding, “YES!!” But not because it’s Dec. 25. Rather, because every day we are to celebrate the birth of Jesus through the way we live, love and lead in a way that embodies the values of a Kingdom whose King took the throne through offering the greatest gift of all; himself.
With that in mind, I can release my daughter’s preoccupation with Santa Claus (maybe even celebrate it! … OK, maybe not), because the faith we’re inviting her to live doesn’t look like one day a year.
It looks like 365.
— by Jon Huckins
Huckins is the co-founding director of The Global Immersion Project, Missional Leadership Coach with Thresholds, family man, speaker and author of “Thin Places” and “Teaching Through the Art of Storytelling.” jonhuckins.net