A few thoughts on Christmas. May as well get the thinking started now.
1. It is OKAY to Christianize a pagan holiday. <An Issue of Contextualization.> Some are bothered by this and make this a big issue at certain times of the year. But Christianization is simply the subversion or reinterpretation of symbols. This is a perfectly reasonable thing to do. Jesus and the early church subverted/reinterpreted the symbology of the Jewish Passover and ritual purification rites with the sacraments of Eucharist and Baptism. The church structure is the reinterpretation of the Jewish Synagogue. One of the two primary words for God in Old Testament Judaism (“Elohim”) has roots in Canaanite paganism (the roots of “YHWH” are less certain). The primary word for God in the New Testament Church (“Theos”) has roots in Greek paganism. Again, the key point is not the symbol but the meaning given to the symbol. Frankly, the most recognized symbol of Christianity, the cross, is a Christian reinterpretation of a pagan practice (crucifixion). Harvest Festivals have deep pagan roots, yet the Jews were comfortable with reinventing them as Jewish holidays. Three major Jewish Festivals are reinterpretations of harvest festivals (Feast of Unleavened Bread, Pentecost, and Feast of Tabernacles). Christians have, in turn, reinterpreted Feast of Unleavened bread as part of the Christian Holy Week, and the Eucharist. Christians have also reinterpreted Pentecost as a Christian celebration. Reinterpreting pagan symbols is a healthy part of the cultural contextualization of faith. To become a Christian in a non-Christian culture should not involve rejecting every aspect of that culture, but selective rejecting the bad, embracing the good, and reinterpreting the redeemable. That is the role of insider within that culture (not the outside kibitzer).
2. It is OKAY celebrate a civil holiday. <An Issue of Separatism.> Some are bothered that Christmas has become a civil holiday and has been overlayed with a lot of non-Christian (and sometimes anti-Christian) messages. I believe that it is true that some things have to really be set aside. This manic materialistic busy-ness simply has little redeeming value. But we as Christians should find areas of healthy cultural interaction with the surrounding society. Separatism tends to lead to marginalization and/or ghettoization. I feel that the desire to radically reject everything in society without thoughtful evaluation may stem from the belief that it will show people that they are Christians. I suppose that works. Evangelical Christians are recognizable in that many/most don’t celebrate the local fiestas here in the Philippines (because of pagan and Catholic roots, and the proliferation of vices). In India, I have been told, Christian houses are easy to recognize because they are dark and dreary during the celebration a Diwali. There may be reasons not to celebrate (the tendency mix Christian messages with nationalistic messages during American Independence Day or Memorial Day does make me a wee bit squeamish). However, the fruit of the Spirit is a better way to show that you are a Christian.
3. It is OKAY to celebrate Christmas in December. <An Issue of Historicity.> Some, in complaining about Christmas, note that we don’t know when Jesus was born (although March might be a good educated guess) so it is ridiculous to celebrate His birth on any day… including in December. I have to admit, this one never made the least bit of sense to me. We have friends who adopted a little girl… she was found wandering the streets in the Philippines. She was apparently abandoned by her mother at around 2 years of age. They don’t know what her birth name was or what day she was born. Yet her paperwork now has a birth date and a name, and they celebrate her birthday every year on a day they assigned her. Suggesting that they should not celebrate her birthday because they don’t know the exact day that she was born is ludicrous. Actually, celebrating Christ’s birth close to Winter Solstice, at least for the Northern hemisphere, makes a lot of sense. Since it is the darkest time of the year, and the coldest (again, in the Northern hemisphere) it fits symbolically the idea of Christ coming into a world of darkness to bring light. And the comraderie and celebration provides emotional warmth to a time so cold. So unless you are big on technical historical, astronomical, or astrological factoids, relax and enjoy Christmas in December
4. It is OKAY to CELEBRATE. <An issue of Ascetism> Sometimes it seems as if the problem with Christmas is a problem with celebration. I have not heard anyone complaining about eating rice or utilizing fire, based on its long documented use by pagans and in pagan rituals. Perhaps the focus on Christmas and Easter and such has more to do with the belief that God is against fun and celebration. The Old Testament was full of celebrations. Jesus was involved in much festivities. Not all celebrations are good… but celebrations, are redeemable, and can be good.
5. It is OKAY to NOT listen to me. <An issue of Conformity.> You don’t have to listen to me. If you celebrate Christmas as a Christian (or a non-Christian), that is great. If you don’t celebrate Christmas that is your right and your freedom as well. That is really not the point and people who think that is the point have really missed the point. But for those who accept it, “Maligayang Pasko at Manigong Bagong Taon!”