Sunday, December 23, 2012

A Sacred or Secular Christmas?


“If it’s December, then it must be time to choose sides in the Christmas wars.”  Thus begins writer Amy Sullivan in a USA Today article titled “Let’s put ‘Christmas’ in its place.”1  Amy goes on to talk about how “One camp worries that the celebration of Christ’s birth has become too commercial and frantic.  Its goal is a simple Christmas season, stripped of consumption and flashing lights and endless holiday parties.”  Others “want shoppers to encounter more nativity scenes and fewer ‘Happy holidays’ banners.”1  And then, on the opposite side of the fence, there are those who want all vestiges of religion stripped from the Christmas season and holiday, focusing only on the secular side of the season.  A good example of the latter is the recent battle in Santa Monica, California, over a “60-year-old Nativity display in Santa Monica’s Palisades Park.”2  For almost 60 years, a coalition of churches have put on a life-size, 14-booth Nativity display in the park.  But in 2009, a local atheist, Damon Vix, applied for and was granted a booth alongside the Nativity display.  In his booth Vix hung a sign quoting Thomas Jefferson that read, “Religions are all alike—founded on fables and mythologies,” and another sign that read, “Happy Solstice.”  Now there is a battle over whether the Nativity scene will be permitted or not.

And so, there you have it: the battle between the sacred and secular Christmas.  On the one side you have those who cite “Jesus is the reason for the season” and want Christmas to be a wholly religious observance with only Nativities and none of the other Christmas decorations or Christmas customs that have become such an integral part of our Christmas observances.  For these, the only proper greeting during the month of December is “Merry Christmas.”  On the other side you have those who focus only on Santa Claus and merry making and prefer the non-religious “Happy Holidays” greeting, what conservative commentator Cal Thomas refers to as the “war on Christmas” that has been going on since the time of King Herod.3

But when you stop to think about it, most Christmas customs and family activities are secular in nature.  For instance, the most popular Christmas movies are for the most part secular: It’s a Wonderful Life, A Christmas Carol, A Christmas Story, and Miracle on 34th Street.  None of them are religious per se.  And the most popular Christmas songs are secular as well: According to the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers, these are the Top 10 most-performed “Holiday” songs for the first five years of the 21st Century:
  1. The Christmas Song (Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire) РMel Torm̩, Robert Wells
  2. Santa Claus Is Coming To Town – Fred Coots, Haven Gillespie
  3. Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas – Ralph Blane, Hugh Martin
  4. Winter Wonderland – Felix Bernard, Richard B. Smith
  5. White Christmas – Irving Berlin
  6. Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow! – Sammy Cahn, Jule Styne
  7. Rudolph The Red Nosed Reindeer – Johnny Marks
  8. Jingle Bell Rock – Joseph Carleton Beal, James Ross Boothe
  9. I’ll Be Home For Christmas – Walter Kent, Kim Gannon, Buck Ram
  10. Little Drummer Boy – Katherine K. Davis, Henry V. Onorati, Harry Simeone
You may have noticed that not one of the top nine is the least bit religious in nature. Furthermore, many non-Christians the world over now celebrate Christmas, but void of any real religious beliefs or significance.

And so, any way you look at it, Christmas is a mixed bag.  What do we do with this mixed bag?  How do we decide between the sacred or secular Christmas?  Are we to choose one and reject the other?  If no, how do we find a balance between the two?  As Amy Sullivan notes in that USA Today article, “as a Christian who wants to focus on the spiritual rhythms of Advent and truly commemorate God’s gift of his son to the world, I find that the Christmas season gets in the way.”1

One of the issues with choosing between a purely sacred or purely secular Christmas is such a thing has never been.  As Sullivan notes, “The difficulty for those who understandably want to simplify Christmas or strip the holiday of its secular element is that a purely spiritual Christmas has never existed.”1  Sullivan notes that “early Christians established Christmas by linking it to pre-existing midwinter celebrations.  Many northern cultures coped with winter by looking forward to feasts and merriment marked by lights and greenery that reminded them that the darkness would end and life would begin again.”1  December 25th was selected to celebrate the birth of Jesus in order to coincide with the winter solstice and the Roman celebration of Saturnalia.  Most of our Christmas decorations (Christmas trees, the Yule log, holly, mistletoe, and the like) are adaptations of ancient pagan customs. Christmas parties harken back to ancient Roman times and reveling during the darkest winter days as a way to help them cope with the dark, winter days and give them hope that the darkness would eventually end and light would return.

But just as many of our “sacred” Christmas practices have their basis in older, pagan or secular practices, some of our secular Christmas customs have their basis in sacred history or myth.  For instance, our secular practice of gift giving can be traced to the gifts the Wise Men are said to have given the baby Jesus.  And Santa Claus grew in part from the fourth century church leader, St. Nicolas, who was known for giving to the poor.

Well, could it be that secular is not necessarily a bad thing?  Could it be that it is okay to find joy in celebrating both the sacred and secular aspects of this Advent-Christmas season?   The truth is, Christmas has never, ever been totally sacred.  Christmas has always been blended with the secular.  But something doesn’t have to be religious in nature for the sacred to be present.  Cannot the sacred show up and be present in the secular?  Is that not what the incarnation means—Emmanuel, God with us in our everyday, secular lives?  The message and good news of Jesus—love, compassion, forgiveness, justice—can permeate all aspects of life, if we let it.  Jesus’ birth brings hope for a better world.  The spirit of Christmas prods us to be better persons than we are the other eleven months, leading us to give more to charity, be kinder to strangers, and more willing to get along with others, such as those cousins with whom we have nothing in common ideologically, politically, or religiously. Such can be done in secular settings as well as sacred.   And secular events can be used to build family bonds.  For instance, going to the Christmas parade, or to a Nutcracker production can be a joyful, family-bonding event.

A story might illustrate the point.  Several years ago, when we were struggling to get a new church off the ground, as the organizing pastor I worked for a Task Force consisting of six persons—three ministers and three elders, or lay leaders, from different congregations.  When Christmas time rolled around, I printed some song booklets of Christmas carols and songs that we used for a sing time, like we do at our 8 o’clock service.  All but a couple of songs in the booklet were religious in nature.  But one of the children of the small, fledgling congregation requested that we include “Jingle Bells.”  So I did.  And you can bet that every Sunday during the Christmas season sing-a-long one of the kids would shout, “Let’s sing ‘Jingle Bells.’”  Well, when it came time for our quarterly meeting with the Task Force to whom I answered, someone let it slip that we included “Jingle Bells” in our Sunday sing-a-long.  And my chief supervisor said, “’Jingle Bells’!  Why, I’ve never heard of ‘Jingle Bells’ being sung in church before!”  Maybe not.  But in that instance a secular song served a sacred purpose of making the children of the congregation feel a part.

So, the question is, Should we be forced to decide between a wholly sacred or wholly secular Christmas?  I don’t think so.  It really has never been either one or the other.  Sacred stories and secular practices have cross pollinated one another for millennia, even since the time of Abraham and Moses.  A very poignant “Family Circus” cartoon appeared this week that speaks well to the point of how the sacred and secular have blended.  The father is reading to the little girl, and the little girl asks, “Did Santa Claus and Jesus go to school together?”4  Many of the religious practices that found their way into Jewish practice and worship were borrowed (or as my seminary Old Testament professor used to say, “baptized”) from pagan practices.  And many early Christian practices were borrowed and baptized from pagan use as well.  Amy Sullivan concludes her USA Today article by saying, “As a society, we need a designated time of the year to celebrate with one another.  We need the outlet of X-mas to give us a burst of festive energy to get through the winter.  And we need fudge and Santa cookies, darn it.”1

So perhaps the criteria we should use in deciding the Christmas practices we embrace should be the motive or purpose which leads us to embrace them and the positive results that flow from them.  Or to put it another way, do our Christmas customs and practices foster greater love, compassion, kindness, forgiveness, fellowship, and service to others? Sacred and secular Christmas traditions—they have overlapped from the very beginning.  So why can’t we celebrate both, as long as we do so in the true Christmas spirit?  Amen.

A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Randy Hammer, December 9, 2012 
  1. Amy Sullivan, “Let’s put ‘Christ’-mas in its place,” USA Today, Dec. 5, 2011.
  2. Gillian Flaccus, Knoxville News Sentinel, Nov. 22, 2012.
  3. Bob Beckel and Cal Thomas, “Holiday Legal Traditions,” USA Today, Nov. 29, 2012
  4. Bill Keane, “The Family Circus,” Dec. 7, 2012.

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