Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Should Christians Celebrate Christmas? Part 2

Yesterday, I shared some of my thoughts on the problem of commercialism in Christmas. I also mentioned two other arguments I have seen against Christians celebrating the holiday - the date, December 25th and the holiday not being mandated by God. Here are some of my thoughts on why these two arguments have not convinced me to stop celebrating Christmas.

I don't know when I first heard the argument that Christmas was just a "pagan holiday" and that Christ was not actually born in December. It has been years since I first heard that. This year, I actually was researching all the winter holidays that I knew of - Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, and Christmas. In the meantime, I found that these are not the only holidays celebrated, many are just less well-known. In doing this research, though, I learned more about December 25th and actually felt like it was a great reason to keep celebrating.

Yes, both Easter and Christmas have their roots in both timing and symbolism in the pagan festivals of the Romans. Why the change in their calendar, though? Because one man came to believe in Jesus and his life was changed. Here is the account given in the "Christmas Mourning" article by Keith Green from 1979:
In the third century A.D., a wonderful thing happened. Constantine, the Roman emperor, became a Christian. For almost 300 years the Christians had been praying for their emperor's salvation. Nobody believed it was true! But then came the royal decree...Christianity was made the religion of the state. Everyone was strongly urged to accept Jesus Christ as their Lord and only deity. At the risk of seeming uncooperative (and believing that it would be safest politically and socially), almost everyone in the empire made "professions of faith" in the new religion. This, of course, delighted Constantine.

After a while there arose a great problem. What were they to do with all their other gods? And what about all the great feasts and celebrations, especially the winter solstice and spring equinox?
Constantine was smart enough to know that not every convert was a true believer of the truth he had embraced. In an effort to keep the peace, he declared two "religious" holidays that fell on the same dates as the original celebrations.

Two things stand out to me in this historical account. First, Constantine was redeemed, saved from hell. His life was so changed, he did not want his pagan gods anymore. There are many areas of the world today that will gladly accept Christ in addition to their other gods, but this man gave up his worship of other gods for his belief in Christ. Second,we will never know, this side of heaven, which of the people in the empire were truly converted, but these two times of year were now focused on Christ. What better times to evangelize and let people know what the emperor's belief was all about. A pagan holiday was turned into a chance for evangelism and spreading of the gospel. It seems to me a great reason to still celebrate. Christ came here to redeem us, not one of us is righteous or holy. Neither is any day, in itself, holy or worthy of celebration. What makes this day worthy of celebration, to me, is that Christ even redeemed it from a focus on pagan gods.

This brings me to the last argument mentioned yesterday, "True Christians" would only celebrate God-given holy days, such as the feast of tabernacles spoken of in the Old Testament. If we look at the word "holiday," we know that it comes from the roots for "holy day." I do not know enough to argue whether Christmas should be considered a "holy" day or not. Even after visiting Wikipedia, it seems that not many others can agree on what should be considered "holy". Even if you look at the definition of the word in the Webster's dictionary, you could use the word to defend either side of the argument. However, Jesus came to fulfill the law, we cannot. We are under his grace because he came as a man and died for our sins. Maybe someday my convictions will change, but I believe that celebrating this truth is a good thing. For this reason, I celebrate Thanksgiving and Easter, even St. Patrick's day makes me celebrate when I see the amazing ways Jesus transformed his life and used his life to the glory of God.

I can certainly understand why someone might feel convicted not to celebrate Christmas, as they may feel that Constantine gave in to political pressure and declared some holidays to appease men. I can also understand why people may not want to celebrate for some of the other reasons I have read about. These are not my convictions, though. Even after reading the articles, arguments, and historical accounts, I still see cause for celebration. Would I define these "holidays" as "holy days"? I don't know. I guess it depends on what definition you use for "holy". I don't think it really matters. There are many people who do not know the day they were born, but they pick a day to celebrate their birth. If God wanted us to know the specific date Christ was born, He would have made it known. As it is not, I think it is fine to choose a fixed day to celebrate the event. When we focus on Jesus and celebrate him, I believe God delights in celebrating with us. I can't see God being disappointed in our recognition of his mighty hand in sending his son.

"For the LORD does not see as man sees; for man looks at the outward appearance, but the LORD looks at the heart.” 1 Samuel 16:7

Lord, may my heart stay pure before you as I celebrate the birth of your son. Be ever with me and steer my heart in your truth. "See if there is any wicked way in me" (Psalm 139:24) and help me to celebrate as you would want me to. Thank you for this opportunity to see your hand in history, and for giving me cause for joy as I see the transformed hearts of men throughout history. I surrender my will to you and am willing to make any changes you ask of me in this area of my life. In the name of Jesus, Amen.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Should Christians Celebrate Christmas? - Part 1

This year, I have heard a lot of conflicting ideas about Christmas. Now that the pace has slowed down, I have had some time to reflect on some of them. It seems funny to ask, "Should Christians celebrate Christmas?" but I have read a number of things this year that seem to make the argument that Christmas is not about Christ,one person going so far as to say that Christians should not celebrate the holiday. After all, it really is just a commercial holiday...Christ wasn't even born on December 25th, that was a pagan religious holiday..."True Christians" would only celebrate holidays mandated by God...right?

It seems to me that all of these arguments have something in common with the religious people of Jesus' day - the law. These arguments focus on what we know in our heads - facts and dates. Christmas, for me, is about celebrating what I know about Christ in my heart. I want to celebrate the transforming power Christ brought down to earth and look forward with hope to the day he comes again. As I have considered each of the arguments above, I have made my own conclusions. They are just my thoughts and opinions on each argument, and I know these things may change over time. I thought I would share them, though, in case any of you have wondered about these arguments, as well.

The first argument, "It is just a commercial holiday," certainly looks true in our culture. Just as we have stripped the Bible out of our schools and God out of our wedding ceremonies, our culture has tried to take Jesus out of Christmas. Christians have tried slogans to combat this - everything from "Jesus is the Reason for the Season" to "If you don't believe, you won't receive". I think, though, that this is like fighting a fire with matches - "sales slogans" for a commercial problem. We still tend to treat Christmas as a commercial holiday and just add in our slogans to try to remind people of why this whole tradition started. There are two things that I read this year that are challenging my ideas on how I celebrate Christ's birth. The first is a quote by Keith Green from his article "Christmas Mourning" written in 1979.

"I've seen Christians go in for all the trappings and trimmings. They spend hours, even days, in department stores trying to figure out what to buy for friends and relatives who already have everything they need...And all the while, a world full of starving, deprived people are silently, invisibly looking in through your living room window begging for a scrap of food, a rag to keep them from shivering to death, and an answer to their misery, suffering , and oppression." K. Green
The second challenge, for me, has come from a family that I read about recently. They do not open presents on Christmas morning, but instead spend the advent season choosing presents for Jesus. You can read about it here. It is a challenging thought; and although I don't know if I will ever have a tree with no presents under it, I am definitely planning for some more thought to go into presents for Jesus next year.

So, does this mean that I don't think gift-giving is appropriate and should be stopped altogether? No. I think taking the time to give to those around us is a way to show love to them. Christ told us to love one another, and I think doing that through giving gifts on his birthday is a way we can celebrate his message of love.

There are things that I will not be doing with my children, though. One of the traditions I will not be passing down is the "Wish List". You know the problem, family members need ideas for the kids because they don't know what to get for them. Dad and Mom need to get ideas, too, because they really only planned on what they were going to buy the kids. So, out comes the Sears Wish Book, filled with more ideas and choices than the child ever knew existed. Now, instead of just asking for one toy (or nothing), the child asks for more than they could ever get - and it may be hard for them to even tell you which they want the most. The whole point in advertising is to make you discontent with what you have - it makes you want something you don't need. Now, instead of being happy with whatever they get, they are set up for disappointment about what they didn't get. I am working hard to teach my children to be responsible about money and self-control in their desires. I feel it would be foolish to teach them that all year and then let them loose for one month at the end of the year.

There are a few things that we do to get ideas, though. I keep a list throughout the year of things that catch their eye (or mine!). We also take them along when shopping for others (for Operation Christmas Child, or for our sponsored children). We just try to pay attention to the things they are drawn to. It may seem that they are being exposed to an awful lot of advertising this way, but their focus is different. They are thinking of the other children they are buying for. I think this gives them an opportunity to practice correct responses to the overwhelming about of STUFF that is out there.

For this argument against Christmas, I think I want to be intentional about keeping Christ at the center. I want to keep doing advent with my kids, using the time leading up to Christmas as a reminder of the MIRACLE of his birth. I want to keep adding ways we can reach out to the "least of these" at Christmas and throughout the year. I want to teach my children the TRUTH about Santa; Saint Nicholas was a man transformed. I think having this holiday is a great way to remember again what Christ gave up for us - Not just his life for our sins, but coming here in human form in the first place. I don't think we fully grasp how much he gave up when he gave up his heavenly form to become a man; and that sacrifice is eternal. This argument does not seem to outweigh that sacrifice.

Tomorrow, I will let you know some of my thoughts on the other two arguments.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Christmas Thoughts - Advent

I didn't really grow up with Advent. I sometimes got one of those little cardboard things with the cutouts for each day and a piece of chocolate inside, but I didn't even know what Advent was. I think it was when I was pregnant with Princess that our church did an Advent wreath. They would light a candle each Sunday of Advent and talk about what that week was celebrating. It was then that I began to think more about the season. Then last year, I was challenged through Homemaker's By Choice to build traditions into the Thanksgiving and Christmas seasons. They asked Moms to think about traditions from when they were children and told us to ask our husbands what traditions they remembered. Each week, they would talk about the focus area of the week. I took the explanations, below, from the advent wreath I hope to get soon, and each week is as follows:

The 1st Sunday Symbolizes Hope with the Prophet’s Candle – Jesus is coming.
The 2nd Sunday Symbolizes Faith with the Bethlehem Candle – Mary & Joseph journey to Bethlehem.
The 3rd Sunday Symbolizes Joy with the Shepherd’s Candle – Joy at the coming birth of Jesus.
The 4th Sunday Symbolizes Peace with the Angel’s Candle – The Message of the Angels “Peace on Earth, Good Will Toward Men"

Last year, I talked to Ryan about traditions I had always enjoyed as a kid, and what things I wanted to build into our traditions for our kids. I found a list of ideas at Homemaker's By Choice, and searched on the internet for other ideas. Then, after my husband had a heart attack got over the price tag, we bought a wooden Advent Calendar that we could add to ourselves with the activities we chose for that year.

This is our Advent Calendar:

Every day the kids get to open one of the doors and they see three M&M's (one for each of them) along with two other items...

The first is the magnet that they get to put up that day. By the end of the Advent season, we will have the whole nativity scene on the board above. The other little thing there is a scroll with the advent activity of the day. This is where I am hoping to build more tradition into our Christmas. Our kids are young, so we are really trying to balance the fun celebration of the season with knowing why we are celebrating. Some of our activities focus just on the fun of the season - sleepovers, surprise gifts, no chores - while the other activities focus on Jesus coming and the eternal gift that that is to us. The first week of this year's calendar we used "What God Wants for Christmas" and the kids got to open one box each day.  I thought it would be good to start the season with a focus on Jesus.

I hope to add a new tradition each year. I am sure some will last through the years, and others will either be outgrown or never really work. I am hoping to add an advent wreath for the four Sundays next year. For now, here is the list of things we chose for this year.

  1. Set Up Advent Magnet Board
  2. What God Wants For Christmas Box 1
  3. What God Wants for Christmas Box 2
  4. What God Wants for Christmas Box 3
  5. What God Wants for Christmas Box 4
  6. What God Wants for Christmas Box 5
  7. What God Wants for Christmas Box 6
  8. What God Wants for Christmas Box 7
  9. Library Trip for Christmas Books
  10. No TV Tonight...We are playing games!
  11. Taryn sleepover in Evan's Room Tonight!
  12. We are Going Bowling!
  13. Here are some gifts you can share... - We gave them some Christmas Books with CDs.
  14. Evan Sleepover in Taryn's Room Tonight!
  15. A Dollar for You, a Dollar for Them! - Go to the Dollar store and purchase a toy for you and for Toys for Tots.
  16. Ice Cream for Dinner tonight!
  17. No Chores Today!
  18. Help to Feed the Hungry today! - Go to the Grocery Store and pick out food for the Food Bank.
  19. Grab Your Cup of Cocoa tonight for a drive to see the Lights! - Our neighborhood lines the streets with luminaries, so we drive around enjoying the displays at people's houses and the candle lit streets.
  20. Christmas Present for the neighbors.
  21. No Chores Today!
  22. Finish Putting Up Your Magnets...Travel Day tomorrow! - We are also going to let them open some cards they have received already.  =0)

Whatever your traditions are, I know that they build a family up. So, I encourage you to find some fun things you can do in your family that will serve as a lasting bond. One of the things I STILL love to do is put up the tree the day after Thanksgiving to the tunes of Bing Crosby. Man! Even the thought brings back memories of childhood. I just can't wait to hear what things my kids remember from their Christmases while they were growing up!