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Every year around Christmastime, evangelical Christians face the same old arguments. No, I don’t mean the ones about Jesus’ existence or the ones about His Deity. Those happen all year ‘round. I mean the ones about December 25th, about Christmas trees, about Santa and reindeer. Many believers have heard about the origins of many of these traditions—some pagan, some cultural, some Catholic—and they begin to wonder to themselves if Christmas is something that they should celebrate at all. The answer is, of course, yes they should—and they need to know that they have a choice of which Christmas to celebrate. You see, there are two Christmases actually: one that comes from Christian theology and one that comes from Christian culture—we know the culture as Western Civilization. In other words, there is a theological Christmas and a cultural Christmas, and neither is particularly wrong to celebrate.
America is the descendent of a world that had a Christian theology. From that Christian theology came a Christian lifestyle. The laws and moralities of the Christian faith (and a belief in America as a spiritual Israel) became a part of American culture. In this heritage, what we today refer to as Judeo-Christian culture, we see secular traditions such as Saturdays and Sundays off from work and days of worship and rest—reflecting a previous theological reverence for both the Sabbath and the Lord’s Day. The American Dream idea that hard work produces wealth originally came from the Calvinist belief of the blessings of God being given to His elect. Wedding rings and wedding marches stem from Catholic tradition. We see people say that you should do the right thing as your “Christian” duty, or that one is known by what is called one’s “Christian” name. Also, we celebrate certain holy days—days set apart for reverence, more informally known as holidays—including Easter, Thanksgiving—and Christmas. Therefore, people who live in this nation and within this culture often do things that do not reflect their beliefs, but rather their culture. This is where the secular celebration of Christmas comes from.
In other words, there is a secular Christianity that has evolved into a culture of its own, a Christianity that we refer to as Western Civilization. It is why Europe, its Christian theology long ago lost to secularism, still celebrates Christmas out of its remnant Christian culture. Santa Claus, originally named after the gift-giving martyr St. Nicholas, morphed into a jolly gift giver who brings children toys. Kris Kringle originates from the Protestant dislike of Santa Clause giving children and was an ill-fated attempt to attribute the gifts to the Christ Child—also known as the Cristkrindle in Bavaria. Mistletoe was a pre-Christian European fertility drug, and became associated with Christmas because of northern European traditions. The Tree has European origins that echo the Tree of Life in the Garden of Eden. Poinsettias, regularly seen during the season, also became associated with Christmas because of a Catholic tale of a sixteenth century Christmas miracle in Mexico, and the plant today symbolizes both the star of David and the crucifixion of Jesus. All of these traditions—several of them theological in origin —have become part of the secular and cultural Christmas of Western Civilization. Santa, therefore, is in a way just as much a part of the Christmas tradition as Christ. He is not a replacement. He is not an idol. He’s merely another part of the tradition.
The Winter Solstice has always been on or near December 25th—even being made law in the Julian calendar in the First Century BC—and so with the conversion of the Roman Empire to Christianity, the celebration around the Solstice only naturally coincided with the celebration of the Savior, with all of the festivities that surrounded it unto this day. Because Christmas occurs at the beginning of winter, secular Christmas becomes celebrated with songs regarding that season; Winter Wonderland, Let It Snow, Frosty the Snowman, Sleigh Ride, Jingle Bells. This is, then, the secular Christmas, a celebration of the season of winter for the secular culture alongside of—not in place of—the Birth of the Savior celebrated by the theological culture.
We Christians take Christmas seriously in our faith. We believe that Jesus our Savior, God Incarnate and the Second Person of the Trinity, came to Earth that day in the form of a Child—the Son of the Virgin Mary, divinely conceived by the Holy Spirit, from the line of King David, the Lamb that would one day be slain for our sins and transgressions. Christmas is therefore our time of reflection upon His perfect sacrifice, of remembrance of what He did for us in salvation and reconciliation, of understanding that He was born to die for us, that He would order to restore our fellowship with the Father that sent Him. We give gifts to each other out of the love we have for Him, give gifts of significance to each other representing what we would give to Him—just as the Magi brought gifts to Him representing the significance of whom He was. Thus, we sing “O come, O come Immanuel,” “God and sinners, reconciled,” and “O night Divine, when Christ was born.” This is our theological heritage—and one that we are right to participate in. We have no Biblical mandate to celebrate Christmas; we do so out of our theological heritage, culture and tradition.
Yet we also have a heritage and culture and tradition as Americans and as participants in Western Civilization. It is the heritage culture of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer and Santa Claus’s Christmas Eve ride; the culture of Frosty the Snowman and Jingle Bell Rock; a culture of mistletoe and egg nog and gift-giving. Just as America’s national religion is more theism than Christianity—and a vague and highly secularized Judeo-Christian theism at that, to be more specific—America’s national holidays include a highly secularized Christmas, one that admires bells and winter and snow and the happy spirit that accompanies the theological Christmas. It is not wrong at all to celebrate this cultural tradition; when one understands them both, one can see that the two Christmases are not in conflict.
We Christians are fond of saying that Jesus is “The Reason for the Season.” This is true, but He is not the only reason! We live in a secular nation of mostly religious people, and many of them celebrate Christmas for entirely secular reasons—just as many of these secular people are thankful on Thanksgiving or give their kids eggs and chocolate on Easter (Easter for the secular is the celebration of Spring, just as Christmas is the celebration of Winter, Memorial Day is the official beginning of Summer, and Labor Day begins the Fall). I have seen Christians agonize over traditions such as Christmas trees or telling their children about Santa Claus, with worries over accidental idol worship or even worries that by telling their children about Santa, their children will one day reject Christ. I once had these same worries as a young Christian parent. I wish I’d had someone to tell me that the controversy is laughable. There are merely two Christmases to celebrate, and an understanding of both can lead to a celebration of both, if one so chooses. Santa is not Satan. And what better witness to lead others to Christ than to celebrate the same joyful traditions?
For the record, this is why the socialist Black Nationalist Maulana Karenga created the pro-Black holiday Kwanzaa. It is a direct rejection of both cultural and theological Christianity. It rejects Western Civilization as the colonial rapist slavemaster, and rejects theological Christianity as the religion used to brainwash and castrate the Black man. The principles of self-determination and community economics echo Karenga’s rejection of religion and capitalism; the faith discussed in Kwanzaa is pan-African faith, not one rooted in a deity. Karenga understood, however, that anything you take away must have something else to fill the vacuum, or it will not hold its power. Therefore, Kwanzaa has the winter season, the familiarity of the candlestick—resembling that of Judaism used in Hanukah—and the giving of gifts at the end of the Kwanzaa period to emulate the gift-giving of Christmas. For the person who had no theological stake in Christmas, and who also seeks to opt out of one’s Western Civilization cultural roots, Kwanzaa is a definite route to travel.
That said, the person who rejected Christ for because his parents told him about Santa and Frosty was going to reject Christ anyway. The Gospel was never so weak! Idolatry is the conscious worship of an idol, including bowing down in reverence, prayers, praise, and the spreading of a message of some type. However, we throw trees away after Christmas, we put away the lights, we take down the mistletoe, and we finish off the egg nog before it spoils. Where, then, is the worship? What demon is lurking in the secular Spirit of Christmas, seeking adoration in such a pitiful way? Search if you like. You won’t find one.
In closing, I note that there are those who do not separate Christmases. Trees are renamed “holiday” trees, vacation from school is renamed “winter break,” and “Seasons Greetings” and “Happy Holidays” dominate the shopping mall banners in order to preserve the secular mantra of a “separation between church and state” and to ensure that those who do not celebrate Christmas are not offended. Non-believers have the idea that it’s all the same, regardless of where the tree’s cultural origins. They are wrong. The two Christmases, both the theological one of the Christians and the cultural one of the secular, can both be celebrated by the Christians—without fear of somehow blaspheming He whom we Christians celebrate. Troubled by Santa? Don’t be. Again, Santa is not Satan. Be as troubled by Santa as the Tooth Fairy. Teach the kids both traditions and cultures. There is a joy and magic of Christmas cheer within the cultural Christmas—that accompanies the love and mystery of the Incarnation of the theological Christmas. They are a part of all of our culture, yours and mine alike. Don’t cheat your kids—or yourself—out of the joy of one tradition because of your love for the other tradition. You don’t have to.