There was quite a bit not to like about going to my local community carols every year as a kid. For example, standing outside in the dark, getting eaten alive by approximately one billion mosquitoes, while holding a massive candle jammed through a paper plate as the hot wax fell through onto your leg. Combine that with singing really weird songs about reindeers and six white boomers, and you have something you wouldn’t normally call enjoyable. But we loved it back then, just as we love it today, because we love our Christmas traditions.
Perhaps surprisingly, even the most vocal of atheists love their Christmas traditions. Richard Dawkins, a very well-known atheist, has said, “I like singing carols along with everybody else. I'm not one of those who wants to purge our society of our Christian history.” Dawkins expresses what our traditional Christmas celebrations have become for so many in our society: enjoyable but meaningless traditions.
So, as followers of the Lord Jesus, how should we approach our Christmas traditions?
I think we need to acknowledge that some Christmas traditions are just genuinely unhelpful. For example, the secular message of Santa Claus is that if you’re good then you get rewarded, while the Bible teaches salvation by grace, not by works. We do not want the message of Christmas confused into one of deserving Jesus.
But what about less overt traditions? Christmas trees. Christmas presents. Christmas pudding. How should we think about those? The apostle Paul makes a very significant argument in 1 Corinthians 8. He writes that even though eating meat offered to idols is not wrong, in and of itself, it can be problematic if it adversely impacts others. Specifically, the situation described in that passage involves a fellow believer who sees you eating what they think is wrong to eat. Because of you, they feel compelled to also eat, even though it is against their conscience. In that example, not only have they sinned, but so have you!
Now what this means is that, as Christians, we shouldn’t just go with the flow when it comes to Christmas traditions. Because others will see how we celebrate the birth of Jesus, we need to forget about what we’ve always done and think afresh about the most appropriate way to celebrate Jesus’ birth. Let me make two suggestions.
First, we need to make sure that what we’re celebrating is Jesus. It’s an obvious point, but these days Christmas can be about celebrating so many other things. Family. Beautiful food and drink. The joy of giving and receiving. Now I’m not saying that as Christians we shouldn’t enjoy these things, but they can’t be the focus of our festivities. They must only ever serve our one big celebration, which is Jesus.
Second, we need to make sure that the way that we celebrate Christmas reflects the nature of God’s incredible gift to those who simply didn’t deserve it. So often in our world today, Christmas celebrations are full of obligations and reciprocation: “I know she’ll give me a present, so I’d better give her one of similar value. While that other guy, he won’t give me a present, and so I won’t bother with him.” And so on. Celebrating Christmas like that actually speaks against what God has done for us. In Jesus, God gave us a gift. We didn’t deserve it and we couldn’t earn it. It’s a gift that we can never reciprocate. All we can do is simply accept the gift of a saviour gratefully.
And so how should we celebrate this gift? Should we get together, with just our friends and family, and give each other gifts? Or would it be better to also include an outward element? Should we search out those in our community who don’t have anyone to share Christmas with? Should we show God’s love and kindness to those who can’t repay us?
How could you include some element like that in your Christmas traditions? Let me share just one example that I have tried with my young children. My wife and I took our kids to a department store. We gave them a reasonable budget, and we told them to choose the best gift that they could find. But we also told them that this gift wasn’t for them. It was for a child overseas who we didn’t know but who could never hope to afford such a gift. But why would we do that, they would ask? To remind us that, back at that very first Christmas, God gave us a gift in Jesus that we can never repay. But in offering this example, let me acknowledge that I have no easy answers and there is no one perfect way to celebrate the birth of Jesus with others. It’ll take a lot of thought to find something right for your situation and community. But this is what we should be doing in every facet of our lives: searching to see how we can best serve Christ.
Christmas is a time of traditions. We need to work out what traditions help us celebrate Jesus’ birth in a way that clearly communicates his value to ourselves and those around us.