Homily delivered by Upper School Humanites Teacher Joshua Gibbs on December 15, 2017 | Photo: Lewis Ginter Botanical Gardens Festival of Lights (2015)
Every December, Christians are subjected to a host of dour, skeptical, and cynical claims about Christmas. We are told that, back in the day, Christmas was actually a pagan holiday and we are told that Jesus was actually not born on December 25th. The people most prone to making such claims use the word “actually” as though they have deeply investigated the matter, studied the issues, listened to counter claims, and arrived by careful articulation at the unhappy conclusion. While I think just a little study lays to rest these objections, the most damaging critique of Christmas which Christians must endure is that pious truism, “Christmas has become so commercial and materialistic.”
Long a favorite of frowning head-shakers and adults who insist the crust is the healthiest part of the bread, claims of the increasingly crass commercialism of Christmas seem omnipresent during December. Consider the dollar bins at the front of Target from late November through New Year’s. Cheap tree shaped snack cakes. Santa garbage in every conceivable color of plastic. Black Friday sales. Bad cash-grab movies with trailers which begin, “This Christmas…” So perhaps Christ was born on the 25th, and perhaps Christmas was not originally celebrated in honor of Saturn, but is there any doubt Christmas now primarily exist to glorify Mammon? Some people will simply not be content unless those who celebrate Christmas do so with a little shame, a little embarrassment over the matter, as though the celebration of Christmas is something we condescend to do, perhaps even against our better judgement. Perhaps it is permissible to celebrate Christmas, but only if we do so with a little critical distance, as though Christmas were some silly child’s game which we must dignify with fancy speeches about the Incarnation.
However, the idea that Christmas “has become so commercial and materialistic” banks heavily on the rather ludicrous notion that the rest of the year is not thoroughly imbued with such callous qualities. In truth, Christmas is no more commercial and materialistic than the general run of things in a modern city during any other season of the year. All year long, Target fills those dollar bins near the main entrance with some manner of cut-rate seasonal junk that, no more than three weeks later, shuffles off this economic coil for the landfill.
In our former lives, we were subsistence farmers who made everything for ourselves and half of our children died before being weaned. We traded such lives for lives wherein church is less than a ten hour walk. We live in cities, and so we must buy everything. It is not as though we were all going to live in the middle of Manhattan and make our own candles, soap, cheese, shoes and banjos. How would we find the time? While we can all lament the pandering and cloying quality of the modern advertisement, the fact that, come December, modern corporations put decorated trees and Saint Nick on the same soulless ephemera they hawk the other eleven months of the year hardly means that “Christmas has become so commercial and materialistic.” Christmas has not become materialistic. Materials have become Christmasy.
All things considered, the month of December strikes me as the least materialistic time of the year simply because the condescension of Christ gives people a reason to consider their own materialism. Precious little about the 4th of July gets anybody thinking about the fact they basically live on bread alone. The same general selfishness which exists in December exists in the other eleven months of the year, though during the Christmas season, this selfishness is undercut by an increased expectation of providing for others. While plenty of people use Black Friday sales to indulge in purchases for themselves, how many people capitalizing on Labor Day weekend furniture sales are giving away sofas? If only one in ten desperate Black Friday shoppers goes out for gifts, it would still beat the charitable quotient of every other annual sale combined. The Salvation Army bell ringers in America collect more than 135 million dollars between November 28th and December 24th – 5 million dollars a day. Does anyone honestly believe they would take in this much if they rang their bells in April? There are Christians in this country who never give to the poor, and yet during Advent, they are overcome by an unexplainable spirit of liberality and magnanimity which is otherwise absent from their lives. They “give to everyone who begs from you,” as Christ commands us in Luke 6, and they give to those who cannot possibly repay. Stories of Christmas generosity from our own era are simply the continuation of ancient traditions which date back well over a thousand years; Christmas seems to have always been attended by lavish open-handedness. Whether historical or fictional, the figures most readily identifiable with Christmas— Ebenezer Scrooge, the 10th century Bohemian King Wenceslaus, the 4th century Turkish saint Nicholas, the magi who visit Christ— are all renown for their charity.
There are, of course, many ways of rationally explaining all this away. People are expected by society to be more generous at Christmas time, and so they only give to keep themselves from embarrassment. They feel guilty for not giving, and their charity is merely to salve a guilty conscience. Or, they enjoy the warm feeling which comes from giving more during December than any other month, and so they do so to put themselves in a more agreeable mood. However, in explaining away Christmas we risk explaining away the whole of Christianity, for the Christmas spirit is simply a microcosm of Christianity. The Christian who dismisses the Christmas spirit as nothing more than a happy pathology must borrow from the same arguments which atheists use to dismiss every work of God in man.
While many Christians disdain people who only come to Church on Christmas, we ought rather be grateful that there is one time a year in which those who are closed off to God become mysteriously open to His love. Christmas is a season which softens stony hearts, recalls noble oaths made long ago, and brings to mind not the judgement of God, but His clemency, longsuffering, and mercy. What I am suggesting about the season of Advent is simply that no purely logical, natural explanation exists for the changes and good desires which settle into our hearts. Once a year, the watery zeitgeist parts and we pass through the world a little less soaked by the folly and selfishness which flood our hearts the rest of the time. Christmas is not game of dress-up which is lucky to have us in a playful mood, and neither is Christmas some tawdry, silly holiday which depends on a sermon to be of real value. Two thousand years ago, Christmas concerned the surprising reconciliation of man and God and nothing has changed about it since then.
My exhortation, then, is that you see the Christmas spirit as a gift from a God who loves you very much, and to simply be swept along with it as long as that Spirit is willing to linger. Give to those who cannot repay, give to every one who asks of you, and do not disdain those who are lower than you, but lower yourself and lift them up.
Contact the author at Josh Gibbs | firstname.lastname@example.org | (804) 874-5445